On April 20th, 2006, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Department of Religious Studies. I delivered the following speech, entitled "Why Religious Studies Matters."Preface: Much of what I’m about to say tonight isn’t polite, in that it addresses two topics that well-mannered people advise to avoid: religion and politics. Of course the first can be forgiven in that this is a dinner celebrating Religious Studies. But concerning politics, I wrote this speech in my severely damaged house in the still devastated New Orleans, and much of what goes through my mind there might seem angry and partisan in more serene environments such as Omaha Nebraska. I do not want to apologize for what I’m about to say, but only to say that since Katrina I have worn my political feelings on my sleeves, and I think it’s important.
This evening I would like to thank the Religious Studies faculty for the sacrifices they made for me, and for the sacrifices they made for other students. Teaching as we know does not pay well financially, but it’s important, even sacred, and I want you to know that I very much appreciated the time and energy you invested in me. I would also like to congratulate the Religious Studies students. I want you to know that despite all of the people who have asked you “what the hell are you going to do with a degree in Religious Studies?” that studying religion is the most important academic endeavor available today. My mother, who is here with me tonight, knew that studying religion was important, and while I’m thankful to her for many things, tonight I’d like to thank her for her constant support in my academic pursuits, especially when they involved majors such as this one that society at large fails to adequately value. You students should be proud of your choice to study religion, and you should know that the scholars under whom you are studying are first rate teachers and people, and that when you graduate, you will owe them, because there is a responsibility that comes with education. Your teachers have invested in you, and upon graduation you will be honored and burdened with the responsibility of making the world a better place. A degree in Religious Studies provides an excellent foundation to do just that.
In 1993 I graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies. At the time, I knew what I had learned from many of the teachers in this room was important, but I lacked the perspective to realize the full value of my education. Now, 13 years of perspective later, I have experienced some wonderful things in life including marriage, being a father, travel, and academic employment, and I’ve experienced some awful things such as wars, illness and the death of friends and family, and even Hurricane Katrina. It is with this experience that I say with confidence that the academic study of Religion is more vital today than ever. Why? Because religious ignorance is making the world drastically unsafe. People seem unaware that demagogues are gaining power through exploiting fears brought about by a lack of knowledge concerning religion. Let me give you three examples.
First, a few neoconservatives were determined to invade Iraq for control of oil, and citizens in this country let them get away with it because they do not understand that someone who takes a radical interpretation of Islamic Law such as Osama Bin Laden, and the September 11th hijackers, hated secular Muslims such as Sadam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden does not hate America’s freedom, as some will tell you, instead he is fundamentally opposed to the U.S. military having bases near the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as the unbalanced U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine. I know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and I believe that if Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld did as well the occupation of Iraq would have gone smoother. I am also outraged by the media’s lack of understanding concerning Islam. Can you imagine after Timoth McVeigh blew up the building in Oklahoma City, reporters interviewing the Pope or Billy Graham and asking “What is the problem with the Christian religion, and why is it so violent?” But that’s exactly what happened after September 11th, when people in this country blamed all Muslims for the violent actions of a few criminals. So in large measure, because people in this country do not understand Islam, today Hamas is ruling Palestine, Iran is pursuing its quest for nuclear power, the United States will occupy Iraq for decades, and our country, once the envy of world, has lost its moral credibility. People in the world hate this country with more passion and anger and determination than ever before, and as a result, the world is a more dangerous place.
My second example of why Religious Studies is more important than ever has to do with using the Bible or other religious texts irresponsibly. In the course of studying religion in academia, I learned that a priest in ancient Judah wrote that “A man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18). Then 2500 years later, modern demagogues use that single verse to argue against gay marriage, and worse, they claim that members of various religious organizations are morally obligated to vote for certain platforms in the name of that verse, and even in the name of Jesus. But these same platforms call for capital punishment, war, relax gun control, reduce health care, and increase poverty, all of which clearly contrast to Jesus’ message. Because of my Religious Studies education, I know what are real Christian values, and I know that if God hates homosexuals, then God also hates people who eat catfish. Other people use the Bible to perpetuate misunderstandings based on hatred. I would include Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ (2004) in this category. When interviewed about the film’s anti-Jewish nature and its alarming parallels to Medieval Passion Plays, Mr. Gibson was incensed and inferred that to question his film was to question the Bible itself, that he was simply putting on the silver screen the words of God. Even the Pope reportedly said after seeing it, “It is as it was.” But as the film’s director, Gibson picked the Bible verses that fit with his narrow interpretation of Christianity, ignoring others, and ignoring context, and in reality the film had much more to do with the 19th century vision of Anne Catherine Emmerich, something that Mel Gibson consistently failed to mention in interviews. And so, because of a lack of religious knowledge, the world is a more dangerous place because people irresponsibly pick and choose biblical verses out of context and claim that God wants you to act like they do. Religious studies can fix this ignorance.
My third example of why studying religion is important involves the theodicy of Hurricane Katrina. This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the mayor of my city, Ray Nagin, delivered the most famous speech of his tenure. While the media focused on the “Chocolate City” statement, I found something else that he said more alarming:
“And as we think about rebuilding New Orleans, surely God is mad at America, he's sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane and it's destroying and putting stress on this country. Surely he's not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely he's upset at black America, also.”
The mayor was echoing what he heard from so-called religious authorities. Indeed, earlier Pat Robertson said that God sent the hurricane, but not because of Iraq or race, instead because of the Supreme Court’s stance on abortion. And Hal Lindsey stated that God sent the hurricane as part of the prophesized end of days. So from these and hundreds of more statements from people who claim to speak with religious authority, it seems clear that God sent the hurricane as a divine punishment for something. With a Religious Studies education, unlike most people, I am able to see the issue in a much more complex fashion. I can bring in parallels, such as biblical authors who tried to figure out why Yahweh, if He were omniscient and omnipotent, could allow horrible things to happen to innocent people. Earlier than that, Sumerians struggled with the same issues, as recorded in the Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur. I’ve learned that every society in history has a large group of people who believe in a direct cause and effect world. That if you win the lottery, Jesus loves you, and if you get cancer, it is because you are not “right” with God. Several biblical authors say the same thing, that God sent the Babylonians in 586 BCE to destroy Jerusalem because the people of Judah sinned. And what about the innocent people who suffered? Well, they were being punished for the sins of their parents. Life and religion seem to make perfect sense with such a simplistic world view. It’s fair. However, a smaller voice in each society admits something profoundly terrifying, that horrible things can happen to good people. That is the message presented by the author of Job. Terrible things do happen to innocent people, and when Job gets a chance to ask God why bad things happen to good people, God has a four page answer that basically says “everyone who can create the world raise your hand, otherwise shut up.” I’m paraphrasing a bit here.
I prefer to interpret recent tragic events in New Orleans and the Gulf South as having much more to do with evil and incompetent human beings, and I am willing to let God off the hook for Hurricane Katrina. I believe that people have not been good stewards of the earth, that global warming and the erosion of coastal wetlands are real threats, and that when the government says that the levees they built will protect you from a Category Three storm, they are not to be believed. I remember coming outside of my house after Katrina passed and talking with neighbors about how we did pretty well. “We dodged another bullet,” we said. Twenty four hours later there was eight feet of water on the street. More than 1,600 people died as a result of the storm, and just last Wednesday they found two more bodies in the Lower Ninth Ward. This is the richest and most technologically developed country in the world, and it took five days for the government to react to the disaster. It was during those five days that I learned quite a lot about God. I saw people in boats rowing up and down the streets distributing food and medicine that they “looted” from stores. I saw volunteers in boats rescue people. I saw a 90-year-old woman with an oxygen tank who sat in her wheelchair without shade for four days in 100 degree weather waiting to be evacuated. I swam to my university one day and I saw a homeless man who I had seen pretty much everyday for five years as I walked to work, except now he was drowned floating face first in the water. I saw armed soldiers maintain a military perimeter around a camp holding 10,000 helpless people who had been waiting for a bus ride for days. I saw one of these soldiers point his gun at a 2-year-old girl and yell at the mother to “get her back from the wall.” A student of mine last saw his grandmother flying away in a helicopter from the Superdome. It took his family six months to learn from the government that she died, but they can’t find the corpse. I heard on my radio in my flooded home that New Orleans citizens tried to cross a bridge over the Mississippi River to a nearby city that didn’t flood, and how the white sheriff of that town ordered his white troops to deny the mostly African American people access. The police reportedly used the “N” word and said they didn’t want their town turned into another Superdome, and they fired their guns at them as “warning shots.” I hope that what happened in New Orleans will be a turning point for this country.
Americans are basically good people I believe. I hope the images of New Orleans that Americans saw will shame them into action. There are many lessons to be learned about what Americans value. The consequences of slavery did not end with the Civil Rights Act, and race is a major issue in our country, as even evidenced by the recent division of Omaha schools. Excessive tax cuts endanger people. Having our National Guard on foreign soil endangers us. A lack of affordable health care endangers us. Horrible public schools endanger us all. Even cheaper milk at WalMart ultimately endangers our society, and we need to do something about it. Furthermore, regarding New Orleans, people don’t seem to understand that every port city in the world is below sea level, and that the rebuilding of the great city of New Orleans is vital for this country’s economy, history, and spirituality. My point is that God did not cause anyone in New Orleans to suffer, but rather that people did. With the academic study of Religion, I am able to more fully understand the complicated reality of our world and tragedy. It isn’t a happy reality, and I’m reminded by the biblical author Qoheleth who said that “to increase knowledge is to increase suffering.” So in one sense, as I’m sure the students here can attest, you teachers have indeed increased suffering. I know that I suffered under your tutelage. And I learned a lot.
Many of the people who taught me are not here tonight, including Professors Freund and Burke, but I would like to thank them for all that they did for me. Happily some of the professors who taught me are here tonight. Dr. Palmer taught me that many of the greatest minds of Western Civilization have struggled as I do with questions concerning sin and grace, and that Karl Barth argued that God’s manifestation through Jesus on the cross meant that people could no longer tie God to human cultures. I thought this was profound. Thus, God is not working through the United States. Dr. Palmer also taught me about one of my role models, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who personified for me a Christian who valued works as much as faith, and he paid for this with his life. Also in an example that really shows that education involves suffering, I first experience the sensations of tear gas with Dr Palmer in East Jerusalem, and the first time I visited New Orleans it was with Dr Palmer for a Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion meeting. In between meetings Dr. Palmer taught me how to avoid sin on Bourbon Street. So Dr Palmer, thank you very much for the many things you have given me.
I also suffered quite a bit through courses with Professor Stover. I learned about Eastern religions, and with his influence I even kept a macrobiotic diet for a couple of years. You can tell that I’m off that diet now. My most vivid memory of Dr. Stover back when I was an undergrad involves a course he taught on Modern Middle East. Here we were in Omaha trying to understand a complicated region so far away yet so crucial to the wellbeing of the entire world. One day he invited to our classroom a group of Israeli Jews and Muslims who were touring the country, and they told their stories and answered questions. A group of Palestinian students came to our class that day as well, and there erupted this huge and passionate argument about how the modern state of Israel took land that once belonged to Palestinians and continues to take more land. Amidst the shouting and chaos, I looked over at Dr Stover, and he was smiling broadly. He was very excited, as he knew that his students were seeing first hand the emotions and anger that surround this complicated issue. I think that Dr. Stover is one of the finest human beings I have ever met, and I want to thank him for all that he has done for me. His friendship after Katrina meant a great deal to me. Thank you for that.
Though I never took a course from Dr. Blizek, he once guest lectured in a course I was taking on the Holocaust. In that brief encounter, Dr. Blizek read us a story that I’ve never forgotten. It was about how God forgave Satan and consequently they needed a new person to run the kingdom of darkness, and how the person who got the job was shocked because he thought he was a good law abiding citizen who saw it as his civic duty to point out the failures in others. I doubt very much that Dr. Blizek knows that he greatly impacted my life by sharing that story with me 15 years ago. It shows that you can never fully understand as a teacher the full ramifications of your actions. I was also very touched when Dr. Blizek telephoned me and offered me a teaching position at UNO for this semester. Ultimately I had to turn it down because my university in New Orleans got up and running in January and I had to be there, but it made me proud that I once was and still am a part of this organization, and it felt like belonging to a family. And to the faculty who have come to the department after 1993, I would like to thank you for all of the things that you do for your students as well. In closing I would like to say that I have modeled my life on you, my Religious Studies teachers, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then consider yourself flattered. Thank you.