A Sin-Sick Soul in Need of Redemption

Thursday, December 11, 2014 - 6:35am

A Sin-Sick Soul in Need of Redemption

Blow after blow, it comes. The violence all around.

In Ferguson, Michael Brown’s body bleeds on the ground for hours. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Eric Garner is choked to the death by the very police force sworn to protect us. I can’t breathe. Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy, is shot to death by the police in Cleveland. So many black bodies, brutalized and victimized.

Yesterday, another blow. No surprise to many of us, but still… no less raw, no less vile. The Senate releases a 500-page report of the CIA “interrogation and detention” program. Call it what it is: torture.

My government, your government. My tax dollars, your tax dollars breaking bones, raping men, putting guns to people’s heads, talking to prisoners about raping their mothers and killing their children. So many brown bodies, brutalized and victimized.

Whether the uniform-wearing agent is domestic police or CIA, whether it’s inner-city urban America or one of 50 countries around the world cooperating with the U.S., brutality, violence, torture are now (as they have always been) part of the state apparatus. And as they have been from the very beginning, they are most frequently unleashed against minority community members, black and brown (and red) bodies.

When you see the names of dozens of African Americans killed by the police, when you see hundreds of brown Muslims held indefinitely in Guantanamo and elsewhere, we are not dealing with a few rogue agents. This is systematic, structural, and institutional. It starts at the bottom and goes to the very top. We now know that Condoleezza Rice knew and supervised the programs, even as George W. Bush and the CIA director George Tenet assured us that the United States does not torture. So we were told.

There is so much that has been said and deserves to be said about the politics of these issues, and more that will be forthcoming in the next few months. There is starting to be greater awareness of how America’s militaristic reality as an empire around the world is now shaping the life of our urban communities by having hundreds of millions of dollars of warzone military hardware show up as “anti-riot” gear in our inner cities.

The investigations about the official and systematic nature of police brutality, and the new calls for holding members of the Bush and Obama administrations responsible and accountable continue.

So what do we as religious communities, as people devoted to the pursuit of beauty and love have to say?

There’s no sugarcoating this, nor a desire to retreat from the brutality and violence into an imaginary realm of the spirit. On the contrary, we are called to seek God among the broken and violated, among the hurt and the wounded and the bleeding. The blood of Christ, the blood of Hussein, may be found less in a sacramental cup and more on the pavements of our inner cities and our hidden torture dungeons.

Today’s prophetic voices proclaim: That which you do to the least of God’s children, you do unto Me. And the least of God’s children (Matthew 25) is not merely the abstract poor and orphans and widows and needy, it’s the black and brown bodies of our inner cities; it’s the children of Gaza and Syria; it’s those locked away in torture chambers with no recourse to appeal or representation.

What do we have to say in the face of such brutality and violence? Where do we stand? How do we give voice to our suffering?

Do we have a God that compels us to cry, to weep, to mourn, to resist, to rise up, to love, to redeem? If not, what’s the point of having a God? A God who does not call for addressing suffering is a worthless, unreal god that we cannot afford and will not pray to.

There are real and lingering issues of empire, of violence, of racism, of structural and systematic inequality that are at work, and we should not seek to minimize or distract from them. Until and unless those systems that produce violence are dealt with, we are always going to be mourning this victim and that victim. This is exactly what Dr. King told us about the Vietnam war in Riverside Church:

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”

Let us sit and reflect on that:

“Unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.”

Yes, our lives, our societies, our policies, our politics are all in need of redemption and transformation. It’s not merely a sin-sick soul that is in need of profound redemption, it is also our society and structural institutions that call out for being redeemed and transformed.

This is the lesson we know from Dr. King, who in offering the eulogy for the four innocent girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church, stated:

"They [the martyred children] say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers."

Yes, we have to address the system that produces violence. But as people of faith, people who seek the Spirit, people who recognize that the love of God unleashes upon this world — starting with the broken and cracked places — let us also speak from that voice here and now.

(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.)

Racism, violence, torture, brutality, these are also a spiritual disease. Yes, they are implemented through structural inequalities and hierarchies. But they are rooted in a fundamental spiritual disease, one so basic that it is surprising to even have to name it: We err when we fail to see the full presence of God in each and every single human being.

God dwells not merely in Christ, but in each and every single human being. No exceptions.

The light of God shines not merely in Prophet Muhammad, and in all the named and unnamed prophets, but in each and every single child who is born. Every child, every momma’s precious baby is a child born of a divine spark manifested in this world.

The Qur’an puts it beautifully. When God created Adam and Eve and presented this masterpiece that was to represent the will of God on Earth to the angels and demons, they all bowed down except for a certain Iblis (later re-named as Satan).

Iblis refuses to bow down because he’s haughty, and he asserts that he’s better than Adam and Eve since he is made out of fire, and he sees the human creatures made of soil.

We are still like Satan. We are still displaying Satanic qualities and tendencies. As so many of the great Muslim sages have recognized over the centuries, these parables speak to us today and in every age. When we look at a fellow human being, or a group of human beings, and our initial response is to assert our own superiority over them, we are following in the footsteps of Satan.

It is this Satanic tendency inside each and every single one of us that whispers:

I am better than you.
I am not black like you.
I am not brown like you.
I am not poor like you.
I am not Muslim like you.

I am better than you because of my race,
Because of my religion
Because of my gender
Because of my wealth
Because of my nationality…

These are all the Satanic qualities that manifest in each and every single one of us. The inability to see the fullness of humanity in each and every single one of us is a spiritual shortcoming, indeed a disease that has to be addressed and cured. That shortcoming gets amplified through systems, structures, and institutions. That spiritual limitation gets attached to a system of violence that reinforces a hierarchy in whatever brutal way necessary.

We should never shy away from shining a light on the dark places of injustice, on the structures of violence and brutality, whether in our impoverished inner cities or the faraway hidden dungeons and torture chambers. And as people of faith, people committed to life of the spirit, we should always remember that the tendency to assert the superiority of some over others based on what we think are made out of (rather than how we act) is a quality first manifested by Satan, in a rebellion against God.

Let’s lay siege against the structures and institutions that produce violence. And let us never forget about the spiritual disease at the heart of violence, torture, and racism. Let us never pause until the spirit of the Lord is unleashed fully on this world washing over all the cracked and broken spaces, washing over the spilled blood in our inner cities and the torture chambers, uplifting the wounded and the mourning, redeeming the structures and institutions that produce that violence.

Until we make of this whole world a new world.

We as God’s children are not bound to live the way we live today. Another world is possible. And the spirit of God compels us to be participants in creating that world. May it be. May it be soon. May we be participants in making it so.


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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



Fear of scarcity drives the poor. Fear of losing their abundance drives those who have some measure of wealth. Fear drives the behavior of all people - both those in government and the average citizen. The scriptures point us to the One who takes away our fear, who teaches us how to be content whether in scarcity or abundance (Phil. 4:11,12). The church has abandoned its role in society - leading folks to Christ. Instead, the church has inoculated members against real belief in God by teaching that reform of government is the only way to peace. So sad. The real problem is within, not without.

Dear Omid Safi, Tears come immediately when I am reading, seeing, hearing truth. So eloquently, powerfully spoken. Thank you. Let it be, Lord, let it be.

This is such a difficult reflection. I wish we could get beyond the notion that our destructive behavior is due to manipulation by Satan. I believe that this notion is more harmful than helpful. Why is it so difficult to believe that we, as human animals, sentient beings, what ever we choose to call ourselves, hold and act on contradictory values and that some of these can drive both noble and reprehensible attitudes and behavior, even within the same person. Overall, many things have improved over the past decades, mostly by concentrated efforts to improve systems rather than a victory over Satan. Many inequitable conditions have been mitigated, though we clearly have far to go to reach complete justice and equality. Constantly bringing Satan into our sturm und drang just seems to add fuel to the fire, and leave us in a place with little hope of reconciliation. A few decades ago people enjoyed laughing at comedian Flip Wilson's "The devil made me do it" routine. I didn't find it funny then, and I take no solace in that concept now.

Thank You Cathy Johnson! It's my opinion that if you want to "lay siege against the structures and institutions that produce violence", you need to take a good hard look at religion itself.

Omid-jan, kudos to you. Once again, you use your gentle words to challenge us to act - with love, but ACT for humanitarian change.


Dear Sir
Thank you so much for this article and the tender words. When a brown or black heart is broken, the heart of humanity breaks. The same lies true when their bones are broken. The day has been knocking on our door when we chose to let go of self created privilege, to create room for all at the table. I think of the story when Prophet Mohammad gave the honor of singing the morning call of prayers to Bill , the "dark skinned man" preaching that all Arabs and non Arabs are the same. Where did that teaching go from the hearts of the world. And Jesus said "love your neighbors as yourself". My tax dollars just killed my neighbours. They were brutalozed, treated sub humanly and tortured....

The tender heart weeps seeing these sins of the soil. The moral injury being sustained by our nation feels too much. How many more large TV sets do we need to get to drown our conscience? How many more bottles of alcohol and pills will it take to deaded the soul. Is this not too great a price we are paying for "imaginary freedom"?

The publicly sold image of freedom doesn't exist, and all the freedom ever possible exists with every human being right now...at this moment. May the power of choice and the highest of human potentials drive us to let go of our attached life style and truly Love our neighbors as ourselves

Well said. Thank you!

Dear Omid Safi, Thank you very much for your reflection. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I honed in on your words about the root of our spiritual disease, "We err when we fail to see the full presence of God in each and every single human being." With different words, we reflect the same intent by our first Principle (our faith is centered not by a creed but by seven principles): The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even though we have outlawed slavery and other explicit forms of oppression, we are still ruled these satanic tendencies, as you call them, that keep us all from experiencing the fullness of life. Thank you for challenging religion to return to its prophetic place of protecting God who is the least of these.

Thank you for this article. It is beautiful and thought provoking….so important to link Ferguson and torture and even the industrial war machine…with our systemic, institutionalized and even personal racism.

Have you read this letter? (respectfully offered)http://www.lornabyrne.com/?newsitem=a-letter-to-american-muslims
Thank you Mr. Omid Safi.

Salam, Respected Dr.Safi, You are talking and protesting about a universal malaise, which has been a cause of pain and restlessness in you, in me and among saner (?) peopleall over the world. Probably, since the creation of mankind this malaise is present. The stronger a man or a country, physically, monetarily and in knowledge (militarily for a nation or a country), lesser and lesser thought and actions of justice and equality are seen in practice. This reminds me of George Orwell's book "Animal Farm", read by me 60 years ago, where many species of animals are transformed into human beings but, finally, show their individual character in their behavior. After all, we all are half animal and half rational or human, All the religions appear to have failed to teach us humanity, as it should be practiced by all and sundry. That is what happens to be the hard truth.