Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Conversation about Otherness

Craig Hovey and Sharleen Mondal, professors at Ashland University, had a conversation about otherness that ranges into issues of race, the state, violence, pedagogy, and how history gets told.

Craig Hovey: There is a lot of talk about "otherness" in some circles, especially when there is some political or other threat, real or imagined. I'd be interested to start off by talking about whether there are special kinds of difference that lend themselves to being spoken about in this way. In other words, what are the qualities of the differences that are most entrenching when it comes to the us-them divide? 

Sharleen Mondal: There are certainly special—or at least, specific—kinds of difference that seem to emerge frequently in discussions of otherness.  Racial, religious, class, and gender differences are among these, though I find it less useful to isolate them as such, given that each intersects with the others (so upper-class women of color, for instance, are "othered" in very different ways from women of color living in poverty).  If we are restricting our discussion to the current U.S. context, it would appear that those who do not conform to, or who are read as not conforming to, a particular norm are othered in certain contexts.  The norm of which I am speaking is shaped by structures of racial, gender, and economic power and privilege.  The structures are also shaped by the U.S.'s long history involving racism, class struggle, and the fight for gender equality, as well as perceptions of certainly religious traditions as uniquely American (and of others as foreign to America).

CH: Right, the question about what constitutes a "real American" often involves a lot of these kinds of identities. In California, where I'm from, I've noted anxiety among some whites at the prospect that we will be outnumbered by Latinos several years from now. I've always interpreted that anxiety as rooted in dwindling cultural clout for the white population, and the loss of economic privilege that goes along with that. There may be other factors, such as anxieties about bilingual education. But it strikes me that it may not really matter how much these are real or perceived realities. It seems to be enough that there is fear. Another example from the news I've been thinking about is how language is increasingly becoming a factor of division in Ukraine, with Russian speakers facing discrimination in the western part of the country. What do you think we can say about what makes a norm significant enough to generate this othering response for those who do not fit it?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Big-Tent Peace

Even though ACN is a relatively small organization (though with big ambitions!), I am struck by the many different reasons people have for valuing peace and nonviolence. I’m sure this is true more generally. What do you think of when you think about nonviolence and peace? Do you think about the “classic” 20th century theorists and practitioners such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi? Maybe you think about the anti-war movement in the US in the 1960s. Perhaps you think about local or global matters of justice and rights. Do peace and nonviolence resonate with you as religious convictions?

The fact is that there are a lot of different associations that we draw. ACN, like many similar organizations, is a “big tent.” We recognize shared concerns and work together on common projects even though many of us probably would begin to part ways at some level if we doggedly pursue questions like: What is your vision of peace? How do we get there?

For example, I think about the question of the extent and possible limits of nonviolence. Based on her research, Erica Chenoweth found that nonviolent political movements are statistically much more successful than violent ones. Nonviolence can be strategic in achieving political goals. But what about when it fails? Are the political goals so overriding that this is the point at which we take up arms? Or is nonviolence “deeper” than this—like an article of faith that we stick to no matter what? The Civil Rights movement witnessed groups of both attitudes.

Or take another example. Do peace and nonviolence commit a person to a place on the left-right political spectrum? Many people assume that peace is “liberal,” and not without some good historical reasons. “Peace” here is saying more than “peace,” though; it is shorthand for a particular social and political vision on the left. At the same time, leftist political movements can produce just as much violence as rightist ones. One thinks about Che Guevara, for example.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Laughing with Muslims

 Jamal Rahman

  By Dr. David C. Aune, AU Religion Department

        Why should I take the time to listen to a Muslim guest speaker on the topics of religious differences and sacred laughter?  Can I really learn anything new from someone who directly challenges some of my core beliefs?  And why should I care about religious issues anyway: what differences do they make?  These are the questions that many of us may be asking ourselves when we hear that Muslim interfaith speaker Jamal Rahman will be giving two presentations on Tuesday March 11 and Wednesday March 12 (both at 7PM) on the AU campus.   
       As associate professor and chair of the Religion department here at Ashland, I am in a good position to answer these questions.  Years of teaching and scholarly activities have convinced me of the value of learning about other religions and engaging in inter-religious dialogue.  Particularly when it comes Islam, there are many misconceptions and misunderstandings that continue to be promoted in our world.  But Jamal Rahman will provide some valuable insights in a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking way.  He is a nationally known personality who has written and spoken extensively about Islam and Sufism (a spiritual movement within Islam).  For over ten years now he has appeared along with a Rabbi and a Protestant minister as one of the three “Interfaith Amigos.”   See his website at
On Tuesday, March 11th at 7:00 pm (in Myers Convocation Center at Ashland University), Jamal will share on the topic of “Encountering Irreconcilable Differences.”  This title intrigues me because so much of the interfaith discussion these days seems to overlook obvious disagreements in our respective faith traditions.  Jamal approaches the topic by not just celebrating similarities but also by honoring the dignity of differences.  For him, the goal is not to change other people but to get to know them on a human and personal level.   And, in perhaps the most important part of his presentation, he will ask the question, “How does it feel to be the other?”  By taking the time to listen to and interact with Jamal, I anticipate that we will gain skills for understanding and dealing with various kinds of differences (not merely religious ones). Empathy is something all of us could develop further in our lives.
Jamal’s Wednesday March 12th presentation (at 7PM in the Student Center Auditorium) will be on the topic of “Sacred Laughter: Awakening the Soul through the Sacred Laughter of the Sufis”.   Honestly, this topic intrigues me even more because, while I can relate to the value of laughter, I don’t know much about what the Sufi spiritual masters have to say about it (or how and why it might be considered “sacred.”)  Could it be that the ability to laugh at ourselves and focus on the playfulness and joy in life is actually a spiritual gift that connects us with others and enhances the life that God intends for us?  Again, this is an experience that all of us might find beneficial and surprisingly enjoyable.
So I’ll be encouraging everyone I know to attend Jamal Rahman’s presentations.   His presence at Ashland will certainly enhance and enrich our lives.

For more information on the events, visit
For more information on Jamal Rhaman, visit

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Matters of Faith:  Religion, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution
By Bridget Moix (taken from “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution”)
            “A brief survey of the most entrenched, deadly conflicts around the world suggests an urgent need for increased understanding of the role religion plays in human disputes.  From the Middle East to Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka to Sudan, the Balkans to Nigeria, from the poor Acholi region of Northern Uganda to the financial centers of New York City and London, the destructive power of religiously motivated violence has been a stark, horrific reality for people around the world.  Read more…

War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment
By John Mueller
“In 1911, the eminent British historian, G.P. Gooch, concluded a book by elegiacally declaring that ‘we can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when peacemakers shall be called the children of God.’  And in that year’s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Sir Thomas Barclay predicted, in the article on “Peace,” that ‘in no distant future, life among nations’ would be characterized by ‘law, order and peace among men.’“  Read more

Drones, Accountability and Authorized Use of Military Force
Blogs by Michael Shank

“Armed drones, at first blush, are a boon to America's military toolkit, as President Obama reinforced in his counterterrorism speech [recently]. Drones, in the short run at least, could mean fewer U.S. troops deployed and fewer American lives lost.”  Read entire blog here
More blogs from Michael Shank:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Martin Luther King and Loving Your Enemies

by Peter Slade

Just before Christmas, I read in the Guardian the surprising story of Anita Smith. She is the widow of Ronnie Smith, the American teacher in Benghazi shot down in the street by Islamic militants. The photograph accompanying the article shows an attractive young couple and their child in Austin, Texas: a scene utterly removed from the people and streets of Benghazi. The reason Anita  made headline news around the world is that she claimed in a CNN interview that “I don’t want any revenge --I want them to know that I do love them and I forgive them.” In her interview she explained why Ronnie and his family went to Benghazi, “He wanted to shine the light and the love of Jesus to the Libyan people . . . it was just about the love and forgiveness that we know from God.”
Anita acknowledged that her response to Ronnie's violent murder seemed unlikely: “It may sound crazy,” she told Anderson Cooper, “but it is God’s Spirit putting this inside of me.” The Spirit had led her to write a letter. “I want all of you--all of the people of Libya--to know I am praying for the peace and prosperity of Libya. May Ronnie's blood, shed on Libyan soil, encourage peace and reconciliation between the Libyan people and God.” When Cooper asked Anita how she would explain Ronnie’s death to their son Hosea, she said she will tell him, “There is no greater thing to live your life for than for Jesus.”My initial reaction was one of dismissal: how can her announcement have any grounding in reality? It seemed like a weird and inappropriate response; she is just saying what she thinks she has to say; she is falling back on religious platitudes. Does she even appreciate that these people might try and kill her too? How irrational, how naïve, how foolish.
I confess that my prejudices and presuppositions lay somewhere behind my incredulity.  I am used to hearing such things from Mennonites and Quakers, but it is not what I expect from a white evangelical from a large multi-campus, non-denominational church in Austin, Texas.
Analyzing my reaction, I realized there was more at work than my own prejudices. I realized that for me, the irrationality/naïveté/foolishness of loving your enemies only hit home when someone with enemies actually said they love them. I suspect this is true for others. After all, most of us play with the notion of loving and forgiving enemies far from the context of actually having to deal with enemies. I usually file this commandment away under the category How To Deal With Annoying People not under How to Respond to Someone Who Wants to Kill Me.
This Martin Luther King Day I would like to suggest that we need to revisit the well worn stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and ask ourselves why we don’t react to them with the same surprise and incredulity.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Drone Strikes and Daggers

By Dr. Craig Hovey

Last month we learned that a US drone strike on suspected Al-Qaida terrorists killed at least 13 people in Yemen who were on their way to a wedding. Many, perhaps all, were innocent.

Let’s talk morality. Too many of our public debates over violence and war are only legal debates, not moral ones. Discussing the second amendment in the gun debate is useful when debating law, but it is beside the moral point. After all, the first amendment legally protects your right to gossip, but doesn’t make it moral. Even though we will disagree on the particulars, let’s acknowledge that many more things are legal than are moral.

And nevermind accusations that the US drone program is illegal. But for now: What makes it immoral?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Remembering Nelson Mandela

By Dan Lehman
Professor of English
Ashland University

The death of Nelson Mandela this week took me back to an evening in 2004 during the tenth anniversary year of South African independence when I first truly understood the significance of Mandela and his impact on history. Like many North Americans, I had followed for several decades the struggle against South Africa’s racist system of apartheid. I had even joined a few anti-apartheid protests during the 1980s and thrilled to the Special AKA’s runaway ska dance hit, “Free Nelson Mandela.” And now, here I was, in South Africa myself for a year of teaching, and I was getting to know a young white Afrikaans English professor in the English department at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town.

We were comparing notes in that way that people do when they first meet one another and see the potential for a deeper professional friendship. Both of us named Daniel, both of us growing up within racist systems some 8,000 miles apart—he in South Africa under Apartheid and I during the 1950s in then-segregationist Virginia. Both of us recalled being trapped by the privilege of our skin color in a system with which we deeply disagreed. Both had worked in our own small ways for its eradication.