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October 8, 2012

Malvo – Should We Ever Forget?

We’re all selfish. That seems a given. The question becomes, will we foster and train selfishness that leads to violence, or instead put all of our energy in developing selflessness that extends to forgiveness and ultimately peace?

As our discernment of people grows with advances in neuroscience, psychology, and greater understanding of cultural issues, including the influence of faith, we still cannot determine all the reasons why people cause violence. Yet, it is clear that violence can fueled by and fertilized within systems and structures that allow it to grow. It is also clear that we can and must do more to water down and weed out patterns of violence before they grow and ignite.

lee-boyd-malvoThe extended harm caused by human violence is given a face in the Washington Post’s Lee Boyd Malvo ‘I was a monster’. Malvo, just 27 years of age now, was only 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad enacted the killing spree in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Muhammad had been training Malvo for years to execute their plan as his “adopted” son.

Many people do to not want to read interviews like this, where we gain perspective from the murderer. My sense is that most people want murders like this to be locked up and forgotten. Many persons wish Malvo, like Muhammad, would have been executed.

Lee Boyd Malvo interview as reported on CNN

Intriguingly, Malvo makes nearly this exact claim. Having come to discern the grief, hurt and harm he caused with his violence, he states:

“Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew—the enormity of it.”
– Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2012

Malvo notes that his apology can never be enough to placate the harm he has caused. When questioned directly about his apology, Malvo said:

“We can never change what happened. There’s nothing that I can say except don’t allow me and my actions to continue to victimize you for the rest of your life. . . . Don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life, it isn’t worth it.”
Washington Post, September 29, 2012

I wish I could agree with Malvo because I want to forget his story and his violence but I can’t forget as an individual, and we can’t forget as a society. His violence has caused hurt that has reshaped the families of his victims and it has given an ominous shape to the future we all share.

john allen muhammad and lee malvoSince we can’t forget Malvo, what can we do? I suggest we use stories like these to help us create a new vision for the future. Malvo’s young life was shaped by unrelenting training at the hands of John Allen Muhammad in how to act violently. Malvo was taken to a gun range nearly every day, shooting up to 12 hours per day and being told to shoot and kill “the old Lee Malvo, the weak Lee Malvo, the wayward Lee Malvo.”

Malvo was conditioned, educated, and trained for violence. While Malvo is an extreme case of targeted training to produce someone motivated solely by murderous violence, the origin of his violence emerged from the emotions and grief associated with family loss and divorce, and the vulnerability of the young to please their primary caretaker. Tragically, Lee Boyd Malvo mistook the murderous control of John Allen Mohammad for a father’s care and protection, an emotional need so strong in humans that it can trump any grasp on, however tenuous, our ability to empathize with others and turn us away from violent interaction.

Malvo could have been trained differently. Someone could have explained to Malvo the complexities of relationships and the importance of forgiveness. Family members, school teachers, the curriculum in school, neighborhood and religious community organizations could have offered an alternate vision for Malvo.

Malvo wants to be forgotten, but to forget him is to forget the cycle of selfishness that leads to rage that leads to violence. We can’t forget the cycle lest we allow it to be repeated with some other child who is trained for violence.

There are children in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our cities right now who are being educated to view their future and the world in deliberate ways. How can we insure more of their training is for reconciliation instead of revenge?

How can we foster selflessness that extends to forgiveness and reach our goal of global peace?


October 7, 2012

The Emerging Role of Faith Based Organizations in Global Development

What do an Imam, a Christian theologian, a former World Vision staff member and an interfaith expert have in common? An inclination for development and a seemingly united motivation to improve the lot of mankind for now and in preparation for the hereafter! But are they always in concert in their purposes, rationale, motivations and ways of delivering development? And most of all, are they always welcomed and supported by people and their governments? Do the institutions they represent—the Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs)—always support and welcome governments in their work? In fact, do they sometimes do what governments should do and do they always provide the right services and advice in development? Should FBOs even do that? Yes, there are a lot of questions just to start a discussion about the role of Faith-Based Organizations in development—and that is why this topic will be tackled in parts. So let’s get started with Part One.

I think these questions are necessary especially if we consider the huge role that faith plays in influencing individuals, community leadership, societies and nations at large. One sermon or message from the pulpit can send a good portion of the population in one direction or the other. Faith, and consequently the institutions it works through (FBOs), occupies an undeniable niche in many aspects of life including development. Given the significant level of problems facing us, Faith-Based Organizations no doubt have a role to play, but should they do more? If so, how? More questions to consider! So let’s get to some answers now.

duke ctr for international developmentOn a recent evening, I had the opportunity to attend a lively panel discussion on the Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Development. An Imam, a former World Vision staff member, a Professor of Theology and a student with vast interfaith dialogue experience were brought together by the Duke Center for International Development as part of the ‘Rethinking Development Policy’ series. The panel members described the rationale, motivation, and ways in which Faith-Based Organizations intervene in development. Having had my first job in a vibrant FBO about six years ago in my home country, I identified with most of the issues brought forward. I left that evening with a lot of reflections that I want to share with you, and I am keen to hear your take on what FBOs should be doing in development and how they should be doing it.

The pastoral role of Faith-Based Organizations seems to be non-debatable in so far as doing works of charity are concerned. They take care of orphans, widows, strangers and generally those who are suffering. This role seems to be a critical foundational obligation in every faith. In fact the Imam at the discussion shared how, in Islam, this type of work is mandatory and not a choice. In Islamic Ethos, one of the five Pillars of Faith is Zakat, or alms giving, and is obligatory for those who are able to do so. A Muslim is required to give 2.5% of their accumulated wealth (personal income of every kind) and this is as defining for a Muslim as praying five times a day or even fasting. This is equally a defining characteristic in Christianity. The story of the sheep and the goats in Mathew 25: 31-45 ends with serious ramifications for those who saw the needy, the hungry, and the thirsty but did not give them cloth, food or water. Don’t get me wrong, there is more to salvation than just that, of course, and much of it is based on loving your neighbor as yourself and loving your God with your mind, heart and soul.

feeding the poorSocieties and communities are fully aware that institutions of faith serve to lessen suffering, and that is why it is often common to find street kids, or a struggling single mother, and destitute elderly men and women at the entrance to churches, mosques, synagogues or other centers of worship. It is where members of society who are in need expect to find some support, and in a way these FBOs have evolved into an essential social safety net. I saw a lot of this at the Mosque that was directly across from our office back in Senegal. I also saw the needy and suffering gather at the entrance of the FBO where I worked in Zambia. Society’s consciousness is attuned to the fact that when in distress, religious centers can be someone’s first point of call for immediate relief.

To a great extent, then, we might see religious institutions therefore acting to redistribute wealth. I am not saying that this is an efficient way of countering inequality, but I am merely saying that both society and Faith-Based Organizations expect and accept this role, and that it is a matter of fact—a reality that is with us. One thing to establish here is that both religious institutions and society at large have defined and accepted this role of faith institutions to plug a key gap in the overall effort to lessen suffering. Do governments like to do this work of charity and do they tolerate men and women asking for alms? I am not very sure they do.

One thing I remember vividly from my almost two years in Senegal was passing the mosque as I walked the eight minutes to my office. On most days, as early as 8:30 in the morning, there would be not less than 5-10 middle-aged and elderly men and women by the Mosque hoping to receive alms. Others had small merchandise spread out along the roadside. Mothers with little children would have gotten up very early to get to the mosque for a chance of alms. I can recall that at least three times a week I would find these women and men scampering in all directions, running away from the police who made it their task to stop these men and women from asking for alms. And this is not only common to Senegal. So for some reason—perhaps to preserve the aesthetic beauty of a city—there are governments that are preoccupied with dispersing these unfortunate people in need, sometimes imposing punitive measures. In my view, aesthetic beauty is important, but so is the task of dealing with the root cause of poverty and need.

More about the role of Faith-Based Organizations in Development later—this is all for ‘Part 1’ which has focused on the pastoral and charitable aspects of faith and FBOs in dealing with suffering and thus redistributing wealth…happy to hear your thoughts!



October 6, 2012

Celebrating a Life of Activism – Desmond Tutu at 81

General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”   The same will not be said by or about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  As he celebrates his 81st birthday, Tutu remains very much the activist, with the emphasis on “active.”

“In everything he stands for, everything he says, and everything he does, he displays a consistent obligation to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak the uncomfortable truths,” said Mo Ibrahim, in Johannesburg, while announcing a special award to the Archbishop for his work on behalf of peace.  The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement is awarded to African heads of state who have excelled during their terms in office and aims to recognize good and responsible governance.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – Hope in Troubling Times

Recent examples of Tutu’s continuing commitment to peace and social justice abound:

Tutu spoke out in the case of Kiobel vs. Shell which is pending before the US Supreme Court. Shell is accused of working with the Nigerian government to ensure resistance to operations in the oil-rich Niger Delta was protected by military force.  He chided the US government not to abandon the people of Nigeria who had been harmed by the company in its quest to exploit the country’s oil resources.

In a speech during the commemoration of South Sudan’s first anniversary of independence from Sudan, Tutu called on the nation’s leaders to stop fighting and conciliate with their former countrymen in the north.  He argued that such measures would bring a turnaround in the country’s dismal economic fortunes and save its citizens from continued hardship.

Every year, ten million girls are forcibly married before the age of eighteen, many as young as twelve or thirteen years old. Tutu has long decried child marriages and urged the world community to put a stop to the practice.  With a delegation of The Elders, he recently visited India to learn about the causes of child marriage there, discuss the harmful impact of child marriage on human rights and development, and to encourage local efforts to end the practice.

In August, 2012, Tutu refused to share a speaker’s platform with Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain, citing his and George Bush’s role in initiating the Iraq war, destabilizing the country and causing untold suffering among its citizens.  Tutu’s controversial remarks unleashed a firestorm of debate in the international press around the murky rationale for going to war in Iraq.

Tutu continues to inspire new generations of activists.  His unrelenting determination to pursue the cause of peace and justice around the world reminds us that the spirit of activism does not fade with age.

October 1, 2012

The Southern Poverty Law Center – Teaching Tolerance

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry. Founded in 1971, SPLC is known for investigating and exposing hate group activities throughout the world. They focus on widespread issues of social injustice including children at risk, hate and extremism, immigrant justice, and LGBT rights. But they go a step beyond fighting hate and seeking justice for the vulnerable. The SPLC conducts one of the nation’s leading programs for teaching tolerance.

teaching_toleranceTheir ground-breaking Teaching Tolerance program is dedicated to cultivating inclusive, nurturing school environments where “equality and justice are not just taught, but lived.” They produce and distribute documentary films, books, lesson plans and other materials that promote tolerance – free of charge. The Teaching Tolerance program reaches hundreds of thousands of educators and millions of students – empowering “a new generation to live in a diverse world.”

Teaching Tolerance magazine coverThe SPLC Teaching Tolerance program has a number of powerful tools in their arsenal. Their award-winning Teaching Tolerance magazine provides educators across the country with a forum to learn about and exchange ideas on teaching for about diversity. The Teaching Diverse Students Initiative is an online project focused on improving instruction for racially and ethnically diverse students. SPLC has even developed a special program designed to empower students themselves to take the lead in promoting tolerance and understanding. Called Mix It Up at Lunch Day, this national program has a simple premise: students are encouraged to sit with someone new in the cafeteria for just one day – “a small step that can go a long way toward breaking down social and racial barriers.”

Imagine what might happen if everyone took just one day out of our busy lives to “mix it up” – to sit next to someone we don’t know on the bus, or strike up a conversation with a new colleague in the lunchroom, or turn around in the grocery line and introduce ourselves to a stranger. We can all learn a lot from this remarkable Teaching Tolerance program. Perhaps we can take a page from Eleanor Roosevelt’s United Nations address back in 1953:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”