#prayforbrussels: Theology in Times of Terror

By Yves De Maeseneer

On this day of remembrance, I would like to share the impressive testimony of my fellow Belgian citizen, Mohamed El Bachiri, a Muslim who lost his wife in the Brussels terrorist attack last year.

 

As a theological response: the fragment below from a blogpost I originally posted at Syndicate Theology:

“When my country was shocked by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, March 22, 2016, I was reading Andrew Prevot’s book Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality amid the Crises of Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). As had been the case at similar events in Paris, people were expressing their solidarity using the hashtag #prayforbrussels. This hashtag was shared by young people who do not define themselves as belonging to any religion. As a Belgian theologian I was surprised by seeing “prayer” as the first gut reaction to horror in a highly secularized context. Prevot gave me words to flesh out the questionable nature of this hashtag. What is the kind of subject that shares this hashtag? What kind of solidarity is expressed here? Where is the prayer for the thousands of innocent victims in Syria, Iraq, and other regions? And is the lack of concern about the violence that is daily reality for so many people living outside of the Western comfort zone, not at the very root of insecurity which all of a sudden emerged in our streets?

I do not want to belittle the authentic longing for peace and the impressive gulf of self-giving solidarity. Catastrophes awaken the deep desire for the common good which is slumbering in our individualist consumer culture. Many people sensed the need for spiritual resources to resist the fear and despair in the face of crisis. The impulse #prayforbrussels was translated into spontaneous vigils and interreligious prayer services. There was even a praiseworthy attempt to widen the circle of solidarity by launching the hashtag #prayforourworld. A secularist tabloid headlined “The Whole World Is Praying for Us Today,” quoting the tweet, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa).

In hindsight I have to admit there has been little reflection to think through what the event of March 22 reveals about the world we live in. Soon the Belgian media and public sphere were again the space of polarization between communities. The latest controversy was about the alleged “Islamization of Catholic schools”—in response to theologian Lieven Boeve’s suggestion to consider sharing prayer rooms among Christians and Muslims at school.

Becoming Black

I found Prevot expressing many intuitions which resonated with my own often implicit theological convictions. The only moment I felt reluctance to follow his call was when he defended James Cone’s demand that white theologians become black. Is becoming black not simply impossible for a white theologian? The very question betrays a profound asymmetry in my own theological institution. In Leuven, where we have a Centre for Liberation Theologies, we are hosting many students from the Global South. To be honest, my colleagues and I are teaching them most of the time white theologies. And it works. Our students are able to learn these theologies and appropriate them as fruitful resources for developing their own theology. Why am I not prepared to go for the reverse learning experience? We take for granted that white theology is significant for black students, but are not even considering the mirror idea that white theology as much needs black theology.

A genuine practice of mutual listening would include a reversal of roles in which, for instance, as Prevot suggests, the black doxological tradition is respected “not merely as a guest but also as a host” (322). This would involve not only a change of attitude from the European partners in the theological process, but also from our guests. Our non-European students are stimulated to learn and speak for their own people and culture, as if the ideal would consist of creating a range of particular theologies—black theology for blacks, Dalit theology for Indian Dalits, feminist theology for women, . . . Our well-intended encouragement blindly obeys the logics of representation, typical for contemporary identity politics. The net result might be the fostering of ghetto theologies and theological ghettoes. Prevot’s book is a great example of a different, boundary-breaking theology.

The journey to this more universal theology goes not by the road of transcendental introspection. Just like the hashtag #prayforourworld might remain an abstract cry, breathing an illusory universalism, Prevot holds that the only access to a truly universal prayer is by becoming black.

Here to “become black” means nothing other than to enter into the spirituality of oppressed black people, to pray and struggle with them for their freedom, to welcome their beauty as an indispensable element of Christian doxology, and—as a matter of sheer consistency—to abolish every form of “white” domination, including overt acts of violence and the more hidden dimensions of privilege and harm that are expressed “through marriage, schools, neighborhood, power, etc.” (Prevot, 321)

It is about accepting “to enter into the ‘wounded words’ (Chrétien) of the black community” (322–23), and to “share deeply in the passions, sorrows, and resilient hope of [my] black brothers and sisters” (323), to participate in their lament and praise. In a Western European context the radical conversion this involves could be provoked by the mere suggestion to substitute for a moment “black” by “Muslim.” There might be a way in which, to become a European Christian in the current crisis of violence and counter-violence, is to become Muslim in a sense analogical to Cone’s “becoming black.”

For a further reflection of my own experience of the (im)possibility experience of becoming black and my need to be prayed for, see my blogpost on Syndicate Theology.

https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/thinking-prayer/ [Click on the title of my post at the right side of the page.]

Postscript

In the months after the terrorist attack in Brussels, several victims spoke out a message of hope and trust, but at the same time political parties fueled the polarization against Muslims. I wondered whether my interpretation of Prevot’s theology into a call to “share deeply in the passions, sorrows, and resilient hope of our Muslim brothers and sisters” was any more than a naïve wish. However, in the days before Christmas 2016, a local church in Molenbeek, a Brussels quarter where some of the terrorists had grown up, organized an interreligious Vigil. At that evening Mohamed Al Bachiri, a Muslim widower of a victim of the attacks, spoke words of profound humanism, answering the terror with a ‘Jihad of Love’. His ‘wounded words’ touched the heart of our Belgian population. A version of the same testimony at the national television (see the clip above) went viral and had more than 3 million views in a few days.