I’ll never forget the sound my head made when it bounced off the brick wall. I was more surprised at my reaction – a mix of defiance and fear staring back at the very large human who had just knocked my head backwards with his fist. There were too many to count, especially as one of them was in my face yelling, demanding to know why I had ripped his shirt. I had never spoken to him before. I didn’t even know his name.
He demanded to know why. A number of others were surrounding me yelling. The very large human stood with his fist cocked back, ready to hit me again. I said I didn’t know. I had just come from the locker room. I turned my head back towards the gym. The kid with the ripped shirt slapped me bringing my face back square with his. A very large fist struck me again. My head met the brick wall once more. This time I wasn’t surprised. It just hurt.
I looked over to my friends who had been walking with me. The two of them just watched. What could they do against such a large group? I felt bad for them. A few more fists. A few more threats. A few more names. And they were gone.
The rest of the day at school, I looked around the corner before I walked down the hall. I hurried to class. I carried most of my books so I didn’t have to go to my locker. I kept my head down at lunch. I ran to the bus. I tried to figure out what happened and why these guys who I had never met would corner me outside of the gym. The story went that I ripped this guy’s shirt during a football game in gym, but it didn’t make sense. A small kid like me would never guard the best athlete in the school. I never found out why.
The next few years in middle school were a constant reminder of that day. Threats in the halls. Shoves in the locker room. The same guys always bumping into me for no reason. Football practice was just an excuse to run me over repeatedly. Some of my things would mysteriously disappear. My athletic locker was even luckily assigned right next to a certain very large human. He had a tattoo of a skull on his chest. I was 12.
I never talked about it. I never told anyone. It’s just the way my life was at the time. It became part of my daily routine. I tried not to let it bother me, and I tried to just ignore it. If they hit me again, so what? It wouldn’t be the first time. I told myself that it was okay.
It wasn’t okay.
For years, I silently struggled with what to do. My doubt and growing shame crippled me. Do I stick it out despite being miserable? Do I keep going despite my growing disbelief in the United Methodist Church? I sat in my candidacy mentor’s office and asked him a question to which I already knew the answer, “If I leave now, will they ever let me come back?”
“No. Probably not.”
Still, I always held out hope. Maybe one day, I could get myself together. I could grow up, make sense of my calling, and somehow serve the church without a feeling of despair and without feeling like I was cheating either God or the church. But, I know the church’s answer is and will remain, “Probably not.” Yet, I still hope.
In 1982, extremist rebels from the the city of Hama, Syria rose up in insurrection against the government of Hafez al-Assad, father to the current Syrian dictator. Sunni anger at the Alawite Muslim Assad regime had been raging for years with numerous violent incidents including an assassination attempt on the dictator in 1980. Islamism had become a unifying theme among dissidents who opposed the Assad regime’s secular government, as well as their socialist economic policies, which seized lands and businesses from wealthy Sunnis to be redistributed to political allies. These rebels in Hama, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and wealthy Sunni land owners, murdered over seventy members of the ruling political party and their families in February 1982 and distributed thousands of weapons to fellow insurgents in the city as they quickly took control. Calls for jihad rang out from the mosques with the hopes that the rebellion would spread throughout Syria to take down the Assad regime.
The Assad regime’s response in 1982 mirrors the response of Syria’s current dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab Spring in 2011. The regime bombed the city of Hama from the air and shelled it with artillery for three weeks, indiscriminately killing insurgents, Islamists, Christians, and civilians in the city. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians, died as a result of the siege and subsequent executions. Starving civilians were forced to flee their homes as the military continued to shell the city. Hafez al-Assad was determined to end the uprising against his government that had been waging at low levels for years and was willing to kill tens of thousands of civilians to do it. His strategy worked. After 1982, Syrian Islamists never seriously challenged his rule again.
The last time I traveled home to the United States, I was stopped and questioned in the Paris airport by a representative of the US Embassy in France. She questioned me for nearly half an hour outside my gate. She was professional and courteous. But still, the whole thing was odd. “Have you ever traveled to Syria or Iraq?” “Do you have a Facebook account?” “Tell me about your work.” “Do you have friends or contacts from or in Syria?”
The questions don’t stop at foreign airports. Every time I go home, I am stopped, detained, and questioned by US Customs and Border Protection. When my information is printed out on the kiosks upon entry, my printout has a large “X” over it and I’m ushered into a separate line. After giving my information to the person at the desk, my passport is immediately taken away and I’m escorted to a holding area. This process can take 30 minutes. It can also take multiple hours. My name is called and I am escorted to a room for “additional screening” where a US Customs and Border Patrol agent asks me more questions. “What is life like in Jordan?” “What is your address?” “What do you mean you don’t really have an address in Jordan?” “Do you feel safe?” Do you have any Syrian friends?” “Do you travel to Israel? Why?”
The last time I was detained, I asked the agent if there was anything I could do to avoid this in the future. What if I applied for TSA pre-check or Global Entry? He laughed and said no. I was permanently flagged. This is just part of my travel routine now. I am detained. I am questioned. My bags and I go through extra screening. People who pick me up from the airport know to show up at least an hour late. I cannot book short or medium length layovers in the US when traveling from a foreign country. The US government considers me a security threat. This post will be read by them to analyze me (Hello!). That’s just the way it is now.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” –Voltaire
I didn’t plan on making a scene. All I wanted to do was to eat lunch with limited social interaction. The refectory, also known as a cafeteria to non-theological nerds, at Wesley Theological Seminary, was the center of social life on campus. It was there where we ate, studied, argued, and often slept. It was my favorite place on campus, but it was also the place that I most dreaded going. I planned on eating quickly and leaving without talking to anyone outside of a handful of friends. I ended up with an audience. As much as normal social interaction terrifies me, an audience I love. Arguments, I love. Being outnumbered, that’s even better. That day, I got all three.
I was quietly eating when someone casually mentioned their thoughts on a subject that had come up in class. The poor soul said, “I just don’t understand why anyone is against the minimum wage!” I misunderstood the statement completely. What was an expression of frustration made toward a group of people who the poor soul assumed were like-minded, I mistook for “I want someone to tell me why I should be against the minimum wage.” And I did. It involved graphs.
Years ago, I was in an argument with a friend about Jesus and evolution. It ended with him saying, “You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?” I did know. It was obvious. It was like a scene straight out of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.
The debate was pretty simple. I supported evolution. My friend supported creationism. I argued that the biological record showed no support for creationism in agreement with conclusions from a number of other established sciences. My friend argued against evolution through “irreducible complexity” or the argument that modern life is too complicated to have slowly evolved into its modern form. I had read extensively about this argument before and repeated responses from mainstream science educators. My friend abandoned his argument and declared that the Bible clearly detailed a creationist account. I argued that his position is a denial of the world that God actually created while attempting to build up a world of his own, and that his argument was nothing less than a rejection of what God had done and blasphemy to God’s work and plan for salvation.
In my mind, he couldn’t just be wrong. He had to be a blasphemer. And a heretic. He was rejecting God. Also, he had to be stupid. I was all too excited to let everyone know.
He attempted debate. I attempted humiliation. He didn’t succeed. I did.
“You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?”
For the first time in my life, I’ll be voting for a Democratic candidate for a major public office. I’m not happy to do so, nor I am I particularly excited about the public policy consequences if my chosen candidate is elected. I have been, and will remain, a libertarian who believes in open markets, a free society, a peaceful foreign policy, and good news for the poor. Oddly enough in this strangest of election seasons, the best way to advance such beliefs and to safeguard many of our hard-won liberties is to vote for Hillary Clinton for President.