Front Edge Publishing, 244 pages
The story of 29-year-old Karleton Fyfe’s death on September 11, 2001, is personal to me. I learned of it through the author’s sister; Karleton’s Aunt Mary is a member of the church I served. (Bill Tammeus is Karleton’s uncle.) Yet even without that connection, readers will be deeply moved by Tammeus’ vivid sharing of their family’s loss — not a distant disaster eliciting “thoughts and prayers,” but a particular grief that ripples across time. Through the story of his nephew’s death, Tammeus deliberately, thoughtfully reveals family relationships in their fragility and endurance; poignant memories revisited again and again; and joy that is savored, even as trauma is reignited.
All of this would be enough to warrant attention. But Tammeus – a well-regarded journalist – chooses far more: weaving the threads of his family story into the larger fabric of religious extremism: “My reason to tell my version of this story at all … is to teach (or remind) everyone what can happen when simplistic, naïve, caustic versions of religion get lived out by people who miss the generative, wholesome, loving point of religion. None of the world’s great religions is immune from this kind of distortion, so it’s up to each of us to recognize spiritual craziness when we see it and to do what we can to stop it or, at minimum, point it out. If we fail, the result may be more 9/11s, more attacks on synagogues, more white supremacists acting out their distorted ideology in murderous ways.”
While it is easy to point fingers at radical Islam, Tammeus cites chilling parallels between the rise of Nazism and the emergence of the neo-Nazi white nationalists at the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally. Now we would add the targeting of Blacks by police, and the rise of anti-Asian violence. He reminds us, “Sometimes ancient extremist thinking doesn’t die, it merely hibernates for a time and then, rested and ready for renewed evil, it slouches toward Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey, Kansas City.”
If we squander this painful awakening, we will watch extremism grow. Instead, Tammeus invites us to get out of our bubbles, describing his own deep-dive into other religions, including his work with Jewish leaders to write about the Holocaust. He confesses his prior containment of faith to private life, and his move from the editorial desk to pressing for a place at the religion desk at The Kansas City Star. And he explores theology – Christian and other traditions – with openness, honoring the murkiness of faith.
Tammeus reminds us of the real human cost, his beloved nephew and so many others, “erased by a bleak and bloody theology.” He charges us to “go and be part of the solution, offering marching orders that served him well:
1. Respect (and love) others.
2. Become more religiously literate.
3. Get outside your comfortable religious and worldview surroundings.
4. Engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
5. Teach your children and grandchildren well.
6. Deepen your knowledge of both American and world history.
7. In this remarkably divisive time in our nation, become competent in civil discourse.
8. Spend time with people who have experienced profound grief.
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