Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced : Religion on the Secular Stage

Disgraced Program

The Disgraced program at Syracuse Stage

Theatre has a history of raising necessary community dialogue about social issues that are difficult to discuss.  For example, in 1994, the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson premiered and brought HIV/AIDS awareness to a mainstream audience.  Not only did it start a dialogue, but the show became a leader in fundraising for those affected by the diseases (Cocovinis, 2011).  Rent is not unique; research suggests that audience members who witness performances that deal with social problems tend to want to talk about them afterwards (Kelaher et. al. 2012).  Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a production of Disgraced at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY, which promoted community dialogue about one of the most infamous off-limits subjects of polite conversation: religion.

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, with its eighteen professional performances, was the most-produced play in the United States in 2015.  This season it was still in the top three (Tran).  Popular since its premiere in Chicago in 2012, Disgraced has had Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and has been produced in many other major cities. 

Disgraced tells the story of Amir, a present day, non-religious man who was raised Muslim.  It explores how Amir’s Muslim background affects his treatment at work and his relationship with his nephew, Abe, who does not understand why Amir feels compelled to distance himself from his Muslim family and community.  It also takes a look how Amir’s Muslim background affects his relationships with his friends and wife.  The main conflict occurs in a dinner party scene in which Amir and his friends of different religious and ethnic backgrounds get into a heated argument over their perceptions of their own religions and those of each other.  This scene struck a chord with many audience members.

By showing different characters’ perspectives, the play skillfully presents its characters’ unique and personal relationships with faith.  What are Amir’s personal feelings about his Muslim background?  How do they come up in his day to day life?  Amir’s experiences, and those of his friends, shed light on American lived religion, which according to Religious Studies scholar Robert A. Orsi (2003), examines how religion manifests itself in people’s daily lives and practices, rather than reducing a religion simply to the tenets it proclaims and the texts it follows.  This can help us understand the intricacies of religion and also brings the human being into the picture.   

“This way of approaching religious worlds eliminates the comfort of academic distance and undermines the confidence and authority of the claims “we are not them” and “they are not us.” We may not condone or celebrate the religious practices of others but we cannot dismiss them as inhuman, so alien from us that they cannot be understood or approached, only contained or obliterated” (Orsi 174).

In alignment with Orsi, Akhtar, who has written a few other plays that center on the Muslim identity and experience in the United States, is quoted in the Syracuse Stage Disgraced program saying, “I’m not writing from theory…I’m just observing people in my life and my family and I’m also observing myself and I’m sort of creating narrative out of these observations. Being Muslim. Being American.” (Syracuse Stage).  So the stories presented onstage are actually based on Akhtar’s own experience and his observations of real people’s individual interpretations of their religions.  And through this kind of work, Akhtar creates characters with whom audience members are able to empathize.  This, in turn, promotes social awareness. 

According to an actor in the production, Syracuse Stage scheduled a talkback after each performance of the show, which is a rarity for a regional theatre.  A talkback is an informal conversation between actors and audience.  Audience members are encouraged to react to the show and ask questions of the actors.  Often talkbacks are special occasions.  The inclusion of talkbacks shows the weight Syracuse Stage puts on importance of community discourse, especially on the themes of religion and identity highlighted in this production.  Also surprising to me was the fact that most of the audience stayed, as I have been to shows at which only fifteen out of two hundred people stay for the talkback.  The questions asked went far beyond the typical, “How long did it take you to memorize those lines?”  This audience wanted to know the actors’ opinions of the perspectives they represented onstage.  The audience asked questions about the play’s title in relation to the events they saw unfold, and wanted to discuss religious identity- their own and their connections to those they saw depicted onstage.

Disgraced is the perfect example of theatre’s ability to promote necessary community dialogue about important social problems.  In a country that recently barred the entrance of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Diamond, 2017), it is fitting that one of the most-produced plays at professional theaters is one by a Muslim American playwright that tells the stories of two Muslim American men and their different experiences with Islam.  The message that these theaters are sending is: the Muslim American identity is important and nuanced.  It’s worth exploring onstage and discussing afterwards.

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Christmas in Copenhagen

On November 1st in Copenhagen, Christmas markets open their doors. Holiday lights are hung, trees are decorated, and the limited time “Julebryg” beer is released. From this day forward, the entire city of Copenhagen relishes in holiday spirit in anticipation of Christmas Day. The street lamps are covered with decorative wreaths while central squares house dozens of markets, ornate Christmas trees and Ferris wheels. Friends begin to schedule weekly Christmas lunches, called “julefrokost”, and begin baking traditional “abelskiver” donuts. This holiday countdown brings warmth, spirit, and excitement to the cold, dark months of winter.

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Christmas market filled with traditional Christmas food, drink, and gifts.

Last fall, I spent four months in this city and was struck by how the Danes celebrated Christmas. Having spent the holiday season in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, and Prague, I am confident that no city celebrates with the ubiquitous spirit that Copenhagen does. After visiting Denmark’s next two largest cities, Aarhus and Aalborg, it became clear this spirit was not unique to Copenhagen, but permeating throughout the entire country. I began to wonder why this was, and looked to religion as the obvious explanation. I quickly realized how wrong I was.

Despite Denmark’s near obsession with Christmas, it is one of the least religious countries in the world. While nearly three quarters of the population identifies as Christian, only 19% of the population finds religion important in their everyday lives (Gallup 2015). Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, having spent two years researching religion in Scandinavia, found that most Danes are either skeptical about the existence of a God or have rarely even thought about it (Zuckerman 2008). Only 28% of Danes believe in a God, and only 2% of church members people attend services weekly (Gallup 2015). Most Danes don’t worship Jesus, pray, or read religious texts. Why, then, is this Christian holiday so important to such a secular country?

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Tivoli, Copenhagen’s renowned amusement park, opens for a limited three weeks during the holiday season.

Being religious is not a prerequisite to celebrating Christmas in Denmark. Many Danes don’t believe in the religious origin of the holiday and still celebrate it fervently (Zuckerman 2008). While the majority of Danes do attend religious services on Christmas Day, few attend for its religious content. Instead, Danes engage in this Christian ritual because it’s just what people do. Christmas is not unique in this way – most Danes marry in churches, celebrate Easter, and baptize their children because they are national rituals and important means of community involvement. Danes, rather than being traditionally religious, are culturally religious. Danes may not believe in the tenets of Christianity, but engage in these religious rituals to have fun, connect with family, and take part in their national cultural identity. Jan Lindhart, a bishop in Denmark, describes, “The Danes don’t need to go to church on Sundays because they can do their Danishness every day of the week” (Zuckerman 2008: 171). Danes don’t need church to feel Danish, because being Danish doesn’t mean being Christian. Being Danish means celebrating Christmas in its cultural context – and not its religious context.

The question then becomes, why this ritual of Christmas celebration and not other religious traditions? Baptisms, confirmations, or Easter don’t foster half as much spirit or excitement as Christmas does. This two-month extravagant celebration of Christmas means something different to the Danes. There, Christmas is not just an established communal tradition – it is a manifestation of Denmark’s value system.

If asked to describe Danish culture with one word, it would be “hygge.” This word has no direct English translation and is exclusive to Danish culture. Hygge is a feeling embedded within all aspects of life in Denmark. Hygge is comfort, coziness, and connection with others. It is the experience of enjoying family’s company or sharing dinner in a candlelit apartment. Hygge is moderation and modesty, and being hyggelit means never seeking attention or exuding wealth. Anthropologist Jeppe Linnett argues that hygge is the implicit cultural value of balance and moderation that is rooted in the nation’s cultural identity of social, economic, and political equality (Linnett 2011). This particular value may explain why Christmas, more than any other religious or cultural event, brings such thrill and excitement.

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Holiday market in Nytorv, one of Copenhagen’s busiest squares.

The concept of hygge carries symbolic meaning about this culture and provides residents with norms to live by. Linnett describes hygge as “a cultural reference point that all Danes relate to…and is the structuring principle of a fundamental moral order for everyday Scandinavian life” (Linett 2011: 38). Being Danish means being hyggelit, and there is nothing more hyggelit than Christmas. The lights, candles, and fireplaces are provide warmth and comfort during the dark, cold months. Families put work aside to spend time with loved ones. Friends shop at street markets for handmade gifts, never purchasing anything too extravagant and always thinking of friends before themselves. The hyggelit nature of this holiday explains why its celebration is so widespread and unique. To this secular nation Christmas is more than a holiday; it is a celebration of hygge and the great values the small word represents.

Since my semester in Copenhagen, friends have asked for advice on which months to travel there. My answer is obvious: the holiday season. To miss Christmas in Copenhagen would be to miss a true understanding of Danish culture and its intersection with secularity.

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One of the many Copenhagen streets decorated with Christmas lights from November to January.

Sacred Schooling? Religion and Education in America

“… and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible…”

Choirs of young voices have recited this pledge in public elementary schools all over the United States for many years. The school day begins with an invocation of that capital g word which seems so frequently to divide the “indivisible” Republic.

In the past decade, court cases have called for the removal of this pledge from public schools (CNN Library 2016). The Pledge of Allegiance prompts the question: is there room for God in the classroom, or should He stay in the church?

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This sign from a Lutheran school would seem drastically out of place in a public school, but is there any room for religion in the typical American classroom? (Beckler 2009)

This current debate is rooted in the founding of public education in America. American. The founders of public schools believed that education was a means to teach morality at a time when there was no conception of morality distinct from religion. The earliest public schools taught Biblical readings, but let the text speak for itself in attempt to ease the tension between different Christian beliefs (Feldman 2005, 64).

Whereas the historical problem facing public education was the conflict between various Christian denominations, the modern school system faces a more complicated puzzle. America today is a nation of diverse believers. The majority of Americans (70%) are Christian, but other world religions and secular groups have growing presences in this country (Pew Research Center 2017). The issue of religion and education has become a debate between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Many people believe that allowing religion to have any space in public education imposes religious beliefs onto their children. On a national scale, the response has been to build up the wall between church and state, in an effort to be truly pluralistic. For example, the Supreme Court declared school prayer and Bible readings unconstitutional in the 1962 case Engel v. Vitale (United States Courts). It is this philosophy that allowed me, a 20-year-old student with no religious affiliation, to enter a Sociology of Religion course at an elite college with very little understanding of the beliefs and practices of the major world religions.

Recent educational laws and policies seem to support the secularization theory of sociologist Peter Berger, which predicted the increasing removal of certain institutional sectors such as education from the domination of religion (Berger 1967). Nonetheless, people in the United States and all over the world still claim to be very religious. Our public schools educate young people with the idea that religion is a taboo topic and then send them out into a world in which religion cannot be ignored.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people have become more afraid of and angry at people whose religious backgrounds they do not understand (Peek). For example, the percentage of Americans who feel that Muslims do not share their vision of American society at all increased from 26.3% in 2003 to 45.5% in 2014 (Edgell et al. 2016, 13). In recent years, several public schools have explored the discipline of religious studies as a potential solution, with the idea that knowledge can lead to understanding and ultimately decrease fear and discrimination. Johansen High School in Modesto, California has implemented a mandatory world religions course for ninth grade students. The program increased students’ knowledge about other religions by about 30% as well as their respect for religious liberty (Lester and Roberts 2006, 7). Additionally, students reported that they had maintained whatever specific religious beliefs that they had held before taking the course, effectively alleviating the fears that religious studies would lead to conversion.

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(PragerU 2015)

Requiring students to say “under God” and Bible readings in the classroom reminiscent of early 19th century public schooling does not seem to fit in today’s world where American schools are filled with students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. But the importance of religion in general must not be lost in our attempts at pluralism. Perhaps comparative religious education is the tool that we must use to combat religious intolerance in a world in which religion really does matter, but is becoming increasingly complex.

Trump’s Sex Education: Why We Should Be Scared

Since 1981, the federal government has provided grants to mostly religious sex eduaction programs that promote abstinence as the main vehicle for preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) contraction (Gonzalez et al., 2016). In 2010, Health Care Reform allocated $50 million annually to abstinence only programs ($250 million by 2014) as an incentive from the Obama administration to garner conservative support for the bill (SCIECUS, 2015). Given the conservative affinity for such programs, abstinence only sex education may be coming to a school near you very soon (figure 1).

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What are students learning in abstinence only sexual education? As it turns out, not what sex is or how to avoid health risks associated with sexual activity: the House of Representatives found that 80% of abstinence only curricula supported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health, which includes but is not limited to: false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, untrue information about the risks of abortion, religious beliefs displayed as fact, stereotypes about boys and girls displayed as scientific fact, and false medical and scientific information regarding sexual health (Committee on Government Reform, 2004). Additionally, there is no federally mandated sex education curriculum, so students from different states are exposed to varied information about sex and sexual health (Figure 2). A majority of these students may not get information from any credible sources, given that there has been a significant decline formal instruction from any authority figures (such as teachers and parents) on topics of birth control, saying no to sex, STIs, and HIV/AIDS from 2006-2013 (Lindberg, Maddow-Zimet, & Boonstra, 2016).

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I am not arguing that teens should be having more sex or that the discussion of sex should be purely scientific. Sex is profoundly interpersonal and there are benefits to conversations about morality, religion and sex: religious teens are 27%-54% more likely to have had fewer sexual partners than peers in a nationally representative sample of 15-21 year-olds (Haglund & Fehring, 2010). Also, Evangelical Christian college students report higher social and psychological well being, specifically when they are part of a community of students who choose abstinence (Freitas, 2015). However, religious teens that do choose to engage in sexual activity are more at risk of unhealthy outcomes. Teens with high religiosity have a higher teen birth rate, even when controlling for household income and abortions (Kappe, 2016).

Students in abstinence only programs have one option: abstinence. The curricula leaves numerous young Americans who choose to have sex without the tools they need to make healthy choices. But that doesn’t stop their questions. Teens in abstinence-only programs are significantly more likely to seek information in erotic sources, such as internet porn (Kleinert, 2016).

Since the Reagan administration, the resounding consensus from researchers is that abstinence-only programs do not decrease number of sexual partners, frequency of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, abortion, or STI rates (Carr & Packham, 2016; Kirby, Korpi, Barth & Cagampang, 1997). These programs have lived consequences far beyond the teen years, since many Americans have little to no additional formal sexual education after high school, but most go on to have sex (Figure 3). Further, women who had pledged abstinence until marriage and broke the pledge are at higher risk of HPV and unplanned pregnancy, even when controlling for exposure risk. They also reported less consistent and informed uses of contraceptives in comparison to women who did not take the pledge (Paik, Sanchagrin, & Heimer, 2016).

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Can we call a class that gives students false information “education”? Would we tolerate this in any other setting?

With abstinence-only education we are asking students to drive one day without ever teaching them how a car works, which can have fatal consequences. In order to equip adolescents with the tools they need to make healthy and moral decisions about sex, sexual education should include scientifically accurate information.

The Hijab: A Symbol of Unity in a Divided Nation

“This is the time when the patience of Muslims is being tested. We’re not supposed to react how we want to. I got stared down by a cop, I’ve never been stared down… I was very scared, embarrassed, ashamed” (Sara, college student, from Peek 2010: 309).*

Today’s American Muslim community shares Sara’s feelings of fear and confusion. Although Sara gave this account following the events of 9/11, frighteningly, these stories could be easily misinterpreted as reactions to America’s current political climate. After a xenophobic and misogynistic presidential campaign fueled by public opposition towards Islam, Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 sparked uncertainty and fear amongst the Muslim community in the United States (Trump 2015).

Muslim woman wearing a red hijab, a scarf the covers a woman’s hair and neck.

Woman in a red hijab, photo courtesy Riza/Flickr

Many Muslim women in particular fear for their safety (Sakuma 2016). The hijab, a simple scarf wrapped around a woman’s head and neck, which is one of the most visual symbols of the Islamic faith, has made Muslim women a target for xenophobic attacks (Sakuma 2016; Shelbayah 2016). Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, Muslim women, including Blair Imani and Marie (@shutterpsyco), took to social media to publicly express their fear in wearing hijab.

Tweet by Blair Imani (@BlairImani) on November 9, 2016, 4:22 p.m: “I stopped wearing hijab today and turned to hats instead for fear of violence. @monaeltahawy.”

Image via Twitter

Tweet by Marie (@ShutterPsyco) on November 9, 2016, 7:16 a.m: “My friend just texted me saying she’d stopped wearing her hijab out of fear. Fear, for her safety. This isn’t right, everyone.”

Image via Twitter

These women decided that wearing the hijab made them too vulnerable to an attack; they stopped wearing their scarves. No one should have to remove a physical representation of their faith in order to comply with others’ opinions.

Remarkably, despite immense societal pressure for women to remove their headscarves, the hijab has become a powerful representation of inclusion, piety, and resistance against Islamophobia (Shelbayah 2016; Abassi 2017). Fara Arefi knows first-hand how a headscarf can put a target on your back. A few years ago Fara, who started wearing a hijab at 17 years old, got in a bad car accident because her car tires had been slashed. She admits that “it was the scariest moment of my life.” Afterwards, she felt an even stronger desire to wear the hijab (Náñez 2017). Today, her hijab is a symbol of defiance against hatred. She refuses to give into societal pressures to sacrifice her commitment to her religion. Fara’s motivations are not unique to her situation. Sociologist Lori Peek found many Muslim youth gained a strengthened religious identity post-9/11 in the face of increased discrimination (2010). The pattern still exists among many Muslims today in Trump’s America (Náñez 2017).

A sign held at a protest march with the drawing of a Muslim woman in an American flag hijab, a scarf the covers a woman’s hair and neck. The bottom of on the poster says We the People are Greater than Fear. This poster is a part of street artist Shepard Fairey’s We the People series designed to protest the election of Donald Trump as the American president in 2016.

Photo courtesy of Puro/Flickr

Professor at the College of Business and Mass Communication at Brenau University, CNN producer, and self-identified Muslim Slma Shelhayah admits that following Donald Trump’s election she wondered if it was safer to take off her hijab in order to look less Muslim (Shelbayah 2016). Non-Muslims in American society often forget that hijab is a personal choice among Muslim women in the United States, and there are various reasons why women choose to wear it (Read 2000). Whether women wear it for social reasons or to showcase their commitment to Islam, the hijab represents a woman’s self-identity as a Muslim and fights societal uniformity in America (Read 2000). Islam helped Slma realize her hijab was a powerful tool: “My faith whispers to keep it on in defiance of fear — and in my conviction that diversity is a right and a strength in this country” (Shelbayah 2016). While the hijab symbolizes diversity, it is also a reminder that religious beliefs and what one chooses to wear should not divide people.

Contemporary America is beginning to realize that discrimination against Muslim women occurs regularly. Realizing the inclusive symbolism of the hijab and its messages of unity and respect, numerous non-Muslim women have begun to wear the hijab in solidarity with other Muslim woman (Abassi 2016). The hijab, and the women who wear it, are challenging Americans to accept cultural differences and find the similarities amongst our diverse population.

*Interview conducted by Lori Peek between September 2001 and 2003.

Why Trump Wants Our Kids to Pledge Allegiance

 The American public education system is a battlefield between passionate politicians and activists of differing political views. Religious advocates and religious skeptics alike have vehemently fought court battles on the boundaries of religion and education such as the teaching of evolution, the expansion of sexual education to include contraception, and the constitutionality of school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. I have seen these issues first hand in my experience tutoring and student teaching in schools and I know I will continue to encounter them in my career as an educator. In the current state of heightened tension between racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and political groups wherein “America First” rhetoric is common, rituals such as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance are being used to instill certain views of Americanism and patriotism in the most malleable citizens of the country: the children.

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Photo courtesy of Newsmax

Many children in public, charter and private schools begin their morning by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison with their classmates as they face the American flag with their right hand over their heart. Numerous parents however have taken issue with the prominent line in the Pledge “one nation, under God.”

Quite a few citizens have brought it to court to test the constitutionality of the recitation of the Pledge in public schools on the grounds that it entangles church and state, going against the Establishment Clause by favoring one religion over another. They argue that the recitation of the phrase “under God” imposes certain beliefs which contrast with views of non-religious and non-monotheistic students.  Despite this, others maintain that the Pledge is not a Christian ritual but an example of civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah defines civil religion as “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” which has implicitly instilled religiosity in all aspects of American life, including politics, since the country was founded (171).

The inclusion of a religious reference in the pledge dates back to President Eisenhower’s in the 1950’s. Eisenhower used the Pledge to unify the country during the Cold War in 1954 by adding the controversial line “under God” which was not originally in the Pledge.

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Photo courtesy of the New York Times

President Donald Trump acts as an outspoken proponent of ‘protecting the right’ to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. President George W. Bush also spoke out in support of the Pledge following 9/11 when he and First Lady Laura Bush led nationwide recitations throughout public schools in 2001 and 2002. Bush’s push for the Pledge arose at a time when the nation scrambled for meaning and unity. The Pledge was used as a tool to pull together a fractured America through shared values.

Trump uses this heated debate between the courts upholding the constitutionality of the Pledge and liberal activists who speak out against it as fuel to feed his fiery, specific brand of patriotism. This brand is tied to attitudes of discrimination toward racial, religious, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities. At the Cincinnati stop on Trump’s victory rally tour, for example, he stated:

There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.

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Watch the video here.

At a Cleveland campaign stop during Trump’s candidacy (shortly after the incident when Colin Kaepernick refused to rise for the national anthem at a 2016 NFL game in order to protest the flag of a country “that oppresses black people and people of color”), Trump similarly said:

We will be united by our common culture, values and principles, becoming one American nation, one country under one Constitution saluting one American flag – and always saluting it – the flag all of you helped to protect and preserve, that flag deserves respect…We want young Americans to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Trump does not directly mention Colin Kaepernick during his speech, but his meaning is clear: in Trump’s America, children should be taught to respect and value the flag and American patriotism above all else. A demonstration of discontent with the government by opting out of patriotic rituals is, from this perspective, not acceptable.

In pledging allegiance to the flag, one pledges allegiance to their country and acknowledges its rule under God. Today, many secular people or people of other faiths do not feel comfortable doing so as they are unsure about the current and future state of the nation. In a political climate in which electing not to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem makes national news and contains multiple political meanings and social values on race, ethnicity and inclusion, the mandating or banning of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools could serve as a telling litmus test of the attitude of the country concerning the place of religion in everyday life.

Counseling Session Gone Wrong

On October 12, 2015, two teen brothers were brutally beaten for fourteen hours by eight of their fellow church members, including their own parents. Christopher Leonard, age 19, suffered life-threatening injuries. Lucas Leonard, 17, passed away in the hospital.

The Word of Life Church, located in my quaint, tiny hometown of New Hartford, New York, dubbed this beating a “counseling session”. After expressing a desire to leave the church, Lucas and Christopher were whipped with an electrical chord “in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness” (Sanchez & Crook, 2015).

Word of Life Church, image via Google Street View

The media and surrounding community’s response focused almost completely on the immorality of Bruce and Deborah Leonard, the boys’ parents. However, the public’s dismissal of Bruce and Deborah as evil outliers in the community failed to acknowledge the institutional causes of Lucas’s death; the Word of Life Church was also to blame. Like many sects (Johnstone, 2007), this church created an isolated lifestyle that made it incredibly difficult for people like Lucas and Christopher to escape. Cultures of isolation and violence contributed to the gruesome events that took place at the Word of Life Church, despite the media and public’s incrimination of the Leonard parents.

The congregation beat Lucas and Christopher because the boys wanted to abandon not only their faith, but also the lifestyle advocated by their small, isolated sect. According to Johnstone (2007), sects withdraw themselves from society in order to avoid “impure” and “evil” secular influence (p. 61). Not surprisingly, the entire Word of Life church consisted of only thirty-five members from five families. Members saw the church as a “refuge from what they viewed as decaying secular norms” and believed that their practices exemplified the true essence of Christianity (Mueller, 2015). In order to shield themselves from “evil” secular influence, church members erected walls and hedges to act as a physical barrier from the rest of the community (Sanchez & Crook, 2015). Church members cared little about the liberties of the outside world; they believed that this strictly regulated lifestyle would lead them to salvation. According to Johnstone (2007), attaining salvation becomes the “supreme, ultimate reward” for sect members, even if they are deprived of “earthly success and the good life here and now, which is only temporal and not eternal” (p. 67). When Christopher and Lucas sought to leave the church, they were effectively straying from the perceived path to salvation, prompting the congregation to initiate a counseling session. But why did that counseling session turn violent?

Brothers Christopher and Lucas Leonard, image via People Magazine

The congregation most likely beat Lucas and Christopher in an attempt to save the teens from what was perceived to be evil. Sanja Nilsson (2016) explains in “Children in New Religious Movements” that parents in sects often exhibit religiously motivated, authoritative parenting styles. She defines an authoritative parent as one who is highly demanding, but lacks responsiveness to the child’s desires. In the new religious movements Sanja studied, parents’ actions were often “theologically motivated and formulated by a higher authority,” and prioritized “submissive obedience.” Corporal punishment was used in order to “save the child from eternal damnation” (Nilsson, 2016, p. 386). Bruce and Deborah Leonard used a theologically founded, normalized form of violence in order to keep their children within the secluded sect, thus saving them from an eternity of evil.

By dismissing Lucas’s death as the actions of two independent, malevolent parents who did not value the life of their child, we fail to recognize the larger systems of violence and isolation inherent in some sects.