10/19/2011 06:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

Moving Beyond 'Clash of Civilizations'

Hank Williams, Jr.'s public comparison of Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler has been all the news.

Nashville, in spite of her southern gentility, is not unfamiliar with such strong language, evidenced by the likes of Toby Keith, the country artist who equated the way of America with kicking someone's ass following the September 11 attacks.

Belligerent and blanket demonization has found pointed expression here of late in the Bible Belt. In response to a plan to construct a new mosque in middle Tennessee, one opponent publicly stereotyped Muslims as "these people who want to kill us."

The so-called "clash of civilizations" thesis is another expression of the blanket "us versus them" approach. Mark Gabriel claims for example that "the war today is between 7th century Islamic culture and 21st century modern culture. These cultures are incompatible. They cannot coexist because the values of one violate the values of the other."

While demonizing speech-acts may work well at galvanizing a given constituency for a short-burst of fear-driven action, they do little to make space for the possibility of peaceable co-existence.

In Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam, and Themselves, I suggest we take seriously the approach attributed to Francis of Assisi, who called us to "seek first to understand, then to be understood." It is in this way, he said, we may become a "channel of peace."

In doing so, we may also be able to see things we could not possibly see otherwise.

This does not mean that we should ever ignore oppression or violence, and it most certainly does not mean that we should somehow rationalize away the injustice of another. It means simply to begin with a posture that seeks first to understand.

But when demonizing and war-mongering talk is employed -- when the pundits and artists use language of "treason" and "Hitler" and "ass-kicking" -- it is simply impossible to clear a space to facilitate peaceable co-existence. This sort of language continues to dominate much discussion around co-existence between Muslims and Christians, between East and West. Such language also continues, in a frightening way, to dominate the polarization between left and right, and liberal and conservative.

But such talk fails to understand the way civilizations and cultures work.

Consider Southern culture, for example. When my Midwestern graduate school colleagues got to looking down their nose at things Southern, I had to remind them that the South actually means all the things that make America interesting, like rock, country, and jazz music; Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway; barbeque and fried chicken. "The South" also means NASCAR and dirt-track car racing, Gulf Coast beaches and the tail end of the Appalachians, Bible Belt civil religion and low-ranking public school systems, the KKK and a racism that is at once strangely polite and simultaneously ruthless.

But even my description of the South is itself an interpretation. Any description of any thing or culture is necessarily selective. Southern blacks describe the South differently than do Southern whites, than do newly arrived Hispanics. Hollywood, in all its self-righteous glory, inevitably portrays Southern culture in a manner that any self-respecting Southerner finds utterly and ironically intolerant. Daisy Duke and Boss Hogg do not the South make. I prefer Atticus Finch, myself, without any delusion that we do not have plenty of Southern shortcomings.

If a "culture" cannot be rejected as a whole, then why the widespread popularity of the "clash of civilizations" thesis? Talal Asad has claimed, "It was only with the Crusades that the papacy promoted the ideology of a unified Christendom at war with a unified Islam."

This is a deeply ironic observation. If it is true, then the "clash of civilizations" thesis, in which Western Christians often claim that they have moved beyond thinking about Crusades while Muslims have not -- is premised upon Crusader logic itself.

Francis of Assisi -- seeking first to understand, then to be understood -- is reported to have traveled, unarmed and in his poverty, to visit the sultan in the midst of one of the Crusades. When Francis left the sultan, he was showered with many gifts, treated as a friend.

Perhaps Francis's seeking-first-to-understand-medieval-approach is preferable to the Crusader-and-demonizing-medieval-approach. I have recently found, as I sought out the opportunity to share a table or drink tea with Muslims in Jerusalem and Hebron, Istanbul and Nashville, that I can indeed learn things about myself to which I was blind otherwise. And I discovered that there is much more space for peaceable and productive co-existence -- with those with whom I have substantive and terribly important disagreements -- than I could have known otherwise.

Consequently, I have the strong suspicion that genuine freedom will not be facilitated by demonizing and ass-kicking, but the hard and dangerous work of "seeking first to understand, then to be understood."