UPDATE, July 27, 2020: Rev. Dale Witherington recently returned to the scene of his Facebook crime and wrote that he would be taking time away from Facebook and deleting his app. This was three days after the political blog Bluestem Prarie first reported on Witherington’s Facebook call for the lynching of a “parade” of people including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and one day after RD advanced and took the story national.
It did not go well, with one commenter objecting:
Witherington was back on Facebook on July 13th, offering a classic non-apology apology. This also did not go well, and he responded neither to his friends or his critics.
Witherington apologized to no one in particular about nothing in particular. He has been silent on Facebook since then.
He could have first apologized to Rep. Omar and stated unequivocally that he does not think she or anyone else should be lynched and that American Muslims like her are fit and welcome to run for and hold public office. But he didn’t. He might have publicly called on the Facebook friend with whom he was agreeing about that lynching to also recant and apologize. But he didn’t. He might have further repented his call for this profoundly immoral and arguably criminal action. But he didn’t. Finally, he might also apologize to the Minnesota State Legislative Prayer Caucus, the state action arm of Project Blitz, of which he is State Director and how his words and actions reflect on these legislators.
He has done none of these things, but he could.
This began as a story about a Christian Right leader who joined in calling for a Member of Congress and others to be hanged for treason. And then it got interesting.
In a recent Facebook post (since taken down) Rev. Dale Witherington, the State Director of the Minnesota action arm of the Christian Right state legislative campaign, Project Blitz, agreed with a commenter (and Facebook friend) that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) “needs to be Hung.” He added, “I can think of other treasonous persons who can join that parade.” [See image left.]
The political blog Bluestem Prairie which broke the story, posted a screenshot of the inflammatory comments. The comments were scrubbed the next day, soon after they were tweeted by religion scholar André Gagné of Concordia University in Montreal. A few hours later, the entire post was taken down along with all of the 47 other comments.
We had no idea we were racing Witherington’s apparent growing awareness that his agreement with a call for the lynching of a Member of Congress and others might catch up with him—and that he’d have to scramble to cover his tracks.
“I have not called on anyone to be hanged,” Witherington protested when he was called out by another commenter in the thread. But he had no response when confronted with a screenshot of his words. (RD copied this quote into this story just before everything was deleted.)
Witherington also wrote in the now-deleted post, (sans evidence) about the “likelihood” that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds to views incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, and suggested, much like the infamous Judge Roy Moore of Alabama, that Muslims should be barred from holding public office. Rep. Omar, originally a refugee immigrant from Somalia, is the first woman of color to hold federal elective office from Minnesota and one of the first Muslim women in Congress. The threat against Rep. Omar was particularly ill-considered in that she represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes the city of Minneapolis, the epicenter of the protests arising from the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
Since her election in 2018, she’s been the target of death threats. And threats like those of Witherington and his Facebook friend are far from the first threats against her life, which makes it all the more remarkable that they would join this rhetorical Republican lynch mob. According to Wikipedia,
“Two Republican candidates for congressional office have called for her to be executed. In November 2019, Danielle Stella, Omar’s Republican opponent for Congress, was banned from Twitter for suggesting that Omar be hanged for treason. In December 2019, George Buck, another Republican running for Congress, also suggested that Omar be hanged for treason.”
“…it is so difficult, if not impossible, for a person with an Islamic ideology to hold office of any kind in the United States. Geopolitical Islam is completely at odds with supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States. The two supporting ideologies are so opposed to one another, they cannot be reconciled. Our systems of government clash. There is no middle ground.”
In another of his now-deleted comments, he said he was relying on his interpretation of a 14th century book on Sharia Law, to explain how Omar’s use of the expression “inshallah”—which most understand to mean “God willing” in the same sense as in Jewish and Christian traditions, as somehow evidence of devotion to an ancient notion of harsh Islamic theocracy.
Of course, this may have been a projection on Witherington’s part, because Rep. Omar from her earliest days as a freshman Member of Congress in 2019 has an unambiguous record of commitment to religious freedom, pluralism and separation of church and state—while Witherington subscribes, as RD reported last year, to the neo-Pentecostal theology of 7 Mountains Dominionism. For Witherington, there may be no long-term accommodation with any religious view outside of a certain circumscribed version of theocratic Christianity, to which religious equality under the law is a permanent obstacle.
Dismantling systems of oppression
The current controversy stems from comments Omar made recently in which she called for dismantling systems of oppression in the U.S. This caused conservatives from Donald Trump to Don Jr. to Breitbart and beyond to wage an aggressive election year series of mischaracterizations of Omar’s statements.
Some claimed that she wanted to dismantle the entire economic and political system of the U.S. and even “America’s Foundation.” A short video produced by the rightwing Western Journal to which Witherington’s Facebook post was responding, claimed that Omar had called for the “complete dismantling of the American way of life.” This false characterization was taken as fact by Witherington who then claimed it was also representative of Islam and incompatible with the Constitution.
Omar’s actual quote read (and is even to be heard in The Western Journal’s video clip):
“As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profit without considering who is profiting, who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality. So we cannot stop at criminal justice system. We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression, wherever we find it.”
She also said, although it was not included in the clip:
“We are not merely fighting to tear down the systems of oppression in the criminal justice system; we are fighting to tear down systems of oppression that exist in housing, in education, in health care, in employment [and] in the air we breathe.”
Far from calling for tearing down the system, she was calling for reform by eliminating oppressions within various sectors, as well as the system as a whole.
Among the oppressions that Omar did not mention but we might add, are religious bigotry inflamed by racism aimed at everyone who gets in the way or deviates from the theocratic objectives of the Christian Right.