(RNS) “I forgive you.”
These may have been three of the most powerful words uttered in the name of religion this year. They came out of the mouth of Nadine Collier, addressed to the white supremacist accused of fatally shooting her mother and eight others on June 17 at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
Religion inspired countless other acts of forgiveness, mercy and hope this year. But religion -- or perversions of it, some would say -- also inspired horrific violence: the "faith-based" cleansing of ancient lands, and bombings and shootings motivated by scriptural justifications. It was a year also of religious-inspired activism, seen perhaps most prominently in a pope who advocated for the poor and for a solution to climate change.
Here is an overview of some of the most consequential religion stories of the past year, with thoughts on what to look forward to 2016.
ISIS and the lure of the apocalypse
We had already been introduced to the unspeakable cruelty of this group called the Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic. And it continued this year: Coptic Christians were slaughtered on a Libyan beach in an act shown to the world in high-definition video. Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh was locked in a cage and burned alive. But this year the apocalyptic and iconoclastic streaks of this group came into full relief, with one terrorism expert comparing its pull on Muslim youth to getting a chance to play in the World Cup or Super Bowl.
When militants took sledgehammers to priceless antiquities in the Mosul museum and demolished ruins at Palmyra, it felt like a throwback to the rampages of 16th-century Protestants. Perhaps the decapitated statues that can still be seen at Utrecht’s Dom Church in the modern Netherlands should be a symbol of hope that this doesn’t have to go on forever.
Christians and other minorities in the Middle East
In Iraq, there may be as few as 200,000 Christians remaining from a prewar population of 1.5 million. In Syria, Christians figure prominently in the tide of refugees fleeing the armies of ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. Coptic Christians remain vulnerable in Egypt despite assurances of equal treatment by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But it’s not just Christians who are under threat. The Arab Spring of several years ago has turned into a winter for minorities -- Yazidis and Druze, as well as Shiites and Sunnis where they are outnumbered.
Charlie Hebdo and Bangladesh
After the slaying of four secular bloggers and one publisher in Bangladesh, militants published a hit list of dozens of other supposed enemies of Islam, including well-known authors and journalists. In the West, where some individuals have lived in fear since the "Satanic Verses" controversy of the 1980s, the blasphemy debate burst open again after the Jan. 7 massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Some argued that tolerating sacrilege is a requirement of citizenship in democratic society. And anti-Islamic campaigner Pamela Geller organized a “Muhammad Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, which was attacked by two gunmen who ISIS said were working for the terrorist group and who were shot dead by security guards at the contest.
The coordinated attacks that killed 130 people at bars, a stadium and a concert hall in the French capital left no doubt ISIS wants to outdo its rival al-Qaida and take what it believes are end-of-times battles to the heart of Europe. The Paris attacks came after a gunman attempted a massacre on a Paris-bound bullet train in August but was wrestled to the ground by passengers, including three vacationing Americans. And while those and other attacks left European Muslims fearing reprisals, the repeated targeting of synagogues and Jewish institutions by Muslim militants left Europe’s Jewish communities feeling more vulnerable than at any time since the Holocaust.
The Charleston nine
On this side of the Atlantic, a white man walked into an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and sat down to join a Bible study group. The warm welcome he got didn’t stop him, authorities said, from fatally shooting nine people in cold blood. The June 17 killings horrified Americans, who were subsequently moved by the forgiveness and grace shown by the relatives of the victims during a bond hearing for the suspect. At the funeral, the Rev. Norvel Goff noted the peaceful response by pointing out how "a lot of folk expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot."
And sympathy grew for the #blacklivesmatter movement protesting police treatment of young African-American men.
San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Chapel Hill
Gun violence everywhere continued to generate warlike casualties. Several mass shootings had religious overtones. The slaying of three students at Chapel Hill, N.C., on Feb. 10 looked like it was triggered by a parking dispute, but there were suggestions that the actions of the suspect -- who appeared to dislike all religion -- were triggered by his realizing these neighbors were Muslims. The man accused of shooting and killing three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Nov. 27 called himself a "warrior for babies." And in San Bernardino, Calif., a Muslim couple -- the wife reportedly had told Facebook friends she wanted to become a jihadist -- carried out the worst attack in America since 9/11. That was reason enough for one presidential candidate to declare on Dec. 7 that Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate to America.
Donald Trump’s proposal seemed to take anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. into new territory, with Muslim civil rights groups reporting a surge in mosque vandalism and hate crimes since then. But the condemnation of it -- including from fellow GOP candidates -- was widespread, leading one Muslim commentator to thank Trump for provoking sentiments that made him feel truly American.
Buddhists vs. Muslims
In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state were reported to be facing the “final stages of a genocide” after hundreds were killed in massacres egged on by Buddhist extremists. The government sees the Rohingya as foreigners, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
Pope Francis, poverty and climate change
The pope’s visit to North America was spectacular and -- aside from the Kim Davis kerfuffle -- it went off without a glitch. He inspired Latino immigrants, spoke words pleasing to the ears of both Republicans and Democrats and showed how lovely Philadelphia is car-free. But perhaps more of the Francis effect was felt in his visit to three of the poorest countries in the hemisphere -- Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. In one of the most noteworthy speeches of his pontificate, on July 9 in Bolivia's Santa Cruz, he denounced what he called a “new colonialism” of the poor and said the unfettered pursuit of money is “the dung of the devil.” And through "Laudato Si'," his encyclical on the environment, the pope joined other major religious leaders such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, to make a strong moral case for an agreement on climate change, which was reached on Dec. 12 in Paris.
Supreme Court ruling and religious freedom laws
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the June 26 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It cemented a paradigm shift that has been years, if not decades, in the making. It pushed homophobia to the far fringes. And it prompted soul-searching among evangelical Christians, who saw the ruling as a loss on a par with Roe v. Wade. Some called for a repenting of the way LGBT people have been treated, while others demanded laws confirming constitutional protections for their own view of marriage -- as only possible between a man and a woman.
A few things to watch for in 2016:
The faith of the president and the candidates
Will President Obama be more open about his faith and religiously expressive -- the way he was in his eulogy for the Charleston nine, when he led a stadium full of people in singing “Amazing Grace"? Will the anti-Muslim statements of some 2016 presidential candidates subside as they aim for the middle toward the general elections? Or will voters' fears of terrorism cause candidates to double down on such talk?
Faith in America
Can evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, Mormons and others find a way to preserve their culture and traditions without being shunted to the margins of an increasingly secular society? Will progressive religious denominations keep losing adherents?
Physician-assisted dying will be a major legislative issue in several states in 2016, with a new right-to-die act taking effect in late spring in California. Will this issue follow the path of gay marriage legalization, overcoming opposition from conservative evangelicals and Catholics?
Minority faith in Europe and the Middle East
Will Sunni- and Shiite-led countries in the Middle East continue their age-old rivalry, and how will Christians and other minority sects fare? What will happen in Sudan, Nigeria and other religious borderlands of Africa? Will Europe be able to incorporate Muslim immigrants as full-fledged citizens in societies that prize individual over collective rights, or will they find themselves pushed to the margins?
Emptying pews as more young adults leave organized religion
Religiosity continues to decline across the U.S., several Pew Research Center polls suggest. And it is particularly precipitous among members of the millennial generation. Thirty-six percent of the youngest members of the millennial generation -- those between the ages of 18 and 24 -- eschew an affiliation with organized religion. That means that as baby boomers age and die, their ranks are not being replaced in churches, synagogues and mosques.
DIY religion is on the rise
Millennials are leaving organized religion not because they are uninterested in spirituality. Many are service-oriented and like to volunteer in projects to help the needy and increase the spiritual well-being of others. Often they are starting new organizations to do just that. Laundry Love and The Burrito Project are just two California-based examples of millennial love in action.
Evangelical acceptance of LGBT people will grow
Evangelicals are known for opposing gay marriage. But that's changing. More evangelical megachurches, such as EastLake Community Church outside Seattle and GracePointe Church in Nashville, support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians or are quietly moving in that direction. The changes are by no means universal, but anecdotal evidence suggests a growing shift aided by millennials such as Matthew Vines, founder of the Reformation Project; Brandan Robertson, national spokesperson for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality; and others.
More seminaries and theological schools will shutter
Andover Newton Theological School, America’s oldest graduate seminary, announced plans to relocate and sell its 20-acre campus in Newton, Mass. Then Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia announced plans to close and launch a new school of theology. The changes come as seminaries are slashing costs and adjusting to years of declining enrollments. The Association of Theological Schools reports an average drop in enrollments of nearly 24 percent since 2005. About 80 percent of the nation’s 100 mainline seminaries are likely to feel financial pressure and might consider revamping their models in years ahead, according to ATS Executive Director Daniel Aleshire.
(Jerome Socolovsky is editor-in-chief of RNS)