Saturday, September 11, 2010

Religion and Violence

I have a sermon suggestion box in the back of my church. Parishioners put their questions on cards or slips of paper and put them in the box. On the last Sunday of the month I randomly draw one out. The next Sunday I preach on it. Colleagues have told me I'm brave. I reply that I have a good library and access to the Internet. Christianity is 2000 years old and most of the questions have been posed and variously answered by others. In a week I should be able to research and craft at least an adequate answer. This topic was drawn, believe it or not, just 2 weeks ago and this is the sermon I gave last week. It it amazingly appropriate for this day. 

Today is the 9th anniversary of the acts of destruction committed by Al Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s probably also a major reason why many atheists have gotten so outspoken about the dangers of religion. Most rational people cannot understand how someone could do something so horrible as to fly planes full of innocent passengers into buildings full of innocent people and kill oneself in the process. And most atheists really don't understand religion (in the way that some people really don't understand opera or poetry or the attraction of certain sports.) Since this outrage was done in the name of a religion, atheists have said, “Ah, ha! That explains it! These two irrational things, religion and indiscriminant  violence, must go together. Eliminate one and the other will likewise disappear.”  Never mind that suicide bombing was created by the Tamil Tigers, a non-religious terrorist group entirely motivated by the desire to create a politically separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Until recently they produced more suicide bombers than Muslim extremists did. Islamic insurgents got the idea from this secular movement. The notion that eliminating religion will stop people from harming each other is as naive as a new parent thinking that if she just takes a disputed toy away from squabbling children, they will get along. As beautiful as John Lennon's song “Imagine” is, I can't imagine how any observant father could believe its central conceit, that conflict comes exclusively from external sources. 

That said, our sermon suggestion wants to know “why Islam allows the promotion of violence against opposing views?” To explore that question, we need to look at the history of  Islam.

Muhammad was a poor orphan who married the wealthy widow he worked for. When he was 40, he said that the angel Gabriel had come to him as he meditated in a cave and told him to read. He protested that he couldn't read. Each time he said that he was seized with pain until he asked what he should read. The angel recited several verses of what became the Quran, which means “the Reading” or “the Recital.” Since he was illiterate, Muhammad had to ask others to write down the verses as he recited them. Over 23 years, through dreams and visions, Muhammad recited more than 6000 verses and 114 chapters. Since these revelations continued up to the last month of his life, some of these reflect situations he was encountering. And a lot of what he encountered was violent opposition.

Muhammad’s message that there was only one God was not well received by the tribes of Mecca. They did not want to give up their gods and surrender (the meaning of “Islam”) to Allah (previously a generic term for deity, like our "god.") After 2 years of being persecuted, Muhammad’s entire clan was exiled to a barren valley, miles from the city, to starve. His wife sickened and died. The Christian king of Abyssinia accepted many Muslims as refugees. Eventually, Muslims were permitted to return to Mecca. More than a decade later, Muhammad's powerful uncle and protector died. Getting wind of an assassination plot against their leader, the Muslims fled to Medina where there were already many converts. The first mosque was built in Medina, while Muhammad wrote the city charter, and received revelations concerning civil and criminal laws , as well as social rules.

Fearing the growing power of Medina, the tribes of Mecca launched a number of invasions and guerilla attacks against the rival city and the growing faith of Islam. After a series of desperate battles, the Muslims managed to defeat superior forces and take Mecca. In the last 2 years of his life, Muhammad conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula, united its tribes, and held off the Byzantine and Persian empires. After his last pilgrimage to Mecca, he died of a fever, his head cradled in the lap of his favorite wife.

As you can see, much of Muhammad's religious life was occupied not only with spiritual matters but with tribal warfare. Also within the lands he ruled were Christians and Jews, who initially approved of his stance against idolatry and for monotheism. So some verses of the Quran honor the other two Abrahamic faiths, reflecting the times when their followers were his allies.

However, the Quran retells key stories of the old Testament, some drastically altered, holding that the Bible does not contain the authentic writings of the Hebrew prophets. As for Jesus, he is given the title of Messiah but is not considered divine since Islam holds that it is not like Allah to have a son. They all take second place to Muhammad, God's last and greatest prophet. So after first finding acceptance by Jews and Christians, Islam was eventually rejected by the majority of them. This opposition and perceived betrayal is reflected in other verses of the Quran. It is these passages that give militant Muslims plenty of ammunition when they want to attack infidels, especially if they ignore the verses that speak of living in peace with Christians and Jews.

During the Middle Ages, Islamic civilizations dominated northern Africa and the Middle East. As caliphs ruled large empires, they found themselves with large urban populations of Christians and Jews. Provided these non-Muslims paid a special tax and did not seek to make converts, they were usually protected from persecution. Like most successful empires reigning over diverse peoples and cultures, the Islamic ones became more tolerant. This was reflected in medieval Muslim scholarship and their commentaries on the Quran and the Hadith,  a collection of stories about the prophet's life and sayings which is another source of Islamic doctrines.

It was this more relaxed version of Islam that was challenged by the 18th century scholar, Muhammad Ibn-al-Wahhab. He wanted to return to a stricter interpretation of the primary texts. He incited his followers to end the veneration of Muslim saints and to level their elaborate tombs. He also brought back disused practices such as the stoning of adulterous women. Two of his students were brothers of Ibn Saud, whose descendants would conquer and rule Saudi Arabia. Saudi royalty funded the building of Wahhabi religious schools  throughout the Muslim world, spreading this fundamentalist version of the faith and influencing most militant Muslims.

Like fundamentalists of all ideologies, Wahhabi Muslims pick and choose which parts of  their source documents to emphasize and which to turn a blind eye towards. Thus warlike passages are highlighted whereas verses that prohibit killing women, children and non-combatants are ignored or torturously reinterpreted. Certain terms are redefined or their meanings narrowed. The best known is the word "jihad." It simply means “struggle." and in the Middle Ages, a distinction was drawn between the Lesser Jihad or warfare and the Greater Jihad or one's personal struggle to surrender to God. But today the first thing that comes to mind when we hear “jihad” is "Holy War." Similarly, a “fatwa” is simply a religious ruling on any matter but it has come to mean, popularly, a call for the death of someone, like Salman Rushdie, for offending Muslim sensibilities.

And as they do with Christian fundamentalists, the media focuses on their colorful and controversial pronouncements more than the teachings of more mainstream and moderate Muslims.

We have a similar problem in Christianity. Some preachers emphasize parts of the Old Testament that chronicle the wars of the ancient kingdom of Israel and try to apply them to modern America. Others relish the violent imagery of the Book of Revelation, a work steeped in symbols, choosing to to interpret some parts literally when it suits their agendas. They also read into it things that aren't there, like a battle of Armagedon or non-existent references to Christians fighting. Thus a book that was meant to send a message of comfort to persecuted Christians, coded to disguise it from their oppressors, is instead perverted into a call to fight God's battles for him.

To those looking for excuses for violence in the New Testament, today's Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) provides plenty of fodder. Some cults take Jesus' words literally, rather that recognize them for the Semitic idiom they are. “Hate” is a hyperbolic way of saying “love less” and is used in the same way in other parts of the Bible.  Jesus is heightening the offensiveness of what he says to make a point. In a culture in which parents were all powerful, and family loyalty was of the highest priority, for Jesus to say that his disciples must love him more than these was outrageous. He might as well say that they were to hate their families or tribes. It was the same thing as far as they were concerned.

But aside from giving him top priority,Jesus doesn't say we should do anything hateful to others. Unlike Muhammad Jesus never led an army or killed anyone. He told his disciples to put up the sword when they tried to stop his arrest. Jesus gives no sanction to those who choose not to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. His command is unique: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

It’s easy to get people to hate others. And, because religion is about things of Ultimate Value, it is a common leadership technique to invoke God's name when you really want to motivate people. Tell them that what you are asking them to do is God's will. Tell them that those who oppose what you are doing are God's enemies. It works really well. Especially if you demonize them. Especially if you neglect to mention that they, too, are created in God's image. Especially if you care more about your righteous objectives than about people as the rightful objects of God's love and redemption. 

The Quran has no New Testament, no volume that goes beyond the early tribal turmoil that gave birth to the faith and conceived of a spiritual Kingdom of God, separate from and superior to the kingdoms of this world. Politics and war are part and parcel of the holy book of Islam.

It’s not that different for other religions. The most typical role of religion is to bless society's status quo. I remember seeing an old newsreel of a Russian Orthodox priest walking past a row of the Czar's soldiers on horseback, sprinkling them with holy water, literally blessing the instruments of war. That parallels the rituals radical Muslim terrorists enact before going out to kill non-Muslims, or Muslims of a different school of thought. Extremist Hindus and Jews similarly justify killing in the name of God.

Christianity ought to be different. Jesus did not kill his religious enemies and neither did his disciples. For the first 300 years, Christianity was not a legally recognized religion in the Roman empire and so at times it was severely persecuted. Unfortunately, things changed when it was made the official religion of the empire and later, of almost all the nations in the West. But there have always been those who remember what is distinctive about Christianity and and who seek to revive those features when they are in danger of being forgotten: things like God's loving nature and forgiveness and our call to imitate Christ, Love Incarnate. These reformers bring the church back to its basic values whenever it threatens to become just another religion.        

Islam is not unique in its susceptibility to be used for violence. No ideology, religious or secular, is. Jesus is unique in his command to love even our enemies and to repay evil with good.. And when that command has been obeyed, by folks like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale and others, the world has been changed.  We need to heed God's call to treat all people as if they were Christ until the day when it is unthinkable to kill anyone in the name of God.

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