Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Juan Williams and the Realities of Post-9/11 America

The current dust-up over the firing of Juan Williams from NPR speaks to a major cultural matter in contemporary America. I would submit that when we consider such a major cultural matter, we ought to do so under the light of all its complexity — and not just “cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.”

Williams, who until recently was a news analyst for NPR, appeared before Bill O’Reilly and noted that it is wrong to paint all Muslims everywhere with one broad brush. Williams’ larger point was that one cannot simply say “Muslims” are the culprit for terrorist attacks, as O’Reilly had provocatively asserted on The View last week, during which co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set in protest. This larger point that Williams espoused (and with which most of us would agree) is unoffensive and accurate. But in the course of making this larger point, Williams honestly admitted to his own personal fear that when he is on a plane and he sees a passenger in “Muslim garb,” he does get “nervous” and “worried.”

As I interpreted the interview, Williams appeared not to be proud of this worry he feels during air travel, and he certainly did not present it as something that should be advocated. On the contrary, he brought it to the conversation in the context of realities that currently exist in the American psyche, whether rational or not, in the post-9/11 world. For this he was fired from NPR, without any opportunity to elucidate his comments further, while NPR’s CEO commented that his “offensive” statement was “between him and his psychiatrist.”

Immediately, while liberals flocked to their own corner and denounced Williams as a bigot who deserved to be fired, conservatives in turn flocked to their corner and hailed him as the voice of ordinary Americans, silenced by the tyrannical elitism of NPR, which should no longer receive any federal funding from Congress. Both corners are too extreme and fail to consider the complexities that are involved. [It should be noted that Whoopi Goldberg, who initiated the walk-out on O’Reilly, came to Williams’ defense and said that to fire him for his statement was outrageous.]. The NPR ombudsman, voicing the position of those calling for Williams’ blood, wrote: “What Williams said was deeply offensive to Muslims and inflamed, rather than contributing positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America. Williams was doing the kind of stereotyping in a public platform that is dangerous to a democracy.  It puts people in categories, as types – not as individuals with much in common despite their differences.”

I object to a number of these contentions, not because I am an apologist for a conservative perspective — far more often than not, I am solidly in a liberal camp — but because I believe these contentions are unfair and inaccurate, and blind to the reality of the “debate about the role of Muslims in America.” As for unfair and inaccurate, it seemed that Williams was not really advocating any stereotype about Muslims, or lumping all Muslims into one category (as O’Reilly had in fact done on The View). The context of Williams’ statements bears out that he was speaking about a non-rational personal fear, of which he might even have been ashamed — he was not speaking about Muslims. He was speaking about himself. To leap to the conclusion that he was investing in stereotypes and bigoted statements is disingenuous, and ignores the context of his words.

I have already argued with fervor that Muslims should be viewed and treated with the same respect and liberties as anyone else in this country, and that we must not ignore our founding principles of religious tolerance (for this, see my post, “More than Lip-Service for a Legacy”). Muslims in this country are entitled to the same religious respect and tolerance as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or anyone else. They do not constitute some alien group, and Islam is certainly the most misunderstood religion in our entire nation.

But this does not change the reality that 9/11 and its perpetrators permanently scarred the American psyche. We who lived through it will never be the same. The legacy of 9/11 continues to this day, in the war that we are fighting in Afghanistan and recently in Iraq, in our counter-terrorism measures, in beefed-up security, in our laws, and in our memories. We cannot escape from it. Terrorists claiming some warped version of Islam attacked us and continue to attack around the world. They attacked us while using Islam as an excuse, a flimsy justification for their barbaric actions. They could have picked any religion and done the same. We know this.

But the fact remains: we were attacked by lunatics wielding planes as weapons. The fantasy that NPR’s ombudsman, and those with the same feelings, insist that we all believe is that the cultural affiliation (however warped) of the 9/11 terrorists does not matter on any level. Either we each manage to forget their affiliation with radical Islam, so that it never affects us in any of our fears ever again, or we are bigots engaging in stereotypes and should lose our jobs. The terrorists’ affiliation with Islam must be excised from our minds. This, in terms of the actual functioning of our psyches, is a fantasy. It is a wonderful fantasy that we should all be able to divorce any association of Islam from the terrorists who attack us. But it is not the reality in this country, where the most tolerant person who knows right-left-and-sideways that “Muslim” does not equal “terrorist,” might still feel that pull of worry in some dark part of his or her brain while sitting on an airplane. It might only be fleeting, then smacked down for the irrational thing that it is, but it is there. And, whether we like it or not, it needs to be acknowledged because it is reality. It cannot be dealt with if it cannot be acknowledged.

NPR’s ombudsman says that Williams did not “[contribute] positively, to an important debate about the role of Muslims in America.” What, exactly, would have qualified as “contributing positively”? How are we supposed to have a “debate” in the true sense of the word — i.e., not a monologue that assumes we should all think the same thing — if we cannot admit to a perfectly explicable, although not rational, fear that was implanted by 9/11? How is any debate worth anything if honesty cannot be allowed, if all the participants must adhere to a rulebook written by only one of the parties? Some people have compared Williams’ statements to stereotypes about, for example, African Americans or any other group, saying that if he said something similar toward another group, no one would be defending him.

That is true, no one would be defending him, and rightly so. But we cannot be blind to reality, or we can never really have “an important debate” that is worth more than just the term itself. The wave of terrorism aimed against almost the entire world in the modern day does not associate itself with, e.g., African Americans. It associates itself with radical Islam, even though this form of Islam has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. We were attacked with planes. Thus it seems to me that we are allowed to be a little afraid on a plane, whether or not we think we really should be. We cannot realistically be expected simply to forget, deep in our psyches, the radical ideology that the terrorists espouse.

Psychologically, 9/11 scarred us. It is not just a slogan to say that we will never be the same. It is reality, just as the effects of that scarring are reality. Those effects are what Juan Williams honestly admitted to feeling sometimes on a plane. Instead of blindfolding ourselves and stopping up our ears, claiming to call for “positive contributions” to “an important debate” while Juan Williams is drawn and quartered, we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves if the rulebook for this “debate” includes honesty or not.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

More than Lip-Service for a Legacy

Anyone who follows the news knows that the topic of Islam in America has been a leading headline lately.  The word “Islamophobia” is popping up on various media outlets. A nationwide controversy exists over whether a New York Muslim community can have a mosque within an Islamic Center that would also include spaces  for members of other religions, including Christians. The Center would also include recreational spaces where people of various backgrounds could come together and get to know each other. But the controversy exists because the Center would be a few blocks from the Ground Zero of the horrific 9/11 attacks. It is worth noting that, as General Colin Powell stated on The View this morning, the plans for this Center had existed for quite some time without any uproar over it, until certain media outlets publicized the story. And one would have to be living in a cave not to have heard about the other major controversy: Terry Jones, the clearly attention-hungry pastor of a small church in Florida, plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Add to these the fact that a number of average Americans are becoming louder and louder about their broadbased anti-Muslim sentiments — no longer even feeling it necessary to couch anti-Muslim rhetoric in a veil of American religious tolerance — and it is no wonder some people fear that “Islamophobia” is getting to be a real problem in our country. The Washington Post came out with a poll saying 49% of Americans now have an unfavorable view toward Islam; mosques are becoming sporadic targets, with a mosque outside Fresno, CA having been vandalized more than once.

The broader issue in our society should not be about whether any given person “likes” or “dislikes” Islam as a religion, or whether a person is afraid of it or has any interest in it at all. All that should be secondary and is a private matter to each person. The issue at hand is about upholding the American Constitution and the legacy of freedom and tolerance of which Americans claim to be so proud. Upholding that legacy cannot merely be about lip service, or merely be about groups with which we identify or to which we belong. If we argue for the rights and human dignity of only those groups to which we ourselves belong, such clannishness hardly does honor to the American traditions we were all taught in school, and is hardly something for which we ought to pat ourselves on the back as inheritors of the American tradition.

Some people fear Islam as a “violent religion,” pointing to the horrifying events of 9/11 and the acts of terrorism that have occurred around the world since then. But the fear that Islam is in general a violent religion is typically born from a lack of real exposure to ordinary Muslims and what they believe, and how they live. I do not live in an area with a particularly high number of Muslims, but for whatever reason, there are still several people in my life who happen to be Muslim. They are ordinary families consisting of a husband, wife, and kids; regular people with regular family dynamics, not strange folk with opaque practices and sinister intents, but normal, kind people who are pleasant to be around and care about the same things my own family does. One of these families routinely gives us abundant produce from their own garden, and has shown us impeccable hospitality.

Do these families pray to God? Yes. Are they extremists? No, and whenever the subject has come up, they have unfailingly expressed frustration and dismay that the actions of terrorist extremists have tarnished and misrepresented ordinary Islam across the globe. One of them lamented to me that Islamic radicals espouse beliefs that are nowhere in the Qur’an and that are not properly Muslim, but rather part of local pre-existing cultures that would exist whether Islam were the local religion or not. Such radicals claim to act in the name of Islam, but in reality, act only according to their own criminal intent. In the words of one Muslim woman I know: “That is not Islam. They are not human. They are worse than animals.”

Indeed, if one takes a small effort to learn about Islam, one learns that Jesus and Mary are held in very high esteem in the Qur’an; this fact would surely surprise many Americans who hold blanket assumptions about the Qur’an. Jesus is not considered divine, but he is considered the greatest of the biblical prophets. If one takes a small effort, one learns that the Qur’an states: “Anyone who kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed the entire world; anyone who saves an innocent person, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” Such a doctrine is hardly in line with radical terrorist mentality.

But this should not surprise us. People have always and everywhere killed in the name of every religion, including Christianity. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that blighted Europe for centuries bear bloody witness to this. Were the killers on either side truly acting in the name of Christianity? No, they were acting in their own name, and justifying their own intent by trying to wield a religious motivation. When Jesus said, “I come bringing not peace, but a sword,” it was not an admonishment for his followers to go out and slaughter people; it was a recognition that his movement would change things in a way that, at least in this world, had the potential to introduce havoc and conflict. And it did.

The Qur’an is not a terrorist tract, but if the pastor in Florida insists on burning it, he will galvanize terrorists who use it as a front for their own murderousness. He will feed terrorism, and give the terrorists another reason to attack both us and innocent people abroad, including our troops. But I suspect that perhaps he does not care about that; he does, after all, now have an international stage, and has tapped into a fear that is bubbling close to the surface in this country. This morning, an otherwise friendly and rational person suggested to me that maybe Muslims in America should just live in their own areas, separate from the rest of us, leave us alone, and never the twain should meet. This person did not seem to realize that without groups having real, everyday-life exposure to one another, there is nothing to dispel misunderstanding and fear of the other. And then mistrust and violence receive a blank check.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Postscript: Since this writing, the media has reported that Terry Jones, the pastor of the Florida church, has canceled his book-burning.