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

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.