January 17, 2016
I’ve spent a fair amount of time of late trying to make sense of the Islamic State and the Sunni/Shia schism. I’ve been reading the Quran, reading the history of Islam and watching the news. The acts of barbarism, terrorism and subjugation of: women, minorities and dissenting opinions, is appalling in a way, and on a scale, that most of us can barely comprehend. I personally find their use of religious text as a justification of horrible deeds highly objectionable.
To be sure the Quran has some truly objectionable content.
Consider these passages:
“Then I heard God say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.””
“Make ready to slaughter [the infidel’s] sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants.”
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves [as slaves].”
I could go on with other examples, but I’m sure you get my point.
These and many other similar passages were on the lips of those who on August 24th , using the opportunity of the presence of an opposing sect’s leaders at a wedding slaughtered those leaders and another 3000 men, women, and children of that sect while they slept. Atrocious, despicable, condemnable.
The only problem is that those passages are not from the Quran. They are from this book, the Bible, and it wasn’t Shia that were massacred it was protestants at the hands of Catholics on Aug. 24th in 1572 in Paris. In fact, the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre kicked of a 2 month long purge of Protestants across France that left 70,000 protestants dead. Of course this wasn’t the first time that schismatic sects of Christianity butchered each other or others. During the 30 years war between the Catholics and the Protestants 40% of the population of Germany was wiped out, … 40%, and don’t get me started about the Crusades, the butchering of the pagans and heretics, the witch burnings, the Inquisition, the countless massacres and expulsions of Jews, and the tragedy of Northern Ireland. The history of our faith has been very bloody indeed, and yes these atrocities were all committed with the words from our Bible and a certainty of the voracity of those words, on the lips of the perpetrators
The Bible contains no fewer than 842 such violent or cruel passages. The Quran in contrast has a mere 333.
When I completed confirmation class I received a bible called “the Way”. I actually never like the idea of “the way” It comes of course from John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” which as you probably could guess is another historical favorite for those committing atrocities in the name of the Christian God. I would have preferred receiving a Bible called “a way” or perhaps “another way”.
Part of the Bible does define another way. One of the last schisms described in the Bible was Paul’s split from the Jerusalem Assembly and his foundation of what is known now as the Hellenistic tradition. He transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect into something new and argued that Jesus represented a ”new way” and that it was no longer necessary to follow many of the laws of the Old Testament defined in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and elsewhere. Many of of those laws were alien, irrelevant, and objectionable to the new Christian community. This morning’s reading from 1st Corinthians “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord” is illustrative of this more pluralistic “new way”.
The East-West schism, the reformation of Martin Luther, the Anglican schism and any of the other 20 or so great schisms of Christianity all defined “new ways”. But perhaps the most the most profound “another way” reformation, and quite probably the most important one to consider in the context of the increasing small planet which we share, is not on that list of historical reformations. It is the reformation of modernism. The British innovation of civil society and rule of law and the institutional infrastructure: legal, governmental and educational, to support them, and the codification of many of these ideas in documents such as the US Constitution with its strict separation of Church and State, laid the foundation for a functional pluralistic society.
You see, the laws of Moses and The Sharia Law were written for very different people a long time ago in a very different situation. Those people didn’t have a system of common law and a system of law enforcement and adaptive adjudication. They also didn’t have the pressures of population density and resource constraint or the efficiencies of modern travel that have brought peoples of different cultures and traditions into close contact with each other.
The idea of “The Way”, and “The Law” made sense thousands of years ago when you were trying to bind clans and small kingdoms together in ancient lands. It made sense when populations were not very mobile and you didn’t have the luxury of a modern system of law and justice.
The ISIS problem is fundamentally about 4 things. It is first and foremost about religion and the schism between the Shia and Sunni traditions. Some have called the followers of ISIS un-Islamic and indeed it is very tempting do do so, especially if you love and respect Islam for all of its many fine attributes. This is unfortunately disingenuous and wrong. The leaders and followers of the ISIS movement are deeply Muslim. Every much as Muslim as Catherine de’ Medici, the architect of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre was Catholic. The particular flavor of Sunnism that ISIS follows, believes in “the Prophetic methodology”. They adhere to a very strict interpretation of the Prophet’s words and deeds. The Quran and Hadith actually do say what ISIS says it says and they are interpreting it in ways that are very arguably consistent with the original meaning and context. This traditional interpretation of Islam’s core texts and the Sharia Law derived there from, and their strongly held belief that those texts and that Law is divine and inerrant (without error), leads them to some inevitable conclusions that are at very least, logically consistent with those beliefs. Perhaps the most important implication is that they view Shiism as representing innovation, and that any innovation on the Quran implies a denial of it’s initial perfection. It follows then that all 200 million Shia’s are apostates and should be marked for death according to the Quran. Most Infidels and certainly all Islamic leaders and governmental officials, deniers of the prophet’s words in the case of the former and holding themselves above Gods dominion in the case of the later, should be similarly marked. They view this as God’s mandate as laid out in the Prophet’s words.
Secondly the ISIS problem is about territory, power and the establishment of a Caliphate. ISIS needs territory to have a Caliphate. And once a Caliphate is established and declared they believe all Muslims are compelled to make their way to the Caliphate’s territory with all due haste. Once you are in the Caliphate you should never leave it. This is why the idea of ISIS sending terrorists abroad is unlikely. They will, it should be noted, certainly incite those who have not as yet, or are unable, made their way to the Caliphate, to commit acts of terrorism, to kill the infidels, and provoke the west.
Which brings me to the third issue: the fulfillment apocalyptic prophesy. They believe that prophesy predicts a great war between Muslims and the “armies of Rome” which they interpret as “the west”. They believe that the great battle will take place in the city of Dabiq near the northern Syrian boarder. They keep on poking us with a very sharp stick because they are bent on provoking the west into a conflict on the ground at Dabiq. They believe this conflict will usher in the end of days when God will come to earth.
Lastly, the ISIS conflict is about a struggle with modernism. Modernism is the inevitable force that traditionalism always runs into. Yes, it is a threat to traditional ways but those traditional ways may no longer be relevant or appropriate in a world where people of different religions and cultures coexist and intermingle.
There is a need to find another way. As I already pointed out, the texts of Islam are not unique in their advocacy of violence, slavery and the persecution of infidels. These proscriptions exist a plenty in the texts of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, the Quran inherited many of its ideas from Jewish and Christian texts. These passages really do mean what they appear to mean, in the historical and cultural context in which they were written.
This leaves us with a real challenge, one that pits faith against logic. In building modern “reformed” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, many have put logic before faith and in doing so defined a new faith, a new way. One that, believes that those text were written edited and translated by people with a particular agenda for a very different people in a very different circumstance. As such, we have to step back from a literalist and inerrant view of those texts, discard those parts that are irrelevant or abhorrent in a modern context and find new ways of constructively applying those inspirational and motivational passages to our modern lives.
If our faith demands that we hold on to a divine and inerrant view of religious texts, then at the very least we must appreciate that God meant those words for a different people in a different time and in a different place, and they are not necessarily relevant to the very different context of our modern world. This concept is fundamental to any reformation that is consistent with a pluralistic modern society.
There is an old story about a criminal who was brought before a king for sentencing. The king told him he had a choice of two punishments. He could be hung by a rope or take what’s behind the big, dark, scary, iron door. The criminal quickly decided on the rope. As the noose was being slipped around his neck, he turned to the king and asked. “By the way, out of curiosity, what’s behind that door?” The king laughed and said: “You know, it’s funny, I offer everyone the same choice, and nearly everyone picks the rope.” “So,” said the criminal, “Tell me. What’s behind the door? I mean, its not as if I’m going to tell anyone.” The king paused then answered, “Freedom, but it seems most people are so afraid of the unknown that they immediately take the rope.”
We live in a culture of fear. Our political leaders and those aspiring to leadership remind us constantly of the many existential threats that pervade our daily lives. I am so discouraged by daily barrage of dire warnings about the many threats that I should be scared of. Of course fear is a powerful motivator. It is seated deep in our primitive brains. Political and religious leadership have wielded it violently for most of our history to great effect.
Fear stems from ignorance and the unknown. The bigotry and racism that Martin Luther King Jr worked so hard to erase, was born out of ignorance and fear of the unknown. Dr. King had a dream. A dream where people’s eyes and ears and hearts would be opened up. A dream where people wouldn’t fear other peoples of different colors and creeds, and religious beliefs but instead recognize their commonalities and celebrate their differences. A dream where people recognized the potential of those differences. A dream of another way.
I have, as I know many of you here have, been very distressed about the tragedy of the refugee situation in Syria. The men, women and children caught in a bloody civil war and threatened by unspeakable brutality have endured terrible danger and peril trying to survive.
I’m struck, dismayed, and embarrassed by the contrasts in responses to this tragedy. Despite the lofty words on the pedestal of that statue in the bay at the mouth of the Hudson river our response to the tragedy has been shameful when contrasted to other wealthy countries. Canada with one tenth of our population has committed to taking in more than twice as many refugees as we were even considering. The attitudes of Germany and Sweden and France and many other countries put us to shame. I was awestruck in seeing a news video of the president of France, just a few days after the tragedy of Paris bombings, speaking to an auditorium filled with many hundreds of mayors from all of France’s major cities, reaffirming Frances commitment to take in large numbers of refugees. On the same day many aspirants to our country’s highest office were telling us that refugees would come and kill our children in their beds and demanding that our relatively meager Syrian refugee program be shut down completely.
I think often of FDR’s words in 1933: “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”…. Paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Well there are “needed efforts” that must resist paralysis. We need to reject our base fears and ignorance. We need to engage in constructive dialog from which we aspire to learn. We need to accept, and hopefully embrace, pluralistic modernism and appreciate its enormous potential. We must support a continuous reformation in our and other churches and faiths. Reformation that understands the historical and cultural context of much of our religious texts and can leave certain passages and practices in the past where they belong while adapting other passages to support and nurture our modern lives. We must recognize the wisdom of, on one the one hand, strict separation of church and state, and on the other, respect for religious freedoms. At the same time, we must accept that those religious freedoms have limits and do not extend to infringing on the freedoms and rights of other peoples. We must think critically and recognize when we are being manipulated. We must understand before we condemn. We must condemn when appropriate, and only when such condemnation is based on reason and not fear.
The ISIS problem, the refugee problem and the deep seated problems of race and bigotry will not be solved overnight, but if we approach them with open minds and hearts, an eagerness to understand and engage, and a respect for other points of view, we may yet find “another way”. I pray it is so.