Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Faith By the Sword

Pope Benedict XVI stirred up a hornet’s nest last week, quoting an obscure Byzantine emperor’s 14th-century critique of Islam. In a talk before academics at Germany’s University of Regensburg, where he taught theology in the 70s, the pope cited the emperor’s claim that the Islam of that day sought to spread its faith “by the sword.” The emperor held that it was unreasonable to spread faith by violence, because violence is incompatible with the nature of God. Reactions by Muslims in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia have included street protests, burning the pope in effigy, torching Catholic churches, and warning the pope on the Internet, “You and the West are doomed.”

There is a widely-held consensus that the pope seriously miscalculated how his remarks would be received. Thus far he has not told us exactly what reaction he desired. Evidently he hoped to start a dialogue about spreading faith by the sword—a discussion perhaps about the possibility, the viability, the propriety, the rationality, the sanity, eventually the survivability of people doing violence in the name of God. Such a discussion is long past due.

But why he thought it beneficial to single out Islam as a religion which has perpetrated violence—when it is quite clear historically that other world religions, among them Christians and Jews, have done the same—will remain a mystery, and fodder for the most paranoid of conspiracy theorists, until the pope explains himself. He would have done better admitting candidly that Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical Christians have also done violence in God’s name, and that all world religions need to resist that tendency and call it what it is: idolatry, not faith in the living God.

Whether Benedict struck a nerve unintentionally or not, the episode could move faith relations forward in ways he did not foresee.

The reaction on the Muslim street has done little to dispel the perception that Islam believes in spreading faith by violence. As Turin political scientist Gian Enrico Rusconi wrote in La Stampa, “It is tragic that the reactions of the offended Islamists have translated into exactly the kind of violence that [the pope] was attempting to exorcise.” In this way it paralleled the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons which associated Islam’s Prophet with terrorism. The cartoonists were not innocent of deliberately trying to provoke rage, and for that they were rightly chastised.

But if the cartoons had a valid point, was it not that since at least the 1940s the world has witnessed Muslims attempting to spread faith by the sword? Inflicting terror on religious opponents by fire-bombing bus loads of civilians; indiscriminately blowing airplanes out of the sky; flying planes into World Trade Center towers populated by males and females of several ages, races, cultures and religions; Shiites blowing up Sunnis; Sunnis blowing up Shiites: are these not attempts to spread faith by the sword?

And now ranting that the pope is worse than the cartoonists because as the leader of a universal church his disrespect for the Prophet is unpardonably more disrespectful; threatening him with death because he said something more clumsily than he should have; burning Catholic churches and shooting Catholic nuns: does this not look very much like spreading faith by the sword?

At the very least, the reaction suggests that Islam needs work in this area. I have already stipulated that Islam is not alone in this. And the most learned commentators are always quick to distinguish Muslims who reject the idea that their faith should be spread by violence from radical Islamists who embrace it. Yet the fact is that among world religions today, Islam has done least to condemn violence in God’s name and least to prevent its adherents from doing violence in God’s name. Given the multiplicity of ways Islam is structured, restraining radical Islamists may be a particular challenge for moderate Muslims. Islam has no pope or synod or annual convention to outlaw perversions of the moderate Muslims’ faith. But that does not relieve Muslims of the responsibility to condemn and shun and block those in their midst who believe God commands them to kill, or to take steps to prevent that position from being taught to children in Muslim schools and adults in Muslim places of worship. If there were a long list of Muslim groups conspicuous for those efforts, the radical Islamists would have a much harder time pulling off the pretense that theirs is the true Islam.

Nor does the difficulty of controlling the radical Islamists give moderate Muslims license to become fanatical—as some have—when the leader of a church which has consistently tried to promote peace for the last several decades makes statements they know to be true within some limits, but fails to specify the limits as clearly or productively as he should have. How he said it needs to be challenged and reformed. What he said needs to be the subject of serious theological analysis and discussion.

It would be useful if all of the world religions would take this opportunity to step back from dogmatism and denunciation, and apply to faith what Alfred North Whitehead said of other cultural divisions: “The differences between the nations and the races of mankind are required to preserve the conditions under which higher development is possible… Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are Godsends. Men require of their neighbors something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration. We must not expect, however, all the virtues. We should even be satisfied if there is something odd enough to be interesting.”

Godsends. Given the religious strife the world has endured for generations now, droves of believers buying that concept is probably too much to expect. But the survival of the only planet known to be inhabited by God’s children eventually hangs in the balance. The use of weapons of mass destruction as the final sword to spread faith is a nightmare some of us may live to see. Distancing God from swords is our only hope. May God help us all.

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