Christians in Muslim Shoes

The horrible, tragic events in Norway last week reminded us that extremism and violence can come from unexpected people.  When news of the bombing in Oslo first broke, there was an immediate assumption across all the various media outlets that certainly this crime had been perpetrated by Islamic extremists.  When news of the greater tragedy emerged – the terrible shooting-spree that killed dozens of young people on a nearby island – and it was reported that the shooter looked like a Norwegian police officer, people began to question whether it was indeed the act of Islamist terrorists.

Now we know that the Norwegian citizen who committed these crimes, devastating lives and disturbing the conscience of a nation, had no connection with Islam at all.  He was acting on a much different set of beliefs, and he claimed the identity of “Christian.”

There were a number of Christian folks who responded by appropriately pointing out that this man’s actions were not Christian at all, that no follower of Christ could ever legitimately commit such actions in the name of the “Prince of Peace.”  These are my thoughts exactly, of course.  There is nothing Christian at all in this man’s behavior or thinking.  And I realized, as I listened to one news report who was interviewing someone making this point, that this is exactly how members of the Muslim community must have felt in the aftermath of 9/11:  the people who committed these actions do not represent our faith.

It would seem, then, that those of us in the Christian world find ourselves in the shoes that have long been occupied now by our Muslim brothers and sisters:  of having to defend our faith by making it clear that the actions of a violent terrorist do not represent who we are or what we stand for.  There is a huge discrepancy, however, that separates our need to do that from the effort of the vast majority of the Muslim community to do the same for their faith:  most people believe us.

Christianity is far more known in the Western world than Islam, and so there are far more people willing to understand that this man’s actions represent an aberration rather than what the Christian faith is about.  Yet Islam is far less known, and because it represents to us an “other” that Christianity does not, a great number of people are not willing to believe members of the Islamic community when they try to tell us what their faith is really about.  And so while we Christians may have found ourselves stepping into the shoes of our Muslim neighbors, the path we walk in those shoes is very different.

People may object that “Muslim” terrorists are far more prevalent and have committed more violence than “Christian”ones, but we should not be mistaken:  there are “Christian” terrorists in the world, but they largely operate outside our field of vision, in places like Africa, where a group called “The Lord’s Army” has been presiding over a reign of terror for years.  In his book, The Next Christendom:  The Coming Global Christianity published in 2002, Philip Jenkins argues in disturbing terms that in years to come, “Christian” terrorism may well become far more of a problem in the world than “Muslim” terrorism.

We need to learn the lesson well:  none of the world’s religious traditions condone the kind of violence that shattered lives in Oklahoma City in the 1990s, took down the Twin Towers on 9/11 or destroyed peace and lives in Norway last week.  Yet, there are always those whose own twisted minds and spirits would use the sacred to justify their profane acts of violence.  All people of faith, regardless of the tradition from which we come, should stand together to celebrate the authentic heart of our sacred traditions and against those who would twist them into something ugly and heartless.

Subversive Christians

In a sense, I think that the Christian community – at least, a portion of that community – is in the process of returning to its roots.  For the first three centuries or so of the church’s life, Christians were seen as a subversive presence within the Roman Empire.  But this was not simply because the Roman authorities defined them that way:   it was a definition that the early followers of Jesus claimed for themselves.

We have become quite accustomed to the language of the New Testament because it has always been a part of the world as we have known it.  However, we largely fail these days to appreciate where this language comes from.  We speak of the “kingdom of God”, we call Jesus “Lord” and “Savior”, and we fill those terms with meaning yet we usually don’t stop to think about how these terms would have been heard by the earliest members of the Christian community.

While we think of the “Roman Empire”, that is not the way Rome talked about itself.  They understood themselves to be the “Kingdom of Rome”, and so when Jesus and his followers talked about the kingdom of God this would have been readily understood as a challenge to Roman power and to the vision of life that the Kingdom of Rome offered.  In this context, following Jesus is seen as counter-cultural and subversive:  it meant a choice to follow a set of values and commitments that stood in opposition to the values and commitments of the Roman world.

Likewise, when the early church named Jesus as “Lord” and “Savior”, they were using titles that belonged to someone else:  they belonged to Caesar, to the Emperor of Rome who was called the Lord and Savior of the Roman people.  Again, this would not have been lost on those who lived in that world:  just as the kingdom of God was an alternative vision and reality to the Kingdom of Rome, so was Jesus an alternative to the Roman emperor.

The power of that emperor to act as Lord and Savior came from the might of Rome’s military.  The Pax Romana, or the Peace of Rome, was achieved through force, brutality and repression.  Jesus offered a different kind of lordship, and the peace of Christ which passed all understanding was achieved through a much different means than the Peace of Rome.

So the early Christians understood themselves in subversive terms:  they were choosing to live a different kind of life, a counter-cultural kind of life, a life that sought to subvert the material wealth and military force of Rome.  Of course, in the fourth century, Rome and the church got together, and Christians lost touch with their subversive side and, slowly but surely, took on the path and the power of the Roman state.

Today, in  Europe and North America, that alliance between power and the Christian community is breaking down, though there are a good many Christians who struggle to hold on to it.  Increasingly, Christians are beginning to rediscover the subversive power of the Gospel, contained within those ancient terms.  The way of Christ, the kingdom of God, does represent an alternative vision to the cultural world in which we live.  And it isn’t a vision described by narrow, rigid moralism as so many seem to think.  It is a vision characterized by humility, inclusion, wholeness, generosity, justice, abundance and healing.   Increasingly, many who seek to follow Christ today see that they are being called to walk to a different tune than the one that dominates in our world.

There will always be those who will want to ally the kingdom of God with the power of the state, to exchange the expansive moral vision of the Gospel for a narrow, individual, rigid and lifeless personal moralism.   But despite the press this kind of Christianity constantly receives, it is, I think, losing its power.   And Christianity is also losing its privileged position in society.  And that, in the end, may be what leads us to recover the subversive power of the Gospel.

Faith & Critical Thought

I recently read a review of a book entitled, Heaven is For Real, which I had not heard of before but has apparently made the New York Times Bestseller List.   The review was written by Dr. Lloyd Sederer, who is the Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health.   He wasn’t very impressed with the book, which purports to recount a journey into heaven made by a little boy while he was undergoing surgery.  It does seem problematic:  the boy has shared the details of this over a long period of time, providing plenty of space for it to become more elaborated.  His account also seems to have almost nothing in common with the many recorded accounts of other near death experiences, and is filled with imagery that seems to be sourced from the religious imagery with which the boy has grown up.  What I really want to focus on here, however, is not the boy’s story, but an almost off-hand comment made by Dr. Sederer toward the end of his review:  “I have no quarrel with the success of this book. It has touched the hearts of many people. But it asks us to suspend our critical thinking. That is what faith is about” (the review appears on The Huffington Post religion page).

It troubles me greatly – though it doesn’t really surprise me – that Dr. Sederer defines faith as being a suspension of critical thinking.  It is a sign of the way in which so many religious people, aided by public media, have distorted the meaning of faith to such a degree that it is seen by increasing numbers of people as being incompatible with critical thought.  This is not the way faith has been understood or defined for most of religious history; this is a relatively new idea, but it is one which has become dominant in our time.

The same week I read this review, I also happened to finish reading a book by Marcus Borg entitled, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored.  It is an excellent book that speaks powerfully to just this problem:  the way in which Christian ideas and language are increasingly losing their credibility with so many people because they have come to be defined in ways that simply don’t make sense to people.  Borg suggests that there are really two things that lie at the root of this problem:  the fact that so much of Christianity is understood from a “heaven-and-hell” perspective and that the Bible is seen by so many from a “historical-factual” perspective.

There isn’t space here to present all of what Borg has to say (read his book!).  He does argue that Christianity is not primarily about getting to heaven in the afterlife, and presents persuasive arguments based on the Bible to support that assertion.  Christianity, he argues, is really about a personal transformation that begins in this life.  He also argues that the Bible should be approached from a “historical-metaphorical” perspective, which gets away from trying to see it as a collection of facts and instead tries to get at its deeper meaning, conveyed largely through metaphorical language and involving an appreciation of the historical contexts in which the biblical books were originally written.

When it comes to the matter of faith, Borg points out that historically, faith has not been understood as subscribing to a set of beliefs (and holding to them despite all available evidence!) but that the word really indicates deep trust and allegiance.  He writes, “Faith is a much deeper movement of the heart, of the self at its deepest level.  Christian faith is allegiance to and trust in God as known in Jesus” (p. 124).  This understanding of faith does not make it incompatible with critical thinking.  Rather, it functions in partnership with critical thinking to bring us into connection with a deeper meaning that critical thinking alone cannot achieve.  Humanity has “grown up” with both of these ways of knowing, and we reach the fullness of our humanity only when we can continue to hold onto both.  Religion-oriented people need to stop trying to assert things as “matters of faith” that are plainly incompatible with what science shows us about the world and the universe, and science-oriented people need to stop seeing religion as little more than superstition.  Both have important, profound things to teach us about ourselves, our universe and the Source of each.


Expansive Heroism

Our annual celebration of July 4th usually gets us thinking about heroes and heroism.   In America these days, it seems that there are only about four kinds of people who are given the title of Hero publicly:  members of the military, firefighters, police officers and paramedics (those who have been grouped together as “first responders” since 9/11).   Now, let me be clear:  I have no problem whatsoever calling any of these people heroes.   Members of the military, along with their families, make real sacrifices to fulfill their vocations and, implicit with that vocation, is the willingness to make “the ultimate sacrifice” in situations which may cost them their lives.   Many of them also pay a heavy price in terms of sacrificing their psychological and spiritual well-being as a result of being exposed to the kind of violence that is at the heart of warfare.

First responders, too, make sacrifices to fulfill their vocations.   Some of them always have to be on duty no matter what holiday we may be observing, and they may be required to run into burning buildings to save us, stare down the barrel of a gun wielded by some kind of thug or hold someone’s life in their hands while they rush them to the hospital.  This, too, is a kind of heroism that is worthy of our respect.

What troubles me is not the attention paid to these heroes, but the way in which we restrict the definition of hero to only people who fill these kinds of roles.  What about other kinds of heroes?  Like the single mother who can barely make ends meet and has no one to help her with her kids but who carries on with life, holding down a job and getting her bills paid and raising her children.   Or like the homeless man who seemingly has no hope but who continues to put one foot in front of the other day after day and find some reason to live.  Or the person caught in depression who can hardly function but who finds a way to make it through the next hour believing, despite any evidence that she can see, that someday the depression will be better.  Or the alcoholic who has found his way to sobriety and works his 12 steps and goes regularly to AA, knowing that his life would be utterly set back to square one were he to take so much as one drink in a moment of weakness.

The list, of course, could go on and on.  These are the everyday heroes who live life in the face of hardship and struggle and suffering.  These everyday heroes could be added to the other everyday heroes who don’t make the news but who make the world better by doing what they do:  teaching, taking care of kids, removing our garbage and recycling every week, catching rats who have taken up residence under our houses.  The list indeed could go on and on.

Jesus was always making heroes of people who didn’t get recognized as being particularly heroic.  He recognized the heroism of the poor, of the oppressed, of the marginalized and disenfranchised.  He celebrated the heroism of the sick and of those whom others classified as unclean.    To all of them he said over and over again, “Blessed are you….blessed are you…blessed are you.”

Now that we have finished our July 4th celebrations and recognized our public heroes, perhaps we can celebrate the everyday heroes who live under the national radar but whose lives are no less heroic than those who receive our public honors.   How might we celebrate?  By simply taking a a moment to say, “Thank you.  I admire your heroism.  Blessed are you.”