Interfaith relations, JFK, Dante’s Inferno, and brutal religiosity in public life

Efforts to encourage a vital, inclusive, and healthy discussion among the various communities of faith have never been an especially popular field of endeavor among the clerics of any religion. That partially explains why, today, much of the truly useful work in interfaith relations is done at the grassroots level by volunteers, with only the tacit approval and involvement of religious organizations, sometimes despite the interference of religious leaders. It is a field in which success is seldom as noteworthy or as newsworthy as the abundant and demoralizing evidence of the abject failure of the leaders of organized religion to engage in serious and systematic efforts to promote interfaith dialog and improve interfaith relations. Among the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, interfaith relations have long been a game of odd man out, with most Jewish and Christian clerics viewing interfaith relations as a more or less exclusive Jewish-Christian dialog. Much Christian theology and many Christian leaders being so thoroughly steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, a truly inclusive conversation among the representatives of the various religious groups that make up America’s religious tapestry has never really been an option. The very term "Judeo-Christian" is increasingly seen by many to imply a rejection of Islam, the third major monotheistic religion, and a rejection of other religions as well.

The three years and some months since September 11, 2001 have been especially difficult for those who labor in behalf of a healthy and inclusive interfaith conversation. Minnesota author and professor Bill Holm wrote recently of the "upheaval of sanctimonious and brutal religiosity in public life." Holm was writing not about radical Islamists but about the American experience and the excesses of the Christian Right. Much of the offensive rhetoric Holm alluded to has come from the lips of celebrity Christian Zionist leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and others who enjoy ready access to Big Media news and entertainment outlets. Frankly, I find it very difficult to credit any Christian cleric’s criticisms of Islam and Islamic leaders today. Surely, there is bigotry in the Islamic world too, as there is in all religious groups. But it seems remarkably short-sighted and unhelpful at best for any Christian to harshly criticize and insult Muslims at a time when the Islamic world is reeling under the assault of so-called Western values, nominally Judeo-Christian values, and while three predominantly Muslim countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, are under attack and occupation by the military forces of nominally Jewish or nominally Judeo-Christian nations, Israel and the USA and it’s shrinking coalition of the coerced. Not to mention the number of Arab countries long governed by dictators or monarchies largely dependent upon and subservient to Washington.

We American Christians can only imagine how we might react if Arab Muslim troops invaded and occupied the USA; destroyed large parts of our major cities; killed uncounted tens of thousands of unarmed non-combatant men, women, and children and wrote off their deaths as collateral damage; changed our laws; installed a puppet government; hired out repair and reconstruction contracts to foreign corporations at wildly exorbitant prices and brought in thousands of foreign workers and over-paid, trigger-happy mercenaries while Americans were deprived of opportunities to work, basic services like clean water and electricity, and other necessities, all in support of an effort by Arab Muslims to gain control of our valuable resources and please or appease the leaders of the oppressive, militaristic, and rigidly ultra-nationalist colonialist government of a neighboring state. At the same time, there can be very little doubt the world would be a far better and more peaceful place if we Christians would bear in mind that a) there is good in all religions, and b) we might better spend our time and energy in efforts to improve own religion and restrain the activities of a growing assortment of con artists, doomsday cultists, and other dangerous fanatics and criminals who claim to act in the name of Christ, rather than criticizing and attacking other religions about which we generally know precious little and with which we generally have very little if any useful experience.

As it is, among sect-divided American Christians, a great many seem to be perfectly content to allow the religion of Jesus to be falsely portrayed as a religion about Jesus, a devitalized religion that is really little more than a shared, glorified quest for the good life, aka the American Dream. Millions more American Christians stand in grave danger having been misled by their celebrity leaders into millennialism, also known as chilaism, a growing Christian-Zionist doomsday cult that has largely rejected the core teachings of the historical Jesus of the New Testament in favor of a dangerous mixture of jingoistic support for preemptive wars of conquest and an arrogant determination to force the appearance of the avenging God of the Revelation of St. John the Divine on a schedule of their own choosing. And millions more of the Christian flock are regularly fleeced by skilled and experienced confidence men who, fraudulently posing as Christian clerics, prey upon vulnerable ill-educated, naive, and elderly believers.

We Christians could profitably study, benefit from, and assimilate the best of the truths contained in other religions, and we would do well to admire and borrow the best in the living spiritual faith of our neighbors, rather than to denounce the worst in their lingering superstitions, outworn rituals, and antiquated slogans while ignoring the flaws in Christendom’s own collection of confused and self-contradictory theologies and practices. Brotherhood is well-nigh impossible on a world whose inhabitants fail to recognize the folly of unmitigated selfishness, unbridled ethnocentrism, and unrestrained nationalism. While more exchanges of scholars and national and racial literature would allow each national and racial group to become more familiar with others, the trend now seems to be toward fewer such exchanges, and those that do take place are often significantly impacted by concerns about security. Ultimately, each race must become familiar with the thoughts of all races and each nation must know the feelings of all nations, for ignorance breeds suspicion and fear, which are utterly incompatible with the essential attitudes of sympathy and brotherly love. Ah yes, brotherly love, which some few Christians still recall is at the core of the teachings of the historical Jesus of the New Testament.

A growing number of Christians, among them former diplomats, retired military officers, journalists, opinion writers, and activist members of a steadily growing coalition of progressive political, labor, environmental organizations are speaking out because, individually or collectively, they have become convinced that only ethical consciousness can unmask the immorality of human intolerance and the sinfulness and wastefulness of fratricidal strife. Many find the aggressive militarism, aggrandizing arrogance, and other failings of the nominally Christian West, characterized by the Bush administration’s alarming shift to a policy of pre-emptive wars of conquest based on falsified intelligence findings and political support manufactured by the chilling jingoism of compliant and complicit media organizations, far more galling and far more threatening than the perceived shortcomings of Muslims and Islam, though, admittedly, many are more familiar with the former than with the latter. In any case, I am one among that growing chorus of skeptics, and it is not my intention to reform the Arab or Muslim worlds, but to encourage and challenge my fellow Christians to approach the cross in truth, in large part because I fear we shall witness a catastrophic interruption of human progress if modern Christianity, such as it is, does not rediscover the religion of Jesus, and soon. It is becoming increasingly clear that until Christianity does rediscover the philosophy, teachings, and religion of Jesus, all efforts to disseminate nominally Christian Western values will continue to fall short, and in many cases those failed efforts will prove distinctly counterproductive, as they have in much of the Middle East and Asia, and rightly so, because a sub-divided, secularized, and politicized Christianity, having so completely abandoned its commitment to the revolutionary teachings of Jesus, stands as an obstacle to the further advancement of human civilization.

It was Jesus, after all, who famously and bluntly advised the hypocrites among his professed followers, that, when they beheld the splinter in their neighbor’s eye, they ought first remove the log interfering with their own vision, or words to that effect. I mention this apropos of those attitudes and principles illustrated at great cost by the historical Jesus of the New Testament, attitudes and principles that many who call themselves Christians today seem to have rejected out of hand in their zeal to find fault with and criticize Muslims and Islam, reorganize the Middle East according to neoconservative ideology, and destroy any Arab or Muslim who resists their efforts. Simply put, there is nothing of Jesus in any such schemes of material conquest. Moreover, even a cursory study of the New Testament record of the teachings of Jesus reveals as much, even to non-Christian readers. Small wonder then that Western criticisms of Islamic extremism so often fall upon unreceptive ears among audiences all too familiar with Western Judeo-Christian values and their often destructive application in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Many Arabs are well aware that the first to champion the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East was that icon of Western democratic values, Winston Churchill, who described himself as "strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes" in Iraq some seven decades before Saddam Hussein’s regime used gas in Halabja in 1988 during the war with Iran. Authoritative sources point out that British colonial forces used Mesopotamia in the 1920s as a laboratory to develop the aerial warfare tactics they later employed successfully against Germany during WWII. Sir Arthur "Mad Bomber" Harris, head of wartime Bomber Command, was directly responsible for the very early morning February 14, 1945, fire-bombing of Dresden, which resulted in a lethal firestorm that killed tens of thousands of German civilians. As an RAF Wing Commander in Mesopotamia during the 1920s, Harris had been "happy to emphasise that ‘The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’ It was an easy matter to bomb and machine-gun the tribespeople, because they had no means of defence or retaliation. Iraq and Kurdistan were also useful laboratories for new weapons, devices specifically developed by the Air Ministry for use against tribal villages. The ministry drew up a list of possible weapons, some of them the forerunners of napalm and air-to-ground missiles: Phosphorus bombs, war rockets, metal crowsfeet (to maim livestock), man-killing shrapnel, liquid fire, delay-action bombs. Many of these weapons were first used in Kurdistan," according to an excerpt from pages 179-181 of Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, by Geoff Simons, London: St. Martins Press, 1994. Thus, the Pentagon neoconservatives’ repeatedly demonstrated willingness and ability to slaughter innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, and anyone anywhere else who dares to interfere with their plans for pre-emptive wars in pursuit of oil reserves, economic and political hegemony, and national aggrandizement, like Christian-Zionist doomsday cult leaders’ enthusiastic support for such crimes, all thinly veiled as the righteous defense of nominally Christian values, Western democratic principles, and global market capitalism, is a development hardly either surprising or new to Arabs and Muslims. Nor do neconservative media flacks’ reverent comparisons of George Bush to Winston Churchill serve to allay the legitimate fears and concerns of Muslims here in the USA or across the Islamic world in the 50-some-odd countries where most Muslims, who comprise one-fifth of the world’s population, live, worship, and work.

If it is correct to say that the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and the tenets of Islam do not condone terrorist violence, and to call for an end to such violence on those grounds, is it any less correct to point out that neither do the teachings of Jesus and the tenets of Christianity approve of state terrorism, pre-emptive wars of conquest and national aggrandizement, or the systematic slaughter of innocent civilians, and to call on Christians, too, to live up to the nobler ideals of their religion? And just what is silence in the face of the bloody slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent non-combatants, if not complicity?

President John F. Kennedy, in Bonn on June 24, 1963, at the signing of the charter that created a German Peace Corps, remarked, "Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality." His remark was probably inspired by the passage from Dante Alighieri’s La Comedia Divina, “Inferno,” canto 3, lines 35-“42: "This way of wretchedness Belongs to the unhappy souls of those Who lived without being blamed or applauded. They are now scrambled with that craven crew Of angels who elected neither rebellion Nor loyalty to God, but kept apart. Not to mar its beauty, heaven expelled them, Nor will the depths of hell take them in there, Lest the damned have any glory over them." Which brings to mind a second quotation from the "Inferno," canto 26, lines 118-119: "Consider your origins, You were not born to live like brutes, But to pursue virtue and possess knowledge." These verses, the first a stark warning and the second an admonition, can be read as support for the penetrating vision and mighty will of a Creator who would restrain self-respect in those who have it, and who will stop at nothing to restore self-respect to those who have lost it, and who really desire to regain it.

Perhaps one of the best kept secrets of our time is that interfaith gatherings are often positively delightful events. People who are open to or committed to a truly inclusive interfaith conversation are almost invariably well-adjusted, open-minded, curious people who are not burdened by an excess of self-respect. They typically respect others, regardless of cultural differences, and find the stranger’s views, the foreigner’s experiences, to be interesting and enlightening. People who find their way to and become active in interfaith organizations tend, not surprisingly, to be people who work well with others. Unless they are motivated by a fear that their particular religious group will suffer as a result of a lack of representation, the suspicious, fearful, determinedly provincial, rigidly nationalistic, self-important, haughty, arrogant, or bigoted soul tends, again unsurprisingly, to avoid interfaith organizations and interfaith gatherings. Consequently, interfaith meetings, usually comprised of like-minded individuals from different backgrounds, are generally interesting, informative, and pleasant if not downright festive occasions. Building and maintaining a truly inclusive and effective interfaith organization at the local level can, by all accounts, require a fair amount of determination and work. But¾ask anyone who is actively involved in efforts to facilitate and promote a more vital and inclusive interfaith conversation¾the work is far more satisfying and rewarding than most people would ever imagine. Or, you could stay home and watch the tawdry parade of distractions and disinformation on TV.