Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"True Believers" and the Rest of Us

Several days ago, the Boston Globe published an editorial praising the Catholic Church for something it did fifty years ago-- the actions of the Second Vatican Council in officially rejecting centuries of anti-Semitism.  Led by the late, great Pope John 23rd, and the equally commendable Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, the church moved away from teaching that the Jews were to be hated and persecuted for their alleged central role in the killing of Jesus (a role that modern historians of all religions have called into question); in addition, Catholic educators no longer had to teach that the "faithless Jews" practiced a false religion and thus needed to be converted to the true faith of Catholicism.  This ushered in an era of interfaith cooperation between Catholics and Jews, one that many people (myself among them) have benefited from. 

But not every denomination of Christianity agrees.  There are still some evangelical denominations who, while not necessarily calling for Jews to be persecuted, still believe we are in the wrong religion and must be "shown the truth."  A good example of this attitude is former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who recently asserted on a Christian radio program that it is imperative for the Jews to be converted, since Jesus is returning soon.  (I must admit this line of reasoning has never made sense to me:  given that Jesus was Jewish, if anyone is supposed to be converted, shouldn't they all become Jewish like him?)  But all joking aside, I do understand that to some of my Christian friends, Judaism was replaced by Christianity and only those who believe in Jesus can be "saved."  Still, while I have my differences with those who believe they must come to my door and try to witness to me, I respect their views.  Most of the missionaries I know are courteous (although somewhat intense), and they sincerely believe they are doing me a favor by telling me that I'm in the wrong religion and need to "get right with the Lord."

We seem to be living in a time when "true believers" are everywhere.  Some are peaceful, using their powers of persuasion, and their interpretation of scripture, to show that only they know what God wants. But sadly, in some parts of the world, the true believers don't rely on words-- they resort to violence, in order to impose their faith on others.  We especially see this in certain Muslim countries, where extremists have hijacked Islam and now seek to return it to a medieval worldview, rejecting interfaith tolerance in favor of a rigid and harsh orthodoxy that forbids dissent of any kind.  The rise of  extremist Muslim groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called "Islamic State," the Taliban, and Boko Haram thus poses a grave danger to Islam: if violent extremists become the face of a religion, there can be no room for modernity-- no education (several of these extremist groups have forbidden the study of history or science, and they refuse to let women study at all), no ethics, no respect for "the other."   Meanwhile, moderates and dissenters in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan or Syria or Iraq are being silenced or killed.  It remains to be seen whether those Muslims who disagree with extremist interpretations can take Islam back.

There was a time when Christianity too promoted this kind of rigidity, punishing anyone who disagreed.  Dissenters were shunned, excommunicated, exiled, even killed.  If you have studied American history, you know that some groups who came here for religious freedom thought it was okay to deny it to others.  And in some groups, they even turned on their own members, who were not considered sufficiently religious-- the Puritans, for example, drove Roger Williams out of Massachusetts; he ultimately founded what came to be known as Rhode Island.  That state became a haven for those of divergent views: the oldest surviving synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue, still stands there, and in an amazing show of religious tolerance, it was visited by President George Washington, who asserted in 1790 that America would not accept bigotry, even against its smallest minority.

Some Americans seem to forget that today.  These days, it's not the Jews who are the most common victims of religious bigotry-- it's American Muslims, who are seeing their mosques vandalized or being told they are unwelcome in certain communities. As someone who remembers all too well when anti-Jewish attitudes were both common and acceptable in the culture, I cringe when I hear some of the screeds by anti-Muslim bigots. I may not agree with my Muslim friends and colleagues on religion (or on the Middle East), but they have as much right to live here as I do. What worries me more than the presence of Muslims in my neighborhood (where they've lived peacefully since about 1910) is the presence of people of any faith who believe theirs is the only way, and everyone else is going to hell.  No religion seems to be immune from this:  it is worth noting that in Burma-- also called Myanmar-- it is Buddhists, members of a religion not generally associated with extremism, who are expressing some of the most extremist views, denying the Muslim-minority Rohingya the right to be citizens, and subjecting them to constant persecution.  One wonders what the Buddha would say about that. Somehow, I doubt he would be amused.

Periodically, I read comments by atheists who say this just proves religion is the cause of all the world's problems.  That's a facile explanation, although I would agree that extremist interpretations certainly contribute to a climate of hatred and bigotry.  But religion in and of itself is not to blame: it depends on what you do with it.  For those who have a religion, it can be a comfort in times of trouble, and it can provide an ethical guide for living one's life.  And yes, for some people, it can promote feelings of smug superiority ("I'm saved, and you're not") or it can be used as a cudgel to beat up the infidel.  It seems to me that organized religion is at something of a crossroads:  will the extremists, the ones who believe only their way is the right way, be the ultimate winners?  Right now, they seem to be speaking the loudest.  I can only hope the rest of us, those who believe "the other" isn't synonymous with "the enemy," will raise our voices too.  

1 comment:

  1. Donna, it's unfortunate that there aren't more people like you. Tolerant and able to understand other people's views. I was raised Catholic but turned away from the church as I got older. Mostly because they seem, to me, to contradict themselves fairly often.

    There is part of a sentence in your first paragraph is a great example:

    the church moved away from teaching that the Jews were to be hated and persecuted for their alleged central role in the killing of Jesus

    If I remember correctly Jesus had to die so he could rise again, that is the very cornerstone of the Catholic religion. Easter (the resurrection) is the biggest Holiday in the Catholic year. Why would the Church teach it's followers to hate the very People that made his resurrection possible.

    It is issues like this that push me away from organized religions. I think it's great for the people that believe and get some peace and happiness from them. There are so many religions in the world, and a lot of they say theirs is the only way. Somebody is wrong somewhere in that thinking.