Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future. 

Charity

On occasion someone will comment, either here or on my other popular writings, that I lack the objectivity of a journalist. This should be no surprise, really, since I’m in fact not a journalist and what I’m writing here is opinion—an extended op ed—if you will—from someone that society has decided should have no official voice. Who listens to an editor? They don’t make content, they improve others’ work. News, however, often leads to good commentary. A recent blurb in The Christian Century caught my eye. A group of Muslims, led by a student in Chicago, raised almost $50,000 to help rebuild black churches that had been destroyed in the south. A journalist, I’m guessing, might not find much of a story here. To me this show of goodwill speaks volumes.

In the news were hear about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. How often do we hear that charitable giving is one of the five pillars of Islam? Many Muslims are charitable to those outside their faith community. In this case, they donated money to rebuilt houses of worship for a rival religion. There’s little to hate or despise here, so it really isn’t news. People are disposed, in general, to help one another. Indeed, biologists have long noted that we are a cooperative species. A friend recently pointed out that we are dissuaded from helping others more out of a fear of being sued. Money, as most religions realize, is antithetical to true belief. Most religions begin as an effort to make life better for people. When they become corporate, as with all things corporate, they turn inwardly and focus on how to improve things for themselves. There are still many, however, who understand the point behind religious traditions. It’s not really all about God. The ones who need our help are our fellow humans.

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Faatima Knight, according to the story, spearheaded the effort to raise money. She is a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A Muslim studying in a Christian school, helping oppressed Christian people. The media, it seems to me, could do with a few courses in ethics. Is it ethically responsible to caricature religions as ignorant and spiteful? For all we know Christians fall into only one of two types: those who follow Pope Francis and those who want to teach your children that we didn’t evolve from monkeys. The good deeds done by those motivated by the teachings of their founders are quietly passed by. Yet they are among the loudest deeds people do. I have to wonder if most Christians would rally around an effort to rebuild a mosque destroyed by hate. I think I know the answer, but then, I’m only a guy whose opinion doesn’t really matter.

ABCD

Among the sensitive crowd known as biblical scholars, the chronological designations Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) have long been in use. Perhaps it is because, at some point in the recent past, Christian scholars realized that the Hebrew Bible, until then called the Old Testament, was also the Bible of Judaism. All of history, in the European version, is divided by the figure of Jesus, or more properly, Christ. BC stood for Before Christ, after all, and AD not for After Death (which would leave an embarrassing gap of about three decades), but Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord.” The conventions of BC/AD had become so entrenched that few bothered to linger over the implications, but implications there are. A case might be made, purely on historical grounds, for maintaining BC. There was a time before Jesus—even the Bible agrees on that point. And, again, from an historical view, the worldview of Christianity forever changed the direction of events for at least two millennia thereafter. It still does, if we pay any attention to the posturing of the Religious Right. We have to start counting somewhere, don’t we, to know where we are in time?

Anno Domini is a tad more colonializing. Short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, “in the year of our lord Jesus Christ,” those two letters make an assumption that the shared lord of the readers is indeed Jesus. For centuries in Europe and the New World, apart from those Muslims that from time-to-time made their presence felt, and the Jews who were conveniently suppressed, this worked for just about everybody. If you disagreed, after all, you were welcome to return to your backwater homeland and count your time by burning hour candles between your toes, if you wished. For the forward march of history, it was onward, Christian soldiers. AD held a proselytizing imperative. But then Christians began to notice two more ancient religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, both with pedigrees that predate AD. Not that this was a problem from a missiological point of view—we can just convert them, after all—but scholars began to consider the implications.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Time is inexorable. At least in our experience of it. No one stopped to begin counting when Adam and Eve were wandering about Eden, and the simple reference to the lifetime of a monarch seemed sufficient for most pre-capitalist business. What fueled the change to attempt an absolute time was the conviction that it was all about to end soon. Jesus seems to have predicted an imminent apocalypse; “some who are standing here will not taste death,” Luke tells us Jesus said. If that is the case, AD is the final countdown. With a delayed onset. Instead of Anno Domini, it might stand for Announcing Doomsday. And since that clock is still ticking, it might be time to acknowledge that we do indeed live in a Common Era.

Maltese Faction

The Crusades remain one of the most celebrated episodes of religious violence in the history of the church. I am certain that many would put forward other instances of official violence to rival the piecemeal warfare of the Middle Ages, however, the Crusades still jolt many Muslims for their unflappable conviction that God gave the Holy Land to them. Ironically a bit of good emerged from the carnage in the form of sometimes secret orders of knights whose charge was originally to care for injured and sick Christians. Thanks to Dan Brown everyone knows of the Knights Templar. There were, however, several of these orders spanning the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, and some of them survive today. In Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger a story appeared of the 900th birthday of the Knights of Malta. I don’t recall having heard of them before, but then, it has been many years since my last class in Medieval Christianity. And no wonder—they don’t even appear in Wikipedia under that name.

What is so interesting about the Knights of Malta is that, like the Vatican, they have the authority to act like a country. According to the Associated Press, the knights can issue their own passports, stamps, and money, and have diplomatic relations with real countries and even have observer status in the United Nations. The blurring of the lines between religion and politics, as any student of history knows, has deep roots indeed. The Knights of Malta, however, own no territory (no, their eponymous island isn’t theirs). A nation with no territory. At least the Vatican has its own city. The Knights still exist for their charitable works and, it is to be hoped, not for the conquest of lands legitimately owned by others.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (“sovereign” and “military” were omitted in the press), is a sub-branch of the Knights Hospitaller, the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world. It is nice to think that the church might still have a few knights up its sleeves. The concept of chivalry has largely been absorbed into chauvinism, however, and even now the Knights of Malta are men. Along with the Vatican, that makes two entities run completely by males that assert their own sovereignty. In the twenty-first century it would be nice to think that we wouldn’t need monied men in robes in order to help out those in need. But then I’ve always been prone to believe in myths. And knights tend to follow after daze. Crusades, however, have far outlived their putative usefulness.

Good knight?

Good knight?

Why Islam

Radical ideas emerge in the most unlikely of places. In the world of religion the rule is generally to criticize first and then attempt to understand later. This is the burden of revealed religions where the only evidence to test is subjective experience. Lessing offered us the parable of the three rings: God gave humanity three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) without indicating which one was the correct one. Even before Lessing attempted to provide some kind of resolution to this intractable dilemma, proponents of each of the monotheistic traditions had already made up their minds. The divine buck stops here. Our society places little emphasis on learning about religion. Religion is something we do, not something we have to read about. Given the tremendous motivational force of religious belief, this situation would seem to be a set-up for disaster. Read the headlines and judge for yourself.

I was pleased, therefore, to come across the website WhyIslam.org. Written by Muslims to answer questions by non-Muslims, this non-judgmental, informative website seeks to educate. Despite its rapid growth in the western world, many people are poorly informed about Islam, what it stands for, and how it relates to Judaism and Christianity (especially). The media tends to focus on extreme cases of religious believers; unfortunately they are often the most newsworthy, capturing the limelight in the name of their faith. Whether or not religion was the motivation for an act of terrorism (certainly not limited to Muslim believers), once such an act is perpetrated the religious beliefs of the guilty parties are also suspect. Instead of trying to understand a different religion, the knee-jerk reaction is to fear it. WhyIslam.org is an attempt to counterbalance that fear. Education is the St. George to the dragon of fear. Instead, however, our governments often try to cut back on education and the trench only grows deeper.

If we are to survive the world of competing religions, open conversation is necessary. I’ve been ensconced in institutions where discussion was viewed as compromise and vehement hatred against the foe was considered the only legitimate response. This passed for education. Many seminaries are too busy indoctrinating students in the minutiae of their own tradition to open them to learning about other religions. What are they so afraid of? If a religion is really real, it should never quail in the face of competition. What is the danger in learning about fellow believers? Religions make many assumptions about their own priority—natural enough with regard to core beliefs. If they all encouraged learning about each other, perhaps religious violence would transform into religious education. Islam has much to teach the rest of the world, if the rest of the world would visit sites like WhyIslam.org and be willing to listen.

Freiheit

This week’s Time magazine has a rhetorical question on the cover: Is America Islamophobic? Not a word need be said. The real issue at stake, the one many Muslims feel the brunt of, is religious freedom. This founding concept of America has been eroding for decades. How many Americans have tried to imagine what it would be like if they were Muslims living in “the land of the free”? For that matter, how many have tried to imagine what it would be like to be Catholic, Protestant, or Unitarian? Certainly, it would seem, Jews know the value of religious freedom. Do we ever really try to feel their experience? It is much more cozy to be part of the religious majority and tell others to step in line.

With great roaring newts and Alaskan beauty queens telling them what to think, Americans are easily stoked to injustice. No, they have no right to worship here, they tell us. The truly frightening part is how easily manipulated the masses are. America a Christian nation? Who can adequately define “Christian”? Those who make such claims tend to be Neo-Cons who assume some fundamental form of Christianity is the default version. The only version. Their goals are not religious, but rather intensely selfish – the antithesis of Christianity. By their fruits you shall know them, a wise man once said. It is easy to forget who.

We live in a nation that since the Reagan years has attempted to privatize industries that had ensured fairer treatment because of government standards, no matter how faulty. Now private companies could run with the basic necessities of civilized existence and grow wealthy on them while those who were poor could be forced to pay more. This was done with the public image of a “Christian nation.” RR, the poster-child of the Religious Right. Laissez faire has come to mean “leggo my Eggo” – let me claim the one true religion and capitalize upon it. One size does fit all as long as the wealthy are left free to grow wealthier. Let’s call it religious freedom, but let’s prevent others from pursuing their religion freely. To me it feels like 1984. And that was decades earlier than 9/11.