You Can Talk All You Want

My middle-school put on “The Music Man” when I was in eighth grade, and my big moment was over before the main action started. I was one of the salesmen on the train, and my lines were:

You can talk, you can bicker.
You can talk, you can bicker.
You can talk, talk, talk, talk,
bicker, bicker, bicker.
You can talk all you want:
But it’s different than it was!”

To which an ersatz peer replied:

Not it ain’t, not it ain’t,
cause you gotta know the territory!

It’s so easy to put an opinion out into public today, and given the trauma we’ve had with the Muslim world over the last fifteen years, there’s certainly a lot to be said.

When I engaged in this analysis, the first step that I took was to go to an Islamic Center and talk to the faithful. Up in Livermore, the president shared that, after getting over the hurdle of pride that made him reluctant to bow his head to the ground, the challenge he faced was practicing the morality of the Qu’ran at work, where he often found himself getting run over by his peers. In Newbury Park, I stayed after to read the book itself, and was given a copy as a gift. I read sixty percent of it, and am unashamed to reveal that it is a truly magnificent and beautifully poetic testament of faith.

Of course, what was being put around at the time was that Islam was a perversely militant religion. This came up when I was sitting idle in a juror’s waiting room on Yom Kippur. I struck up a conversation with another juror, who began to relate that the Qu’ran used the word “war” more times than any other book of scripture. I simply asked him “Have you ever read it?”

“No. I read a report by a Canadian academic.”

“Who was that.”

“Oh, I forget.”

Here’s a universal fact: men are designed to change things, and the easiest way to change something is to break it. There’s a rush that comes with destruction of a person, an idea, or a culture. So there are men that go around looking for reasons to destroy things. Making their targets as frightening as possible makes them sound strong, attracting the attention of the “weaker sex.” After a while, it’s the adrenaline and testosterone boosts that rule their logic: it doesn’t make a difference what the facts are. They’ll make them up to suit their destructive urges.

Thus was borne the modern culture of Islamophobia.

Of course, we can serve up counter-examples from the other side: the fatwas against van Gogh and Rushdie, and the murders in France and Texas in reprisal for satirical drawings of the prophet. These incidents are terrible abuses of clerical power and perversions of faith.

But we should ask: whose opinions did Charlie Hebdo change? When the French government asked them to refrain from publishing an incendiary article, did they really have to do so knowing that workers at French embassies around the world would be endangered? Does the right to talk all you want really trump the safety and well-being of others? We forbid people from crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater, after all.

The work of healing the divides that bring us to violence is not done by the Pamela Gellers of the world, but by Pope John Paul II with his convocations of religious leaders. It is done by the Shia and Sunni who pray together in my colleague’s office at work. It is done by people that take the trouble to read the books and share how they relate to their common human concerns: how do I create a better world for my children? What happens when we die? Why does faith (in god, or science, or spaghetti) give me relief from fear, and a sense of peace and purpose, even though I’ll never see the problems solved?

I would be impressed if Charlie Hebdo could claim to have inspired just one person like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who stood up for female rights in Belgium when she discovered that her sister expatriates were being abused by their husbands. I would be even more impressed if they dug deeper into the root cause reported by Ali: radicalism driven by the inability of fathers to provide for the well-being of their families in the European culture that they lacked tools to navigate.

Did anybody from Hebdo go down to the schools to tutor Islamic youth? Did they understand deeply the problems of the displaced, and contribute to their solution? Or did they simply indulge their egos? The families of the police officers slain in the attacks surely deserve an answer.

You see, it’s not about the fine distinction between free speech and hate speech. It’s about doing the work of moving people from sensibilities driven by fear to those enlarged by confidence. That requires, I’m afraid I have to say, a certain self-control. Insulting people only adds volume to the echo chamber.

“See, I’m allowed to insult you” is not evidence of cultural superiority. Rather, it’s the attitude “See, I respect you – and also the people that you fear. Let’s sit down and work out our differences.”

He Will Reign – Won’t He?

One of the challenges in building a brand is to ensure that prospects receive a consistent message concerning value proposition. The Church fathers and Emperor Constantine addressed this problem in the fourth century, establishing the Nicean dogma and creed that the Catholic Church and its heretical variants enforced through preaching, training and – in the breach, until recently – torture and death.

Normally, we’d talk of offended authority as “spinning in the grave.” In this case, given the last, we must be glad for Jesus’s resurrection, because otherwise the globe would have been whirling around his tomb.

The early Church fathers, confronted with the evidence of civil decay following the decline of the Roman Empire, seem to have concluded that empire was a part of God’s plan of salvation. They spent the twelve centuries following Nicea working to centralize political authority in Europe. At the end of that era, Renaissance Europe sprouted a dozen kingdoms capable of reproducing the accomplishments of Rome. Their response to Church meddling was to interfere in Papal selection, and when coming out on the losing end of that struggle, to support the rise of reforming heresies.

So what might Christ think of that?

In Scripture, I see three high points in the relationship between Humanity and God. The first is in Eden, where Adam and Eve experienced the ravishing grace of a direct relationship with God. Next is the era of Judges immediately following the entry into the Promised Land. The Hebrews as a people lived in gratitude for the Father’s gift, and when their occupancy was threatened, God found heroes to guide them through danger. That era ended with the people throwing their trust onto the human institution of monarchy. In the final act, Jesus arrives to expose the iniquity of the human institutions of his day, and proclaims that redemption is not bound by any contract or tradition, but is available to all the peoples of the Earth.

The modern Dominionist interprets this proclamation as a call to spread the institutions of Christianity across all the globe. The question is: what is the true church? Or is it simply enough that each individual should recognize Christ as lord and master in his heart?

Jesus is a little coy on this point, stating [John 10:14-16]:

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.

In The Soul Comes First, I consider the parallels between the spiritual trajectory in Judaism (culminating with Jesus) and Buddhism. In Islam and Christ, I examine the choices made in the formulation of Islam, choices made to facilitate such developments in cultures still practicing polytheism.

These insights, supported by the evolution of the covenant recorded in the Bible, lead me to the conclusion that Unconditional Love reaching to us from Christ meets us where we are. It does not care about structures and institutions, and in fact idolatry is often evident in human attempts to sustain those forms. Rather, as Jesus says, it enters into our lives in twos that grow into threes, thereby empowering us to care for one another.

Witnessing the end of this process, John testifies of the “New Jerusalem”, that {NIV Rev. 21:22]:

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

Remember that Jesus does not ask us to submit, but to learn [NIV Matt 11:29]:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

And [Math 20:28]

…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The temple of God is the individual human heart. His age is consummated when we allow his sensibility to enter into us. As I said recently to a priest:

Sometimes words serve no purpose, and the only thing I can do is to allow the broken heart of Christ within me to speak for itself.

It is when we offer our hearts as he did, offering them in the service of supporting the weary and burdened, that his will for us is achieved. This is a service beyond understanding, for we cannot explain all the suffering in the world. It is beyond us, having its origins billions of years ago, and woven into our living through the predatory competition that is Darwinian evolution. All that we can do, as Jesus did, is to offer ourselves in the service of healing the wounds it has created.

So is the modern fragmentation of Christianity – exposing contradictory messages that erode faith – is that fragmentation a problem? Or should it be interpreted as the process by which Christ dissolves the human institutions that stand between the seeker and Unconditional Love? If Eden was the ideal, should we not be seeking to recreate that ideal for every man and every woman? And if that is the goal, how can we doubt Christ’s word that he will gather all of his flocks – all of those traditions that declare a covenant and discipline that opens our hearts to the power of Divine Love – how can we believe that any one of them will be unreconciled to Christ? Or judge any of them as inferior to our own path?

Church and State

President Obama fanned the flames of controversy when, at breakfast with Muslim leaders, he remarked that Christianity had a history of injustice that should be cautionary when characterizing movements such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The specific examples he cited were the Crusades, the Inquisition and slavery in America.

How does each of these examples relate to the effort to create an Islamic State in the Middle East?

The Crusades

The Crusades were a complex political effort. The laws of inheritance in Europe meant that all the younger sons of the nobility were unlanded, and thus unable to provide for a noble wife. As a result, Europe was embroiled in internecine strife, to a degree that the Papacy at one point threatened to excommunicate the nobility if the bloodshed did not cease.

In this context, the Emperor of Constantinople, in whom leadership of both Church and State were gathered, was facing Muslim aggression. Again, the politics was complex: the Emperor was a tyrant, and faced internal dissent both from Christian “heretics” and Jews. The Emperor pled to the Rome for assistance, and Urban, seeing the possibility of reuniting the two halves of Christendom, agreed. Of course, this was also an outlet for the unlanded nobility to attain honors and wealth.

The first of the Crusades was a successful military effort, but revealed its misconceived origins. The Jews fought against the Crusaders, which led to pogroms against the “elder brothers” that Europe had accepted as representatives of their nation. The castles gained were impossible to support logistically from Europe, and ruled by the most aggressive of the European knights, men who insisted on attacking passing Muslim caravans. When the Caliph refused, on Islamic grounds, to retaliate except when the raiders were attacking, he was overthrown by Saladdin, a military slave, who began a concerted effort to conquer all of Christendom.

Back in Europe, the organizational strength of the Catholic Church led to a fascination with Christian ceremony and piety among the nobility. This reached its peak in France, where King Philip decided to mount a crusade as a proof of piety. The logistics were poorly conceived, and the mission ended in disaster. The last of the Crusades, in complete contradiction of Urban’s original intent, ended with the sack of Constantinople itself.

So the lesson I see here is: don’t mix religion and politics.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition is often spoken of as a single movement, but study reveals that the character of an “inquisition” depended upon the political context.

The worst excesses of inquisition occurred when political leaders began to challenge the organizational power of the Church. Again, this was a complex problem: the Church had benefited from the instability of the European nobility, and so had acquired huge amounts of land and wealth. They used religious authority to protect those lands. As the nobility began to establish independent systems of law and institutions of learning, the more aggressive among them focused on the practical opportunity of the weak Church military. The hypocrisy of many religious leaders also led them to question the authenticity of their claim to the lands held for Christ.

The most horrific inquisitions occurred in Spain and France. Following the Muslim invasion, the crown of Spain holed up in the Pyrenees. When the Islamic world rejected scientific thinking, advances in military technology eventually gave the king the upper hand in the struggle. Sweeping out of the mountains with the fire of religious purity, the king set out to purge Spanish civilization of Muslim collaborators. As in the Middle East, this included many Jewish nobles, who had benefited by Muslim occupation. The king forced them to Christianize their names and convert. Those that did not were stripped of their titles.

The mechanisms of this inquisition were horrific, and that was recognized by the Pope. A papal decree was issued warning the king to cease the program. The king responded with a threat to reform the church in Spain with himself as its head. Rome, for reasons among which should be considered to provide relief to those under indictment, choose to retract its decree and remain active in Spain. The king pushed his advantage by posting Borgia to Rome. The methods used by Borgia to obtain the papacy reflect more the guidance of Machiavelli than Christ.

The prior situation in France was similarly complicated. The French king was in a struggle against the independent southern nobility. The region was also distinguished by its Catharism, a schismatic sect that upheld feminine spirituality and the renunciation of worldly concerns. Rome was an active collaborator in the purge of the region, but was goaded by the murder of its legate by a rebellious noble, Raymond of Toulouse. I do remark that about this time the king invaded Rome and transferred the papacy to Avignon. Obviously, the balance of power in Europe was shifting. Most Cathars chose to convert to Catholicism: those that did not were hanged or burned at the stake.

The French and Spanish Inquisitions bracketed the Medieval Inquisition. Again, this was a complicated situation. Prosecution of heresy was performed under civil as well as Church law, and Rome often found that the proceedings were manipulated to benefit the civil authorities. In an attempt to prevent executions and to ensure that heretics received correct Christian teaching, the papacy attempted to take control of prosecution of heresy. Some assert that the mission saved thousands of lives.

So the lesson I see here is: don’t mix politics and religion.

Slavery in America


Obama made the claim that Christianity was used to “justify” slavery. While not having studied the matter deeply, I have never heard anyone claim that the slave masters looked into the Bible and found a command to subjugate the peoples of Africa to slavery. Yes, slavery was mentioned as a common practice in the Bible, but it also came with injunctions against mistreatment. Sympathy and counsel to the slave is given in a charming fashion in the story of Naaman [2 Kings 5], whose humble servants convinced their violence-prone master to accept the guidance of Elisha, and thus to receive healing.

This sense of slaves as part of the owner’s family is contradicted by the zeal and determination shown by God in freeing his people from Egypt. Though jilted by Joseph and his family, who became prominent political figures in Pharaoh’s circle, God heeds the cries of the Israelites under the foreman’s lash. Obviously, God acted in a way consistent with justice.

My sense, then, is that the Bible was used to rationalize the corrupt system of slavery in the American South by those that profited by it. They were eventually beaten down, just as Pharaoh was beaten down. Of course, racism is still strong among all the survivors of that system, but Obama did not mention racism – he spoke of slavery.

So the lesson that I see here is: don’t mix economics and religion.

The Lessons of Christ


The Republican Party likes to draw upon the authority of religion in its legislative program. This has led to some interesting policy contradictions in a party committed both the Christian action and laissez-faire economics. Indiana recently passed a law allowing the state to contract with organizations that require adherence from their employees. You would think that they would prefer those institutions to demonstrate the alignment of those precepts by succeeding against all comers in the open market, and so to be uninterested in government contracts.

To the discerning reader, the Bible gives clear testimony regarding the effects of the mixing of politics and religion. Samuel counsels against the anointing of a king, but relents in a “law of natural consequences” demonstration. While the wisdom and grace of God had guided the nation through trouble unscathed, with the creation of a monarchy, the nation was riven by internecine strife, forsook its covenant, and was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians.

With the return to Canaan, the process is repeated. Jesus finally comes along to counsel “render unto Caesar” and to demolish the authority of the law that had been perverted to make wealth a substitute for actual piety. Dashing the hopes of his Apostles, he renounces an earthly kingdom and submits to destruction at the hands of the authorities of his day. His resurrection was proof that the paternity of God promises greatness that no king can equal.

Christians should understand political systems as a temporary mechanism used to protect against exploitation. Such claims always have an aura of subjectivity: the rich man confident of his contributions to the general well-being may consider taxation to be a form of “exploitation.” Conflicting claims can only be resolved face-to-face, as happened to John McNamara in India. However, when the era of Christ’s reign occurs, the openness of Christ’s heart will make resolution of these claims immediate and obvious to those involved. That era will manifest only when we stop heeding the political philosophies of men, and trust the “still, quiet voice” that talks directly into our hearts.

So the lesson of Christ is that in the face of personal weakness, attempting to legislate justice is a fool’s errand. The Christian path is to expose corruption, and then to heal the victims, thereby disempowering those that use fear to exploit the weak.

So the lesson of Christ is: don’t mix politics and religion.

The Lessons of Islam


Following the death of Mohammed (pbuh), the Islamic Ummah went through a period of upheaval as it assumed the responsibilities of state management. Corruption was rampant. The Eleven Followers of Mohammed (pbuh) tried to restore the integrity of the Ummah, but were systematically destroyed. This is the essence of the Shia-Sunni split, with the Shias coming out on the losing end of the argument. It was the Sunni Muslims in Baghdad that mounted the era of Muslim conquest, although ultimately Islam proved to be a fig-leaf for a sequence of conquerors of diverse nationalities, including Ughurs and Turks.

In the service of celebrating the martial accomplishments of the conquerors, the state-supported Imams glorified and justified their atrocities (as can also be seen in the Bible, with the Babylonian Chronicles a re-write of the disparaging Kings). These nationalist paeans are now held by some as a higher authority than the Qur’an itself, in which Mohammed (pbuh) inveighs against violence unless under immediate attack.

In the modern era, we can see the disastrous consequences of mixing politics and religion in the extremism generated by Saudi Wahabbism and militancy throughout the world when Islamic practices are enforced by the state (as by the Taliban in Afghanistan).

So the lesson of Islam is: don’t mix politics and religion.

Wisdom from the Bully Pulpit?


I obviously find Obama’s comments to lack nuance. Religious history shows that religious states always yield to corruption. Worse, ISIS doesn’t appear to have ever been a manifestation of Mohammed’s (pbuh) moral principles. However, I would agree that nations that profess to be Christian have also failed to practice the moral principles of Christ.

As a moral imperative, I’d like the President to exhort Islamic leaders to renounce state-enforced religion. And I’d like him to remind Christians that legislation of morality has an ugly history in the Bible, not excluding the crucifixion of the man we hold as our Savior.

God granted us free will. In the exercise of that will, we will make mistakes, hurting ourselves and others. This is the path of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that we choose in Eden. The greatness of our God comes in patient forgiveness and healing.

For Christians hoping for the reign of Christ, this is not an idle matter. Jesus died for our sins, but his compassion does not stop there. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in our eternal souls. When Jesus returns, it will be for the healing. So long as we continue to attempt to prevent sin through the coercive power of the state, his power can only be manifested against the institutions of the state.

Yes, competent administration of the state is essential, but should not be linked to manifestation of his ultimate aims, for his spirit will unite all peoples, and wash away fear with healing. Provide private support for your church and its charitable efforts among the less fortunate, and let the spread of the Holy Spirit make the state irrelevant.

Islam and Christ

The Christian Bible is the story of how one people succumbed to corruption, thereby surrendering a privileged relationship with God, and then wandered in a spiritual wilderness until Jesus demonstrated the discipline to surrender himself in caring for the world. In navigating this process, God relies throughout on the law of natural consequences: when the people heed the inner voice that guides them, they prosper; when they disown it, they suffer. For this reason, while history trends steadily upwards, it has its high and low points.

What is true throughout is that God meets us where we are. That’s a source of a lot of confusion when interpreting scripture. For example, in Matthew 5:18, we have:

For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

And then Jesus undermines its authority (Matt. 19:8):

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.

And in John 8:7, he says:

Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.

So Jesus is saying to teach the law, but set it aside when it suits us? As a child “Do as I say, not as I do” drove me crazy. Or is this “Say as I say, but do as I do?” In either case, hypocrisy seems right around the corner.

The difficulty can be resolved with the understanding that different people are on different stages of the journey. The Law is a code of conduct that seeks to prevent the spread of moral corruption. For people without the tools to heal corruption, that discipline is essential.

Jesus introduced his Apostles to a new stage of the journey, making them healers of the flesh and spirit. As reagrds the Law, his is final teaching to them was [Math: 22:37-40]:

Love your God…and love your neighbor…All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

However, this was not the entire Jewish people – it was only twelve of them. Was the law to be demoted for everyone, or only for those twelve and the others like them? I think only for the twelve and those like them. This does create some difficulty for those teaching Christianity that don’t claim to be able to do the things that the Apostles accomplished in Acts. Where are they on the scale, and how are they to lead their congregations into apostolic faith?

The solution, in the modern age, is that Christians chose the congregation that helps them take their next step on their journey to Christ.

Along the way, though, a stop was made in the Middle East. The Islam teachings of Muhammad (pbuh) came at the people of Mecca out of left field. There was no cultural tradition of Law. The community was at the level of Abraham in their relationship with God.

The Islamic path is therefore “The Middle Way” between the strict legalism of Judaism and the conditional morality of Christianity. It has rules – though far less pervasively than in the Law – that allow people to establish themselves in religious practice. While eliding Hebrew history, it upholds the character of the prophets as exemplars to inspire Muslims to maturity. Finally, it disintermediates the priesthood, upholding a personal relationship with Allah with promises of forgiveness and ultimately salvation.

The principle problem with this program is the divinity of Jesus. If he was the word made flesh, then the overwhelmingly difficult conditional morality of Christ stood as a barrier to Muslim practice. It meant that those that worshipped according to the rules would be second-class citizens in the faith. That the teachings of Jesus were received second-hand would be no obstacle to those interested in manipulating such divisions: there is enough in the Gospels to prey on the fear of those unprepared by experience and education to understand Christian moral philosophy.

To prevent this exclusion from the faith of those that needed it most, Jesus was demoted, being made only a prophet. This was extended to his crucifixion.

Should this make a difference?

The point of faith, as I see it, is to provide us with the strength to do good in the world. Most Christians find great strength in the sacrifice made by Jesus. But there are also those that flee Christianity because Christians cannot act according to that standard. If Muslims find hope that they can do good without failing the standard set by the Son of God, is that a bad thing? Particularly if their tradition holds out the hope that they will ultimately aspire to that standard?

I think not. I think that God meets us where we are, and that all that matters is the degree to which our faith encourages us to open our hearts to him.