Conservative Christianity and Islam

It occurs to me that for many Christian conservatives, the “Muslim threat” is not primarily terrorism but influence. That is, there persists a fear that an outside group will topple the gates to the City on the Hill. It’s hard for me to honor this fear, because the stance relies on so many assumptions—including, for instance, the idea that the bulk of Islam cleaves to strict Sharia law. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that radically conservative Islam is as much as a threat as, well, radically conservative anything. Acknowledging that I am a non-conservative Christian, and also admitting that I feel a touch of anger here, I can suggest three things that conservative Christians can do if they fear the influence of Islam:

1. Be Christian. If you believe your religion is the one true faith, let the world know you by your fruits. Go in peace; render to no person evil for evil; strengthen the faint hearted; help the weak; heal the sick; feed the poor; and welcome the stranger. If you fail to do these things—especially in the name of protecting your religion—you’ve already lost that religion. Moreover, your parsimony will send other, potential faithful looking elsewhere—including toward the virtue of the Muslim religion.

2. Be American. Remember that you were also wanderers. Chances are that you wouldn’t be here, if somebody hadn’t extended hospitality to your people (through likely the expense of indigenous people). And for God’s sake, remember the Constitution. The separation of church and state accommodates religious plurality in part because it ensures that nobody’s radicalism will affect civil policy. Not yours—and not theirs. If you want to hedge against Sharia law, stop eroding the distance between the religious and the secular. Legal change likes precedent—and every time you encourage church members to vote a certain way, or put “religious” discrimination into policy, or set up a courthouse monument to the Ten Commandments, you are weakening a safeguard that, according to your fear, you might one day need.

3. Be faithful. As you can lose your religion by acting un-Christian, you can also lose your faith by remaining so very jealous of other beliefs. If your god is God, He can handle Islam. In fact, in the story of Abraham and Ishmael, he made a place for Islam. If you truly believe that your god will attract all nations, then you better start letting the nations in. And if, God forbid, you deny a refugee hospitality, because you’re afraid of what their faith will do to yours, then you assume a divine fragility that borders on idolatry.

The law of hospitality permeates both Islam and Christianity. In the seventh century, Caliph Omar refused to pray in a Christian church, because he was afraid that afterwards, his followers would do the unrighteous work of turning it into a mosque. Starting in the eighth century, Christians and Muslims worked together to establish hospitals throughout the Arab world. Furthermore, both faiths recognize the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which—despite conservative propaganda—was not punished for homosexuality, but for its refusal to do kindness to the stranger. We all have to be careful about whom we fear. You say that above all, you are God fearing—and that might be. But a truer translation of that phrase is “God obeying.” And frankly, Muslim-fearing Christians are doing the opposite here.

(Originally posted February 13, 2017)

Entitlement

And because this is the season for kvetching, I would like to point out this little lovely I found on an image search. “You are not entitled to what I earn.” Judging by all the anti-Obama stuff surrounding that meme,it seems to be a battlecry against big taxes, and affordable healthcare, and public assistance programs of many stripes. Right? Is that a fair assessment? 

Right. First, let’s unpack the word “earn.” If you run a business that profits in any way from the working poor, you have achieved your comfort, at least in part, by standing on the backs of the poor. Your restaurant’s produce likely comes from poor pickers; your wait staff–whom you pay $3 an hour–is likely poor; the private school teachers who taught you to read are at least close to poor. You earned nothing without the poor. 

Second, even if we somehow could decide that you earned everything on your own, just where did you come from–and please could you go back? You won’t clothe the poor? You won’t feed the hungry? You won’t welcome the stranger? You won’t aid the peacemaker? You won’t visit the imprisoned? You won’t heal the sick?

Harvard researchers have just determined that without Affordable Healthcare, 43,956 of the poor will die, per year. Did you earn enough to buy your way out of that? Have you earned your way to such superman perfection, that you can face the Judgement you so likely believe in, without anyone helping you from your own far worse, and far deeper poverty? Or maybe, if you don’t heal the sick and help the poor, you are, at heart, both a killer and a thief.

(Originally posted January 24, 2017)

Trumpence of Doom

So there’s a religious-right magazine called Trumpeters that talks, somewhat fittingly, of the rise of Trump. My mother read this magazine while she was in a waiting room, because she does her best to learn what motivates such a dangerous portion of the population. Trumpeters says that God is using Trump to bring about the End Times. That is, Trump is an instrument of God’s punishment to a world that, through liberal hypocrisy, has fallen away from the Truth.

Let’s shelve the dispute over whether liberals or conservatives are more hypocritical. Even if we could agree on a measuring stick, the data bends whichever way you squeeze it. So instead, let’s look at the spirit behind Trumpeters’ theology. First off, Trumpeters’ very name evokes the End Times. At best this shows that the magazine springs from a faithful stance. But that faith itself should point to the difference between accepting God’s will and accepting destruction. One thing that liberal and conservative Christians overlook is their agreement that people are supposed to love those who oppose them–to feed them, to heal them, to forgive them, and to grant them justice. Under no circumstance are we supposed to aid their destruction. In fact, we aren’t even supposed to turn away from it. If we cling too hard to the idea that the Trump era is the time when our enemies are going to get it, we adopt a mindset that grants the world permission to harm our enemies. That means that we have judged our enemies by leaving them to the harm that we’ve decided God has meant for them. And once we’ve reached this threshold, only semantic and degree distinguish our religion from ISIS.

ISIS has been hoping for the End Times, for years. They want us baddies to bring about annihilation, so we can have a big war, until Jesus (yes, Jesus) can rescue the true Muslims by brandishing a spear. Poor Jesus. Make way for the new Caliphate. Make way for the new City. Such stances are so exclusive and so identical—which is to say that they’re all so very tragic.

It would be reasonable to think that if the only thing two fanatics can agree on is the hope for destruction, then our chances of that destruction essentially double. But I suspect that the End Times will come only when they’re supposed to. Rushing them seems as fruitless as it seems self-righteous and selfish. It is a stance that hates the very world who, despite all, has held us like a womb. The mutual hope for the world’s end might not create the Apocalypse, but it can inflict enormous suffering. This progression  from adulation of God, to adulation of ourselves, to condemnation of our enemy is the worst we have to guard against. It is the most dangerous thing. Because how sad—and how human—it would be for us to maim our world, but not kill it, so that we could all persist in a way even darker and farther fallen, for having decided that our enemies weren’t worth their place upon it.

(Originally posted December 20, 2016)

Sin

When I was younger, I thought that taking God’s name in vain was saying something like, “Christ on a bike.” You know what it really is? It’s using God’s name to justify actions and attitudes that are truly unholy. Whether you use it to justify subway explosions, or edicts like the Doctrine of Discovery, or camps for conversion therapy, you are committing what some would call a mortal sin. I don’t threaten people with damnation; that tactic belongs to another sect. In fact, I don’t even believe in damnation–or at least not in the vindictive, I-loved-you-once-but-now-I-hate-you kind of thing. But do I think that this sort of name-in-vaining can damn well summon hell.

(Originally posted November 20, 2016)

Zealots

I just heard a radio interview with an ex-missionary who talked about his church’s taboo on both reason and doubt. His elders weren’t stupid, he said. In fact, they might have been extremely canny. The elders knew that factors such as reason, intuition, and compassion might lead a person to challenge the elders’ version of divine truth. So to answer such questions, the elders said that reason, intuition, and compassion are human faculties that fall prey to demonic influence. Only faith is godly–and faith demands we neglect our best impulses when they work to challenge divine will. 

This, dearies, is an exquisite defense. It makes a virtue of blind obedience. It says, “You don’t have to understand, as long as you do what you’re told.” And let’s face it; sometimes people have be that compliant. Doesn’t the military function this way? Doesn’t a parent at least occasionally demand such a thing from a child? Of course, the same strategy is also the recourse of cults, inquisitors, and dictators. 

The situation pits obedience vs. reason, loyalty vs. compassion, humility vs. love. And notice how it is so very accommodating to lunatics. A person can switch in any type of “truth” while still maintaining the defense’s invulnerability. “God told me I’m an eggplant; your faculties and mine might tell me otherwise, but to believe them would be weakness. God told me that all others will go to hell, except those who share my beliefs. God told me to blow up a rival shrine.”

Once somebody makes skepticism taboo, it’s almost impossible to topple their stance. In fact, I don’t know if we really can argue with a person who considers all disagreement as a kind of dark temptation. Reason doesn’t work; the mind is subordinate to the soul. Scholarship doesn’t work; even the devil quotes scripture. The only thing that has a chance of taking hold is an appeal to the devoted’s sense of God. “This thing you’ve heard. Does it sound like your god to proclaim it? Does it fit the spirit of divinity’s other sayings–or does it sound like someone else? If this proclamation has more than one interpretation, are you sure you’ve go the right one?” These questions could be helpful. After all, the Jews use the Torah to judge even itself. But then, the devoted might just as easily answer by saying, “Who am I to judge God?”

I keep thinking of the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham is in the nigh-singular position of hearing God’s direct command*. Abraham says, “Who am I to judge God?” and he takes his kid on a walk. One believer might say that Abraham chose the right virtue. After all, even God told Abraham that the near-sacrifice passed an obedience test. Another person, say the author of the apocryphal Book of Jashar, might say that Satan issued the command to sacrifice Isaac, and that God had to intervene at the last second. A third person might say that the test never really happened, and the fact of God’s intervention shows that the Jews shouldn’t sacrifice their children the way the Canaanites famously did. Still another thinker might wonder what would have happened if Abraham said, “Lord, you are the god of love. I know you. This request of yours doesn’t sound true.” Would Abraham have passed the test then? Would Abraham have pleased God by seeing through to His intent? Would God acknowledge that Abraham’s reaction to the command came not from the fear of a servant but from the heart-knowing love of a child?* 

It’s hard to say. Is there more than one way to do God’s will? Let’s hope so. Let’s hope that whatever God is, she accepts the goodness of our intent while throwing out the tragedies of the outcome.

*Mind you that in this case, we’re talking about a sacred story, where–unless you’re in Jashar’s camp–God is unmistakably there, giving unmistakable commands. His mouthpiece isn’t an elder. It isn’t a Church with political ties. It isn’t even millennia-old book that has wound through history, language, and humanity in general. For most of us, in other words, this is an other-worldly example.

(Originally posted July 5, 2015)