Blasphemy

Posted: March 6, 2015 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Paris attackBy Matt Horan

My brother, Mike, pointed out something that really made me think.  He does that.  I’d tell you to follow him on Twitter so he can make you think too, but I have thus far failed to convince him to sign up.  Maybe someday.  If it happens, it’ll be ReEmergent Church Blog newsworthy, so stay tuned.

He asked a question about the continuing legal battle in Pakistan over a Christian woman accused of blasphemy:  “If this woman’s death sentence for ‘blasphemy’ is upheld by the local, high, AND supreme courts of Pakistan, can we please reopen the discussion that Islamic violence is being perpetrated [not] only by ‘radicals’ and ‘extremists?'”

I’ve normally been on the “benefit of the doubt” side of this debate most of the time–often a counter to my brother, a veteran of the recent Iraq war, who is ready for someone to name names and call Islam out as a systemic perpetuation of violence, oppression, discrimination… you name it.

However, Mike clearly has some things right.  There are people who wish to rule the world with an iron fist, and have chosen Islam as their vehicle.  The most troubling thing to me is the vast spectrum of adherents that exists within Islam.  At every point along this spectrum stand millions of Muslims–abhorring the violence, carrying it out, and everything in between.  There are the friendly Muslims I’ve met in Tampa who are soccer team parents rooting for their kids and mine on the sidelines on Saturday mornings who work all week as accountants or nurses or landscapers and genuinely hope the best for me and my family.

Then there are others who carry out beheadings, strap bombs to people and send them onto a crowded bus in Israel, and take to YouTube to send messages out in hopes that lonely, mentally ill people in search of acceptance will respond and kill a soldier guarding a monument in Canada, or run over a police officer with their car, or attack others with a hatchet.

Where on the spectrum should we engage? Those who know of the violence and cheer? Those who know but don’t care? Politicians who aren’t doing enough to defend minorities?  Those who dare to engage do so at their own political peril.  The problem here may be “blasphemy” indeed.

“Blasphemy” is an interesting concept.  Its Biblical usage–the word’s etymology includes a Greek form that appears in the New Testament over 30 times–usually refers to “speaking ill” of something, and the term has not changed much.  Anything can be blasphemed–my mom’s potato salad, my favorite football team… all the way up to Almighty God, however God might be understood by any of the world’s faith systems.

At some point in not too distant history, speaking ill of someone because of where they came from became way worse than speaking ill of them for what they’ve done.  This is progress.

As usual, however, we perverted this progress when we saw it as an opportunity to manipulate the world in our favor.  It is often to our benefit when we are insulted, as it puts our adversaries in the wrong and gives us moral high ground.  Thus, we have developed radar for insults.  When a quote may be offensive, we rush to the recipient to see if they were offended.  How else do you explain the number of news stories that begin with:

“Last night [famous person] tweeted that [other famous person] was [insulting adjective].  We sent a news crew over to [famous person]’s house and asked what they thought of that, and for more on this story we now go live to [reporter], standing on [famous person]’s front lawn with the latest…”

Then, if we discover that the two people have already talked on the phone and worked out their differences–it’s such a news cycle disappointment.  Imagine the disappointment by CNN, FOX, or MSNBC news directors had the Ferguson Grand Jury brought charges against Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown and protesters had all gone home without burning or looting anything?

Of course, this is not just the media’s fault.  The media only shows news that people will watch.  If we weren’t so gripped by conflict, we wouldn’t watch.  They wouldn’t show it on TV, Jerry Springer would have to rethink his format, and stories of people doing constructive things might actually see the light of day.

We’re not there yet.  Instead, while being insulted might seem–on the surface–a negative experience, we have instead turned it into an opportunity.  (Ever been insulted before only to slowly respond with “What did you say?” just to make them say it again and solidify your higher moral position?)  If we can become the victim, our opponent becomes a villain.  The villain–who did not aspire to become a villain at all since it is a terrible business plan–now hires a PR firm to help them look less bad.  What should have gone away with tattling on our siblings in elementary school has become the road to success.

In the post-Cold War era, the United States is the undeniable sole military and economic superpower.  Thus, expansionist regimes have adopted the “just get insulted” strategy, and it’s working.  Anyone who craves power must take it from where the power lies, and thus finding ways in which the United States has insulted them is the most effective attack on the Americans since 9/11.  Consider this–expansionist Muslims carried out the 9/11 attacks, and by 2008, parading the losses from America’s military campaign before the media saw the American presidential election won on a platform that effectively apologized for America’s response.  Even Americans themselves had been convinced of their own villainy.  Whether you’re from a blue or a red state, or approved or disapproved of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can all agree that being insulted was an effective anti-U.S. strategy, and it continues to be today.  Every second that the Middle East is in the news is a second of pain for political leaders in the U.S.

I’ve never been an elected government official, so I can’t say I’ve walked any miles in these painful shoes.  However, the most troubling thing to me sometimes when I read or watch coverage of conflicts in the Middle East is the way that we don’t expect Muslims to police themselves.  If a member of my church is writing an anti-semitic blog and attaching his church affiliation to it, it is my responsibility to respond in a public forum equal to that of the blog, as well as to begin proceedings for church discipline.  Further, if I have knowledge of his inflammatory speech and choose to do nothing about it, it is fair to imply my endorsement of it.  If Muslims are not motivated to confront someone who claims that their faith demands suicide bombings of civilians, how are we to interpret their silence as anything other than consent?

Here’s one way.  It could be that people are afraid of retaliation in the absence of a stable government and police force that would protect their right to speak.  I cannot expect someone to volunteer the lives of themselves or their families in such a situation.

However, this threat does not cover the entire Muslim world.  Where is the leadership of stable nations like Saudi Arabia or Turkey?  Where is the outrage over the bad name that this violence gives to Islam?  Where are the action steps to get their own house in order so that Islam might be a contributor to the world, rather than a force for conflict, fear, and violence?  We must assume the worst if they sit idly by while groups like al Qaeda or ISIS continue their work to require the world’s allegiance to Islam in the face of execution.  The world cannot afford to prop up nations that contribute to violent Islamic groups expanding their influence and control.

If a nation or organization claims to be an Islamic state or agency, it is reasonable to expect the following:

  1. Islamic nations should be the first responders in curbing the violence being perpetuated in the name of Islam.
  2. Islamic nations should receive any refugees who are fleeing these violent groups, and they should expect generous assistance from the U.S. and its allies to handle the influx.
  3. Any nation expecting assistance from and trade with the U.S. and it’s allies must allow and encourage an independent, free press.  Every ounce of influence a regime tries to exert over the press should be interpreted as an ounce less that they can be trusted to have the nation’s best interests in mind.  A government that is serving its citizens to the best of its ability should throw open its doors and allow all the world to see what they’re doing without fear of something embarrassing being uncovered.
  4. Any nation desiring to be a trade partner and/or ally must have term-limited chief executives and fair elections monitored closely by the free press.

In 1947, Winston Churchill was addressing the British House of Commons, and said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  Indeed Democracy is fraught with perils worth of a blog post or two all their own.  It may never have been better said than by a man who preceded Churchill in British politics by 90 or so years–John Dahlberg-Acton–written in a letter to a Catholic Bishop in 1887:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

The unwillingness of any leader to give up power after they have served for a time betrays much, foremost of which is a lack of faith.  For a religious leader to believe that their leadership is necessary for the faith to continue or spread diminishes its transcendence.  Refusal to pass power on to others means that the leader is seeking to serve themselves at the expense of the cause or the community.  Do we not need religious leaders to believe that God will still be God whether the leader is in charge or not?

If Muslims want more people to become Muslims, they’re doing it wrong.  Take it from a Christian clergyperson who has inherited the results of the philosophy that everyone should go to church because it’s just the right thing to do, and if you don’t go, we’ll tell you what’s wrong with you until you do.  That’s a strategy that does not work.

If Islam is a faith system that improves the lives of individuals, families, and communities; then a faithful Muslim should humbly demonstrate that improvement in their own life, and then invite others to choose it of their own free will.  A person who commits by choice will be far more fruitful in serving a faith community than one who commits under duress!  People choosing to commit becomes a movement, and movements grow out of control.

People forced to commit become resentful, only move by coercion, and are very difficult to motivate.  Consider the words of a politician in the Bible’s New Testament, when they were trying to figure out what to do with the movement of people still flocking to become followers of Jesus of Nazareth, even though he’d been executed already:

“A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.  Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.  Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.  After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.  Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’”

Should a faith system that is superior to all others require commitment by force?  Ironically, believing that people cannot choose a faith of their own free will surely does make a terrible statement about that faith–perhaps even, “speaking ill” of it.

Which, of course, is blasphemy.

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