Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prohibition Boko Style

And you thought American Prohibition was bad…

Not that I would encourage you to visit Nigeria any time soon, but on the off chance you are already going there, let me advise you to avoid visiting any bars.

It seems there is a group of Islamic radicals who not only hate the sin (drinking alcohol) but are intent on killing the sinner (drinkers of alcohol). Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. Neither are they supposed to kill people. But when it comes to the group called Boko Haram it seems that killing people who are drinking alcohol is part of God’s plan. And you don’t have to be a Muslim to get killed, either. They really hate alcohol.

And don’t think you are safe spending your Nigerian vacation avoiding alcohol. The bad boys of Boko target churches as well. They bombed a Catholic church on Christmas. Maybe because they drink wine as part of the Eucharist, I don’t know. What I do know is that they have killed over 500 people last year, and I imagine they are out to top that this year.

So if you are going to Nigeria don’t forget to pack Kevlar.

Friday, March 23, 2012

This is War

War is hell. And hell—or at least heaven—makes war all the more hellish. Mohamed Merah the Islamic terrorist who recently murdered three French soldiers, three Jewish children and their rabbi was a person of faith. After considering surrender, Mr. Merah opted for a fight to death saying, “If it’s me [who dies], who cares? I’ll go to paradise.” And that’s where religion comes in.

Mohamed Merah said he was avenging the deaths of his brothers in Afghanistan, and for that he needed no religious sanction. There are plenty of secular terrorists, just look at the growth in the militia movement in the US. But he saw his killing as a religious act for which God would reward him in heaven. He didn’t fear death, but welcomed it.

Yesterday in my class on Religion and Pop Culture we compared two films: Jesus Camp and Obsession. In both films there are scenes of little kids in deep emotional stress triggered by their adult teachers who led them in war chants and rhythmic dances. “This is war! This is war! This is war!” the leader of Jesus Camp chanted, and while some of my students did their best to say she was talking about “spiritual warfare” and not actually killing people, it was clear to most of us that there was no difference in the impact war fever had on Christian and Muslim little children. How did we get from Jesus’ “suffer the little children” to make little children suffer? Religion.

But not just the brand religions. Think of Hitler Youth during the 1930s and 40s. Think of soccer riots. Think of any situation in which you abdicate your self to the mob, and those who lead it. Once you have identified with the mass, the fate of the person, even your own person, is irrelevant. And that is both what scares me and gives me hope.

It scares me because so much of what passes for religion (broadly defined) is simply the capturing of the individual mind and enlisting it in the service to the group mind. It gives me hope in that it sets out the antidote to religious madness: maintaining your integrity and autonomy as a freethinking individual.

I am not opposed to faith. I am opposed to mindlessness. A religion, philosophy, political position that honors and promotes the freedom of thought and individual autonomy does not produce terrorists. So don’t imagine you have to abandon faith, only ask yourself whether your faith is demanding that you abandon your self.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I, Hypocrite

I got this question via email from a reader of this blog. Here is an edited version:

Honestly, rabbi, you are very hypocritical. You say you don’t believe in the traditional creator God who judges us and sends us to heaven or hell, yet you counseled that woman who feared her nonChristian loved ones were going to hell as if you did believe. Why not just tell she’s trapped in a delusion and to get over it?

One of the few things I have learned so far in my life is never to use other people’s suffering as an opportunity to push my agenda. This woman didn’t want to hear how her damning god was not God, but how her god could love her relatives enough to welcome them into heaven with her. So I spoke with her from her own perspective rather than mine. I don’t think this is hypocritical; I think it is good pedagogy.

When someone is suffering there is no point in telling them to simply stop suffering. You have to enter into their world, find out what in this world is causing them to suffer, and then offer them a way to navigate their world to alleviate the suffering.   

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Real War on Christianity

America is an ideal that can never be completely fulfilled. That’s not something to be disparaged but celebrated: we are always looking to live our values in more and more expansive ways.

One of the great freedoms that makes the United States exceptional is the First Amendment, especially the clause against the establishment of religion. It is a value under siege in our own country, often lacking altogether in many others.

Take, for example, the war on Christianity. I’m not talking about the fake war that floods the airwaves at Christmas time with pundits mistaking the separation of church and state for some Stalinist attack on Christianity, but the real war being waged against Christianity in other countries. In countries with authentic religious freedom there is no war on Christianity. The danger to Christianity (and other faiths) comes not from freedom but from the lack of freedom.

Muslim extremists in Nigeria have killed scores of Christians simply because they are Christians. Muslim converts to Christianity in Pakistan and Iran face the death penalty since conversion out of Islam is a capital offense in those countries. Indonesia has seen dozens of churches attacked by Islamists, and as Egypt and Syria move more deeply into the Islamist camp the oldest Christian communities face extinction.

But don’t imagine it is only Islam that is taking on Christianity. Hindu nationalists in India are trying to outlaw Christian missionary work, and Communist China and Vietnam are doing their best to crush their growing Christian movements. And in the Holy Land itself Christianity is caught between Judaism and Islam, each of which is determined to keep Christianity from growing.

What all of these countries have in common is a lack of religious freedom. This is not a matter of Christians being more open than Muslims, Hindus, or Americans being more open than is the Chinese, this is a matter of the United States been rooted in 18th Century Enlightenment values and allowing those values to expand our hearts and our laws.

While too many politicians want to take us back to the 1950’s I want to go back to the 1750’s. I want to see a rebirth of the Age of Reason. Of course this was also a time of slavery and there was no women’s suffrage, and anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that is not what I am talking about. But the freedoms we cherish and seek to expand to all people have their roots in the radical ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment, ideas and ideals that are under attack today from within our own country.

There is a real war on Christianity, but not in the United States. Here we are at war with the Enlightenment, and too often that war is being waged in the name of Christianity. It is high time for us to make both wars public. And until we do we will do nothing to stop either.   

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Atheists One and All

[I wrote my last post while delayed in at the airport in Springfield, MO. I managed to get from there to Chicago, and now I’m stuck here. I will post this when (if) I get home.]

I’m now stuck at O’Hare. New airport; new conversation.
“Do you believe in God?” The fellow asking me this is a Christian minister who overheard me say that I teach religion and Bible at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It depends what you mean by “God.,” I said. “If, for example, you mean a God who has a son, no I don’t believe in God.”
“Then you are an atheist, since there is no God other than God and that means the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
“Far enough,” I said, “Do you believe in Krishna?”
“The Hindu God?”
“No, the Lord God of the universe, the one true God as described in the Bhagavad Gita.”
“Of course not.”
“Then you, too, are an atheist.”
It never pays to be clever. What I thought was a clear and compelling argument against theological hubris was in face an invitation to a battle of the gods.
“I’m talking about the God of the Bible,” he said.
“Why is your God more true than someone else’s?
“Because it is the God of the Bible.”
“Why is your Bible better than mine or better than the Gita?”
“Because it is the Word of God.”
“Your God is true because your Bible says he’s true, and your Bible is true because you God says its true.”
“And you don’t see this as circular reasoning?”
“It is simply the truth.”
And that is why I am always wary of truth.