Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Honestly Owning Our Past

Karen Armstrong, an author for whom I have high regard, has written an article in response to the Pope's recent address. Armstrong uses such terms as "Islamophobic" and "bigotry" in her description of the mindset that would support the Pope's choice of quotes. She suggests that our current problems are rooted more in politics than they are religion:

...The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations. Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur'anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems - oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the west's perceived "double standards" - and not to an ingrained religious imperative.

But the old myth of Islam as a chronically violent faith persists, and surfaces at the most inappropriate moments. As one of the received ideas of the west, it seems well-nigh impossible to eradicate. Indeed, we may even be strengthening it by falling back into our old habits of projection. As we see the violence - in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon - for which we bear a measure of responsibility, there is a temptation, perhaps, to blame it all on "Islam". But if we are feeding our prejudice in this way, we do so at our peril...
The Mad Priest points out that suggesting this is all about projection doesn't take into account some of the realities of the current situation:

...I expect there is still much self-examination that could be done by Western Christians, and the West in general, in respect of the sins of their past. But, for many years the West has faced up to its culpability in the violence of past centuries - the Crusades, the invasion of Latin America and slavery amongst many other acts of terrible oppression. Karen's comments come from the guilt we have come to accept because we have been prepared to be honest about the past. However, Islam has not really even started to examine their own culpability for past acts of violence or the position of its scriptures in the giving of religious blessing to such acts. They must do this if there is to be any sort of level playing field on which all the religions of the world and secular agencies can meet to try and find a way out of the mess we are in.

Alternatively, we could all agree to forget the past completely and start again from a year zero. This would be a very postmodern solution but we would have to sort out disputed borders first before we could really start again.
I tend to agree with the Mad Priest. There is no question that Christians need to continue to hold themselves accountable for the violence committed by them in the name of God, and to ask forgiveness, and repent of such actions. But I don't think such repentance requires us to justify the violent actions of another faith tradition. It seems to me this is what Karen Armstrong has tried to do. There is no justification for American bombers killing innocent civilians. And there is no justification for terrorist bombs killing innocent people, either. Both are being done in the name of God. Both must be condemned as being contrary to the nature of God. Until the religions of the world confess their role in the violence, and name it for the sin that it is, the violence will continue.


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