Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Caught in the middle.

In his recent piece entitled Benedict’s Gambit,
Ross Douthat, the NY Times’ young and thoughtful conservative columnist,
assesses Rome’s outreach
to dissident Anglicans.  Douthat,
himself a Catholic, speaks of the concessions his Church is willing to make to
accommodate these potential Anglican converts, including accepting their
married clergy into the priesthood. 
He points, as have others, to its meaning as a reflection of the Church’s
move away from the ecumenism started in the 1960s and of the Pope’s more overt attempt
to bring those on the fringes back into the fold, most notably his “controversial
outreach to schismatic Latin Mass Catholics”.  But Douthat sees this in a larger, and largely missed,
context. “In making the opening to Anglicanism”, he suggests,  “Benedict also may have a deeper
conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and
liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

His comments bring to mind George Bush’s instinctively evoking the Crusade
word in the early days of his war on terrorism.  While he backed away from it’s use, many believe it
accurately reflected his views about the real nature of the threat and consequent
response, both heavily laden with religious overtones.  And it isn’t only conservative
Christians who seem to hold that view. 
It is one shared by the ardent atheist Sam Harris who writes,
“The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a
dangerous fantasy”.  

This fear of the other and its real agenda is hardly one sided.  Times journalist David Rhode, in the account
of his seven-month captivity by the Taliban, describes young fighters who are convinced
that Christians (and Jews) are out to destroy Islam.  So we may have arrived at the digital age but we remain
mired in medieval conflict.  In the
same vein, ultra-orthodox Jews digging in on the West Bank see themselves
engaged, if not in an overt religious war, then certainly in a struggle to
prevent Muslims from occupying their God-promised land and ultimately for their
own religious survival.

Perhaps there have been periods in which the religious did not feel
threatened by those who worshipped different or differently named gods, but for
many who consider themselves followers of the authentic way, the days of mister nice guy seem to be over, if they ever existed.  In Europe, as Douthat points out, devout
Christians find themselves caught between widespread secularism on one side and
growing Islam on the other.  While
both are threatening, Islam may be more so in that it offers a powerful
alternative, rather than any loss of, faith.  The existence Islam, in its very being, somehow questions Christianity’s
core beliefs and thus its legitimacy, not to mention supremacy.  It’s an age-old back and forth challenge
manifest, among others in Ferdinand and Isabella’s 15th century brutal
Spanish Inquisition focused on both Jews and Moslems.  In that, because its adherents had ruled their country, Islam may
have represented the greater threat.

We don’t yet know if the Fort Hood shootings were religiously
motivated, but even the idea that they might be evoked words of urgent caution
from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.   The potential for Christian-Muslim tinderbox tension
is palpable and ever-present in a post 9/11 United States.

To say that all the world’s conflicts are religion based would be a
gross overstatement, but that very many have a religious component is
undeniable.  To be sure, even those
that seem totally religious in nature have to be understood in a more nuanced
fashion.  The Taliban, for example,
are clearly motivated by extreme religious ideology and govern accordingly, but
also by nationalism.  Let’s
remember they aren’t merely fighting infidels but also an invasion by
foreigners.   That said, it is
the religious ideology that produces the passion and, in their case, with the
most cruel and lethal consequences.

Culture makes a huge difference in how we position ourselves.  Radical Islamists seem more prepared to
put religion forward as their standard bearer in conflict.  We in the West, which by virtue of
sheer numbers means the Christian West, are loathe to do so or even to admit
that religion plays any role in our actions – Bush pulled back on Crusade.  But we should not misread that cultural
affect.  To use an analogy, the
British are stereotypically known as people who don’t display emotions but that
doesn’t mean they lack feelings or indeed passion.  The religious tensions, labeled as such or not, are so close
to the surface that political leaders feel it necessary to regularly speak of
tolerance and inclusiveness.  From the day of his inauguration, President Obama
has sought to temper religious tensions and he continues to do so on a regular

Nonetheless, we find ourselves somehow caught in the middle of these religiously
tinged epoch conflicts.  The term
medieval wasn’t used lightly because for many of us the struggle we’re
witnessing and the turf being defended has little or no relevance to the
twenty-first century or to us.  It
is one of the reasons the Pope finds himself in a Europe much of which has
turned away from religion altogether and where even in Italy 75% of Catholics no longer attend mass.  It is perhaps why no-religion-at-all
is growing at a faster rate than any faith in America.   So Douthat may be right about Benedict’s real concerns, ones
no doubt shared in reverse by leaders of the Islamic faiths.  Many of us are just tired of being caught in the middle, collateral damage as the religious face off in unending no-win conflicts.  Their problem is the other’s faith.  Our problem is increasingly with all of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment