Silence at the Heart of Things

After 36 hours of retreat with the Benedictine monks at Glastonbury Abbey, I am reminded of the question raised by a beloved teacher of mine, in an undergraduate seminar 30 years ago: “Why is the man of action absurd?” (She had not yet adopted inclusive language.) Or as Ecclesiastes puts it: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9)

One way to take this truth is to ride it down into desperation and defeat: all comes to nothing. There is no point.

Another way to take this truth is to allow it to check our feverishness, and to welcome its injection of a mature irony into our stance toward the world. In a further twist of irony, then, the more deeply we stand in what is authentic about our human lives (including the absurdity of action), the more effective our action becomes.

Follow-up: US Envoy to Raise Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law for Discussion on Official Visit

This item is included here as a  follow-up to my earlier posts on the assassination of a provincial governor in Pakistan, Salman Taseer:

WASHINGTON: The United States is not asking Pakistan to change or repeal the blasphemy law but is encouraging the government to prevent possible discriminations and potentials for abuse, says Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Michael H. Posner. “We are reluctant to prescribe changes and alternatives,” said Mr. Posner when asked what changes he believed Pakistan needed to make to prevent discriminatory applications of this law. “But we do believe that people should be free to practice their religion.”

via US seeks end to discriminatory applications for blasphemy | Pakistan | DAWN.COM.

Religion At All? (Let Alone in the Balance…)

In response to my recent post on Salman Taseer’s assassination, my friend Paul writes:

Violence is rarely the answer, perhaps never. And it leaves me to wonder if John Lennon wasn’t onto something when he said, “imagine no religion …” Can the good ever outweigh the evil done in religions’ name(s)?

Thankfully, the critique of religion is not just the province of atheists– of whatever historical moment and philosophical stripe– but is also the province of religious people themselves. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Douglas John Hall quotes Swiss theologian Karl Barth as having remarked, “‘The message of the Bible is that God hates religion.'” The idea is to contrast religion– understood as the way to capture and own God– with faith: faith being a lived and living trust in the transformative power of the Transcendent One,  Who by definition is beyond being controlled or captured.

As long as human beings are around, religion isn’t going away. That means that the need for the critique of religion isn’t going away either. And that’s the spirit of this blog: that true religion opens individuals and orients communities toward active trust in the mystery and power of God– and that it is precisely this kind of faith that can provide a balancing counterweight to the violence and narcissism of our time.

Violence and Fear– Religion Unbalanced

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, condemns the assassination of Salman Taseer. Unbalanced religion proudly claims to own the one right path to God; balanced and faithful Muslim (and Christian, and other) religious approaches embrace inter-religious co-existence.

First, here’s the story in a nutshell: Pakistan has an anti-blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to blaspheme God. Problematically, this law has been invoked in such a way as to target religious minorities: Christian belief in the Trinity, for example, is considered by many Muslims blasphemy against God, whom they understand as One. Narrowly interpreted, then, any Christian could be charged as a blasphemer. Aasia Bibi is a Christian woman who was charged, convicted, and sentenced to death under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, defended Bibi and called for reform of the law; Salman Taseer was then assassinated by his bodyguard– who claimed to be doing a good thing by killing a blasphemer.

Condemnation of the assassination of Salman Taseer has come from Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (photo above), as well as Pope Benedict. Each leader is pushing back against a narrowly “religious,” life-denying  possessiveness of God:

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has called those who celebrated the murder of a liberal politician who sought changes to the country’s blasphemy laws “the real blasphemers.” via Bhutto’s son: Pakistanis who praise Taseer assassination are ‘covert blasphemers’ – CSMonitor.com.

For his part, Pope Benedict XVI called for repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law this past Monday.

Zardari’s remarks may be intemperate, but they do point to the struggle in religion– Christianity not excluded– and within whole societies– between those who will accept the challenges of a plural modern world without fear, and those whose fear lead them to kill those identified as Other.

It’s Pakistan, but there are analogies to the US.

Moderate Muslim Voices

At a Christmas party last month, my neighbor asked me, Where are the moderate Muslim voices? My answer: they exist, but they don’t get much play in the mainstream, and even not-so-mainstream, media. So I was happy to have found this item in today’s Christian Science Monitor, and reprint it here. The author is an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Faheem Younus:

And the Jan. 3 assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab – Pakistan’s largest province – is a message to every moderate Muslim in the country to dare not challenge the vitriolic blasphemy laws, or they could be next…. Repealing blasphemy laws is an idea whose time has come. These laws are at the symbolic heart of the battle over hardline intolerance and hypocrisy. This larger religious and cultural struggle is now destabilizing Pakistan. Not only are these laws a disgrace to Pakistan, but they also provide more harm than protection to the honor of Prophet Muhammad. Just look at what the Quran says about him, “And We have sent thee not but as a mercy for all peoples (21:108)”.

Faheem Younus is a former youth president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

via Pakistani Muslims must honor prophet Muhammad – by protecting Christians – CSMonitor.com.

The Pluralism of Modernity and the Pushback of Reactionary Fundamentalism

Taseer (right) supported the amendment of a blasphemy law under which Bibi, centre, was convicted

Two sad stories from the Middle East this past week: one, the assassination of Salman Taseer, in Islamabad; two, the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria.

Both stories underline societal tensions in Egypt and in Pakistan– tensions that manifest as conflict between religions but are, more fundamentally, between forces of tolerance and forces of fear; between forces of modern pluralism and forces of reaction. Both stories also– in their sensational violence– serve to deflect attention from the less dramatic, and rarely reported, efforts of people in positions of no formal authority, whose work is an affirmation of life.

Salman Taseer was critical of a blasphemy law in Pakistan, a law that was used to convict a Christian woman (Aasia Bibi) and sentence her to death:

Mumtaz Qadri, the member of the elite force of the police deputed to protect Taseer who shot and killed him in a market in Islamabad, boasted to officers that he was proud to have killed a “blasphemer,” according to security officials.

via Deadly warning to Pakistan liberals – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Such violence comes from fear.

Ideas for a Better World in 2011

I wrote about James Davison Hunter a few times this September, and I was happy to find his critique of American Christianity included in the Christian Science Monitor’s recent article: “Ideas for a Better World in 2011.” Davison thinks that American Christianity is squandering its unique potential to transform American public life by being too political– that (perhaps counterintuitively), American Christianity’s potential to effect change in our culture is compromised by its over-involvement in politics. Davison suggests a different way of being for churches– a way that is public but not political:

Mr. Hunter argues that the Christian community should move away from the “politicization of everything.” Churches are now too often destructive battlegrounds of an ideological right and left. He advocates something called “faithful presence” – a humble reappraisal of what is distinctive and different about church and its public expression. “This is active, not passive; it requires engagement, not an opt-out. It is not ideological, but it is public,” he says.

The title of Hunter’s controversial new book, “To Change the World,” is ironic. While American Christianity often imagines itself a major player in US public life, it is, in fact, marginalized, he says. Despite large numbers, they don’t influence the actual structures of power and culture. Worry that a Christian America is fading has not brought a deeper commitment to church but anger. Political efforts to conform law or policy to narrow or sectarian teaching are often acted out coercively, not compassionately.

The “faithful presence” Hunter calls for transcends politics. The point, he says, is to serve faithfully and well in relationships, tasks, and networks of social influence. “Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture,’ ‘advancing the kingdom,’ and ‘changing the world,'” he said in the magazine Christianity Today. “Such talk carries too much weight….” In the case of abortion, he suggests that 10,000 families could get together in Illinois and announce they will adopt a child of any background and declare no unwanted children in the state; it’s a public but not a political act.

via Ideas for a better world in 2011 – James Davison Hunter – CSMonitor.com.