Owning God, Part 2: Shahbaz Bhatti– “A Martyr” Says Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury in Pakistan in the last

Assassinations of high-profile public figures in Pakistan in the last three months have prompted reflection and concern in that country and elsewhere. The proximate cause is Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law; the underlying cause is the deformation of religion known as fundamentalism. The assassins– and those who support them– dishonor God by claiming that their “religion”– or particular interpretation thereof– contains all of who God is. They want to own God for themselves.

This fundamentalism– whether it’s in Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Argentina, Uganda, the United States, the United Kingdom, or the United Arab Emirates– is religion out of balance.

Here are some words from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoken in response to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti– the latest Pakistani official killed because of his criticism of that country’s anti-blasphemy law.

The archbishop’s words are religion in balance.

Said Williams, “[Those who supported Mr. Bhatti’s killing] inhabit a world of fantasy, shot through with paranoid anxiety.” He went on to characterize these violent fundamentalists as “wholly uninterested in justice and due process of law, [and] concerned only with promoting an inhuman pseudo-religious tyranny.”

In the end, he said that Mr. Bhatti died “for all practical purposes as a martyr. Not simply for his Christian faith, but for a vision shared between Pakistani Christians and Muslims.”

via BBC News – Pakistan Christian minister Shahbaz Bhatti ‘a martyr’.

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Owning God: More Assassination in Pakistan

Christians Are Pakistan's Second Largest Religious Minority

We wrote about the assassination of Salman Taseer last January: about his call to reform Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law; and about the assassin (Taseer’s own bodyguard) who believed he was carrying out God’s will in killing Taseer. I characterized such misguided fundamentalism as “owning” God. When God is yours, you can justify doing anything– including murdering others.

This sad story continues with another assassination, earlier this month, of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. The BBC reports that Mr. Bhatti was killed in an ambush by Taliban gunmen as he drove away from his mother’s home on March 2nd. Mr. Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, had spoken out against Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law.

Bad theology– of any religious brand– will lead to bad consequences. While I write about events in Pakistan, the truth is that bad theology leading to bad consequences can– and does– happen anywhere. Destructive, life-denying ideas about who God is, and what God wants, can take root in people’s hearts. Assassination in God’s name is a dramatic enactment of bad theology; chronic guilt or debilitating shame in a person, that comes from a theology built on an imprinted Disapproving Parent, is a less dramatic– but still life-robbing– enactment of bad theology.

The answer to bad theology is good theology. Here’s some good theology articulated by Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts. This good theology was spoken at Shahbaz Bhatti’s funeral:

Our grievance is against the wrong use of this [blasphemy] law. If murderers go to heaven, then what good is the heaven. Pardon me, but we cannot worship a god who rewards murderers.

Nobody is ready to listen to our argument, or accept our innocence. Shahbaz Bhatti’s message is, rid Pakistan of prejudice and hatred so that a culture of mutual respect and tolerance takes root.

And let the people say: it’s not just Pakistan. Amen.

William Sloane Coffin on Suffering….

William Sloane Coffin

My good friend Rich Simpson posted the following on his blog (link below, and also in the sidebar) on March 18th. Having recently reflected on suffering here with Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts (prompted by the destruction in Japan), I found these words an apt follow-on. According to Rich, “the sermon was titled ‘The Uses and Misuses of Suffering’ and can be found in Volume I of The Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years:”

If the only God I could believe in was the God of…atheists like Nietzsche and Camus, I too would be an atheist. I could never believe in a God who didn’t suffer – given the suffering of the world. I could never believe in a God whose chief characteristic was his power, not his goodness. And because my God is a God of goodness, his chief characteristic is not peace but pain. I only quote Scripture, “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” My God hangs upon a cross, a victim not an executioner; the quarry, not the hunter; and one who not only suffers with me but for me, seeking not only to console but, beyond consolation, to strengthen me. Such a God I can affirm and a world with such a God in it I can affirm too. Metaphysically, I can’t answer the problem of pain. I can only resolve it by sharing it – by holding hands with the dying, by protesting in the name of my crucified Lord against war, hunger, oppression, torture, against suffering inflicted by our own human injustice. I know that the worst of all evil is indifference to evil…to keep vigil with him who neither slumbers nor sleeps – that’s the way to live.

via Rich’s Ruminations: The Uses and Misuses of Suffering (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.).

Giant Lobsters and Procreating Whales: Praise the Lord from the Earth, You Great Sea Creatures

A Big Lobster Statue in Canada

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths (Psalm 148:7)

True religion, like great art, enlarges our attention– sometimes shockingly, sometimes gently. True religion awakens our sense of the depth of Creation and correspondingly of ourselves, and reminds us that life is surging on.

These two stories are for free. The lobster is first; the whales are second. Enjoy.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

One of the biggest and oldest lobsters ever caught in Britain has been saved from the pot and will live out the rest of its long life in an aquarium.

The massive crustacean measures close to one meter (3 feet) in length and weighs more than 4 kg (9 lb).

“He’s a fantastic specimen and by his size alone he has got to be at least 50 years old,” said Lindsay Holloway of the Blue Reef aquarium in Portsmouth, southern England where the lobster now lives.

“He is an amazing creature and it’s quite an achievement to have reached such an impressive age,” he added.

The lobster was caught in around 14 feet of water by a compassionate angler fishing for sole in Bracklesham Bay, off the coast of West Sussex.

Lobsters are among the planet’s oldest inhabitants with fossil remains found dating back more than 100 million years. They are also extremely long-lived with some reaching ages of over 80 years.

The aquarium said the heaviest recorded crustacean is an Atlantic lobster nicknamed Mike who was caught in 1934 and tipped the scales at an awesome 19 kg.

via Huge lobster caught off England’s south coast – CSMonitor.com.

And from Al Jazeera:

Silence reigns over San Ignacio lagoon in North Mexico. The only sound is the hum of an idling motor in the launch that has brought the half-dozen tourists to the centre of the lake. They grip the side of the boat, straining to see movement in the depths below or squint off into the middle distance with cameras held in eager hands. It is a tense, expectant still, broken only by the occasional excited squawk of a false alarm.

Suddenly a huge flipper rises into the air, flails around and slips back into the icy waters of the lagoon. Seconds later another appears, before the water is alive with a windmill of giant flailing extremities. As the tourists coo and point, three huge bodies briefly rise to the surface before disappearing from view as the complex gyrations continue.

This is the mating of the grey whale, taking place in the most public of bedrooms. They travel up to 10,000km each year to enact the ritual, beginning the long swim in the icy waters of the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas between Russia and Alaska before heading here, to the balmier water of the Northern Mexico Bajan California peninsula. It is the longest migration of any mammal in the world.

Breaking waves: The story of the grey whales – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Auden on Suffering: Musee des Beaux Arts

"Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

This poem came to mind while I was looking at some pictures of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I offer it not in judgment, lament, apology, explanation, or defense. Simply, it is the gift of the poet to see, and to offer that vision in unsparingly truthful yet compassionate words that deepen our sense of the mystery of the world:

Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Distraction, Avoidance, and Deeper Reflection

Today’s headlines include the names Peter King and Muammar Qaddafi; the country of Japan; and the state of  Wisconsin.

Public theology is sometimes about exploring  theological perspectives on a particular story. We’ve done that in the last six months with events such as the “Ground Zero” mosque, the deposing of Mubarak, and the report of President Obama’s Debt Commission.

Other times, public theology is about stepping back from the headlines to reflect on longer-term trends and to ask, “What are we missing?”

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, points out that groups of people– as small as families and as big as nations– can avoid much-needed learning and growing, by engaging in distraction. The very definition of distraction is to shift our attention from one thing to another, without probing or going deeper. The benefit is that we don’t have to be accountable. The cost is that we miss opportunities for growth.

So what are we missing, with our distracted hop from headline to headline? Or, to put it differently, what deeper reflections do the headlines call us to?

Here are a couple:

1. With regard to the collective bargaining rights of public service employees: the larger question here has to do with our economic life as a whole, and specifically, the increasing gap between the very wealthy, and the rest. This is one uncomfortable but unavoidable context within which all questions of economic fairness are placed, in 2011 post-crash/recession realities. One contentious difference that then is revealed, is the difference between those who see a role for government in narrowing the wealth gap, and those who don’t. And within that difference is the further distinction between those who believe government has a moral obligation to the lesser well-off, and those who don’t.

2. With regard to Muslims in America and their potential radicalization: the larger questions have to do with religious plurality and how we will deal with those identified as “the other”; the foreign policy questions of who is the enemy and what is the nature of their threat; and the context of the ever-present adrenaline arousal of fear and anxiety in American society.