Destroying the Sacred Sites of Others

Destruction of Otherness

I remember when the Taliban were destroying Buddhist holy sites in Afghanistan. It was over 11 years ago (I had to look up the date). Now we have this report (excerpt below) of an Al-Qaida offshoot group destroying Sufi holy sites in Africa.

What is the significance of this kind of destruction? What does it mean?

In some circles, a popular theory is that Islam is, by its very nature, a particularly violent religion– and that Muslims are, ipso facto,  particularly prone toward violent behavior. This is unhelpful analysis, because it is based on a caricature of Islam, and on a cherry-picked selection of historical and contemporary events to count as evidence. It is also dangerous analysis, because it attempts to deny the destructive impulse that lies here– close to home– by placing that impulse in the only place where we can tolerate it– which is out there, with those foreigners and their barbaric ways. This is dangerous because such thinking creates the conditions by which we can avoid taking responsibility for our own destructiveness.

The meaning of this kind of destruction does not lie in its apparently “religious” motivation. That’s superficial, and fails to account for something deeper than religion: the dark human heart. In any account of what is happening in our world today, fear has to be factored into that account. Fear is a life- and other- denying power that is incapable of entertaining difference and diversity; fear is a wedge that separates us from hope, possibility, and creativity. Fear is a powerful motivator, and fear is thriving– not just over there, but here too.

BAMAKO, Mali — Despite international condemnation, the radical Islamic faction controlling the northern Malian outpost of Timbuktu continued destroying the city’s ancient tombs on Monday, laying waste to the city’s five-hundred-year-old heritage.The destruction began on Saturday, after the al-Qaida-linked faction Ansar Dine secured its hold on the three main towns in northern Mali, including Timbuktu. They descended on the tombs of the city’s Sufi saints with axes and shovels, as well as automatic weapons, saying that they were idolatrous. Their destruction spree continued through Monday.

via Al-Qaida Linked Islamists Destroying Timbuktu Sacred Sites Heritage.

The Cross for Today; Salvation for Today

Grunewald's Crucifixion

That God the Father sent his Son to absorb the Father’s justified wrath at sinful humanity, thereby getting us sinners off the hook, is a theology that needs to be retired. The world we inhabit needs saved in a different way– a way that sees humanity’s greatest brokenness being not  guilt, but fear.

If our brokenness is fear, then salvation is in faith, or better (since faith is a tired word), in trust. I used to think courage was the opposite of fear, but the fear we have is all about isolation– about being cut off, and crying into a darkness so thick that the silence that meets our cry only deepens our anxious loneliness. Courage isn’t enough. Only the trust that gets shaped by compassion into a human form, a human face, can heal the fear. The embrace of a relationship, over time, is today’s salvation.

So what does that have to do with the Cross? Everything. It’s not that God the Father was so angry that he sent his Son to suffer in our place: such a theology is not faithful to the unity of God. Jesus is God– so if Jesus suffers, God suffers. It’s the suffering God (not the angry God) whom we can trust. He suffers with us, and so his Passion is a com-passion, a suffering-with.

This is not a god who makes everything okay– who prevents pain in the first place. This is the God whose very being contains suffering; the God whose divine essence includes vulnerability, even weakness.

The temptation is to think that the god of Power is the one who can save us from fear, much like the way a child turns to the idealized omnipotent father for protection. That god is a failure. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only a suffering God can help.”

via Grünewald’s Crucifixion: “The Lockjaw Christ” | Superfluities Redux.

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.

“We’re Mad as Hell….”: Anger, Fear, and Pain

Driving down a busy road last week, I saw a man with a sign standing in the median at an intersection. He  faced the other way, but I could see that the back of his sign had writing on it. The light turned red; I slowed and read his sign. It said, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

As traffic piled up behind the red light, I found myself stopped just behind this man, who still faced the traffic coming the other way. I wanted to ask him a question, but I was a little afraid– after all, not only was he mad as hell, but his sign suggested that there were others too, and maybe they were in the bushes ready to pounce.

I rolled down the window. “Excuse me, sir. What are you mad about?” At that point, he turned his sign around, and written on the front were the names of two incumbent state and national politicians. “Gotcha. Thanks,” I said, and waved. He smiled and waved back; the light turned green and I was off.

It’s helpful to remember that anger is a defense– a defense against either fear or pain. Meaningful relief is possible only by getting behind the anger, to trace it back to its source in  fear. Politicians might make handy scapegoats (someone needs to pay– the thinking is–  for how miserable I feel), but politicians are as scared as you or I, or my friend by the side of the road. The nature of political life (its risk-aversion, its zero-sum thinking, its reduction of meaning to slogan, its fundamental commitment to coercive power) makes it singularly unsuited to address the fear in our society today.

We’re scared as hell. Authentic religious life tells the truth about our fear, and calls us to stay open even when everything in us says, pull in tight and clench.