Saturday, February 7, 2015

The President and the Crusades

One would think the present were problematic enough without dredging up controversies from ancient (or almost ancient) history! Yet that is what President Obama - whether intentionally or not - appeared to be doing at the annual National Prayer Breakfast the other day when he introduced references to medieval events - e.g., the Crusades  - in his response to a quite contemporary problem.

To be fair, much of what the President said was excellent, and the larger point he was trying to make by his misuse of history was itself a good one. The President came to the National Prayer Breakfast as a fellow-believer and spoke positively about faith as a force for good in the world  even while he acknowledged - as should be acknowledged - the less beneficial ways religion can and has been used.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another -- to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  -- terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
So far, so good! As the President rightly noted, Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. But then he continued, making the analogies that have subsequently caused controversy: And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 
So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. 
As is obvious from the actual text, the questionable references were all in one sentence, as part of a larger discussion of how all religions - Hinduism as well as islam and, yes, even Christianity too - have to grapple with this problem. 
Again, the President's larger point is a valid one and one well worth raising in the context of any discussion about contemporary religious conflict. The President's problem here, however, is twofold, at least as I see it. The first is that not all these situations are equal or necessarily even comparable. The Crusades, for example, were an effort to retake territory that had earlier been Christian which the Muslim armies had conquered from the Byzantine Roman Empire. In that regard, the Crusades could be said to resemble the current effort to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. How wise that earlier undertaking was may be debated by historians, just as historians will in the future debate the merits of the President's present interventions in the region.. That there were unworthy motives and even more unworthy behavior intermingled with the Crusades' fundamental goal can hardly be denied, and so must also figure in any moral evaluation of the Crusades overall. (And, remember, there were several Crusades to consider, not just one). But "collateral damage" is an ever-present factor in any conflict, and must be factored into any moral evaluation of any war - including the present "War on Terrorism." There were atrocities associated with the Crusades, to be sure, but will history evaluate every action taken in our present "War on Terrorism" as unambiguously good? The Crusades were also long ago, which makes it very difficult for modern people to understand and relate to the mentality and values of those who fought in them - on both sides. Judging other times and places by the norms adopted by people of this time and place is always problematic. And willful ignorance about the Muslim conquest of Christian territories in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain centuries ago and subsequent Christian efforts to reverse those conquests does not enrich discussion and debate about these issues. It confuses and distorts discussion and debate.
Which is why he would have done better to stick with the slavery and Jim Crow analogy. That was not ancient history. It was part of our own national experience in a society which professed the values of the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal." Unlike the Crusades, slavery and Jim Crow were recognized by a good many of their contemporaries as morally iniquitous. The debate was contemporary with the facts - not an after-the-fact self-righteous judgment in hindsight.

It is, of course, true that Christianity arose in a world which took slavery for granted. Jesus' parables apparently took the existence of slaves and their presence in households for granted as a fact of contemporary life. Paul gave moral advice to both salves and masters, advice which again took the institution for granted as part of the framework of the world they lived in - a world Christians had no political power and no expectation of attaining it. Over time, Christians (who by then had attained political power throughout the Western world) came to question the institution of slavery and a serious moral debate ensued. It is true that many Christians opposed slavery and sought its abolition, and it is also true that many Christians continued to defend it and cited scripture in its support. That history raises interesting and important religious questions, which it is right to raise. How illuminating that history is for the present discussion is perhaps itself debatable, but at least it involves modern American history and modern Americans who shared many similar experiences and values, both with each other and with us - a far cry from self-righteously imposing contemporary experiences and values on the very different experiences of the people of the Middle Ages.
The second problem with the President's approach is that he frequently seems to be reluctant to recognize the close connection between Islam as a religion and the behavior that we are witnessing in the Middle East, Africa, Paris, and elsewhere. But, of course, if religion has nothing to do with it, then why bring up examples from other religions?

In fact, religion has a lot to do with it - which, of course, is a far cry from saying that all Muslims are in agreement on these matters, any more than all Christians were in agreement about slavery and Jim Crow. How close the connection is between Islam as a religion and the behavior that we are witnessing in the Middle East, Africa, Paris, and elsewhere is a subject on which there is certainly some serious disagreement. It is a legitimate topic for debate - a debate that should not be arbitrarily curtailed.

President Obama's parting advice to religious people in pluralistic societies such as ours is worth repeating: But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

Wise advice - not unlike remarks I myself made here on this blog not so long ago. ( If we are going to have a religiously pluralistic society that functions successfully for the good of its citizens, then we must both have a government which is constrained from penalizing free expression, while we at the same time speak out to stigmatize socially such expression that denigrates particular religions or religion in general.

All that having been said, how does that address the current crisis in the Middle East, which is about war and religious persecution on the ground and terrorism exported around the world - a crisis hardly about religious pluralism or even co-existence.  

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