ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

cross_crescent.jpgIn the July 8 issue of the Boston Globe, a fascinating piece on “What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush” dominated the “most e-mailed” category of the paper’s website for a number of weeks. In like fashion, but seemingly flying much lower under the radar, the July 30 issue of Newsweek featured a special report on “Islam in America” that seeks to at least raise the question of how Muslims citizens of the United States can be true to both their faith and to their country to public consciousness. Despite different approaches and examples (the Globe focuses on Christian responses to the Gulf war, while Newsweek turns on Muslim experience in the US since 9/11), both articles address the same critical issue, which is how can observant and committed Christians and Muslims be faithful to their religious and spiritual heritage and be responsible citizens of the US?

The implicit argument of both articles is that the experience of living through the Bush II administration somehow changes what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim in the United States. It is true that the elections of 2000 and 2004, which brought conservative and evangelical Christians out of the woodwork and into the voting box to elect the candidate ordained by national evangelical leaders, and the support of an unreal 87% of evangelicals who supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003 have absolutely affected public perception of the role Christians play (or ought to play, or should not play) in the governance of the country (as well as in the election of its leaders) and in our involvement overseas. Neither can there any doubt that the trauma of 9/11 has thrust the nearly 2.35 million Muslims into the national limelight in an unprecedented degree, and the continued announcements of alleged terrorist plots being thwarted does nothing to dissuade millions of others from erroneous and potentially deadly misconceptions about our brothers and sisters of our sibling faith.

At the same time, though, the question itself, that of how to be a good and responsible citizen of our country and yet be true to our faith tradition, is hardly new. It is, in fact, at least as old as the biblical prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and it is upon this tradition that Jesus and Muhammad both drew for their own particular responses and to whom Christians and Muslims today look to for their respective archetypal ethical examples. Likewise it was St. Paul and, still later, St. Augustine who formulated this problem for Christians in the Roman Empire in theoretical and theo-political terms. While the specific examples of being Muslim or being Christian in the age of George W. Bush might be new, the problem is not.

Positively, the whole Administration has called attention to the religious elephant that has always been in the political room. While we certainly may wish that the circumstances were different, there can be no question today that religion, and in particular Christianity and Islam in the United States, is political, and politics is fundamentally religious. It is ironic, therefore, that as the neocon Republican Bush administration prepares its exeunt, the Rebublican candidates have spoken little of the impact of faith in politics (which has left evangelical leaders scrambling for a suitable candidate, and even a dismayed Jim Dobson himself threatening to not vote in 2008!), the traditionally “secular” Democratic Party has itself “gotten religion,” demonstrated first by the election of Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) as the nation’s first Muslim Congressman and then by the recent and powerful declarations of the importance and significance of the role of faith and religion in national politics by candidates Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. What is becoming clear is that we don’t have to “be” Christian or “be” Muslims necessarily any different than we are, but we do need to change perceptions of “being” of the faith really means vis-a-vis responsible citizenship.

In both traditions, Jesus and Muhammad call on their respective followers to be prophetic witnesses to peace and justice in the world. Nowhere in either the Qur’an or the Christian Bible are the people of God commanded to internalize their faith to such a degree that it is solely and completely private and detached from affairs of this world, which include our politics, civic engagements and responsibilities, and so forth. The prophetic call is a call to engage issues of injustice where we are, and to exercise compassion and mercy in so doing. Our militant versions of our faiths (Islamic extremism in the case of my Muslim friends, and Christian fundamentalism in my own tradition) may very well believe they are acting on behalf of divine justice, but they fail to act on their own mandates of mercy and compassion in their scriptural traditions.

Thus to respond to the challenge raised by Newsweek and the Globe, we, as brothers and sisters in the service of God, can indeed engage our civic and political issues for the betterment of our country without resorting to quasi-pseudo theocracy on the one hand or extremism on the other. Inshallah.

Apparently Pat Robertson is a mite jealous over Chuck’s receipt of the JSU! Award; not to be outdone, we get this brilliant piece from the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club on Monday night’s show:

There you have it. “Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant (sic) on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.”

Yikes. Not only do we need to present Pat with his own JSU! Award, but we may have to institute the F-Bomb Award for Religious Ignorance (see here, here, and here, all on Aedificium) as well.

There are something like 2.3 million or so Muslims in the US alone. That means that we Christians are more likely to bump into Muslims in the grocery store than we are to bump into Episcopalians. Pat’s, and Chuck’s, comments ought to be as unwelcome to those of us who are Christians as they are to our Muslim friends and neighbors. Neither of these guys speaks for the majority of Christians, but they’re the ones getting the airtime.

It’s not like we can get Pat off the air, I guess, but those of us in the rank-and-file of American Christians can still be active in denouncing this kind of extremism through our relationships with our Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, and so forth, in pretty much the same way that American Muslims denounce terrorism and extremism. We can blog, we can call in to radio shows, we can write op-ed pieces, and engage in other creative ways of rejecting this kind of influence.

Upshot: Islam is a religion. And it’s a sibling of Christianity and Judaism. Spread the word.

Charles Wendell Colson MugshotESPN’s “Mike and Mike” show has a weekly segment on Tuesdays called “Just Shut Up!” Being Tuesday and being in the mood to blog, I’m making a nomination here for the first ever recipient of the undoubtedly soon-to-be-coveted Just Shut Up! Award of the Aedificium. After reading this piece in the online edition of Sunday’s Washington Post, the Aedificium has awarded the Just Shut Up! Certificate to Chuck Colson. Congratulations on your well-deserved accomplishment.

The WP headlines the short note containing Colson’s comments as follows: “Baptists Warned About Islam, Atheism,” and observes that Colson’s address to the pre-conference gathering of Southern Baptist pastors was a call to Christians to “do a better job of explaining their religion’s worldview.” He then singles out Islam as “vicious” and “evil,” noting that the merger of Islam with fascism results in an ideology that is “evil incarnate.” Colson also apparently dismissed the emergent movement as an irrelevant aberration in the church that is “abandoning the search for truth” in favor of “conversations in coffee shops,” and juxtaposes emergent with the “pure orthodox truth” of Third World Churches.

Colson has done some great work in his career, but his brand of evangelicalism makes me want to just secede and give it up completely. We simply don’t need a Christian denomination of nearly 16.5 million members to be taught that every Muslim (and, in fact, Colson can’t even bring himself to use that word, but calls Muslims “Islamists”), every one of the 1.3 billion or so who live on Late Great Planet Earth, is an evil fascist who could, and who would be perfectly willing to, blow himself or herself up just to kill off Christians. This, of course, is totally different from Christian behavior, who would never do anything of the sort. For the love of God and all that is holy, how can we get the word out that this is just simply, patently, and devastatingly untrue and that this kind of hateful, propagandistic drivel is exactly what the extremists want to hear?

The post and ensuing discussion from a few weeks back on the idea of Christian worldviews holds here too. Colson believes that if Christians do a better job of explaining “their religion’s worldview” that the evil of Islam and atheism can be defeated and the emergent movement shown for the fraud he thinks it is. This is hopelessly misguided, not only because there is not and has never really been a single Christian worldview, but because Colson has sold himself to the stereotypes of Islam and of emergent at the expense of actually knowing much of anything about them that is anything other than destructive and divisive. How about constructive and uniting? And how about considering the possibility that Muslims, “emergents,” and the Brights of Dawkins’ and Harris’ brand of faith are engaged in the “search for truth” every bit as much as Colson is? Or, that this search might entail other elements besides regurgitating outdated propositional expressions or coming up with new propositions to add to the outdated ones? To dismiss the emergent church as an abandoning of truth in favor of coffeehousing relativism is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous.

Yes, I’m ticked off, because, damn it, I’m a Baptist, I’m extremely sympathetic to the emergent movement and consider myself part of it, and I have numerous Muslim friends and acquaintances who condemn acts of terrorism and Islamic extremism and all forms of governmental fascism every bit as much as other people of faith do.

Colson is committed to his own ideology and is blind to everything that doesn’t fit; he’s made the world in his own image. Not even God had the audacity to do that.

clitheroe-mosque.jpgI admit that’s a bit of a hook for this post, but I make no apologies. Today’s NY Times has a fascinating article about the the former home of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Clitheroe, England. The impressive stone church building has been a factory that makes scarves for the past forty years, but is now once again the home of faith: Islam.

Converted structures for new faiths are nothing new, and historically, the conversion of a church to a mosque or a mosque to a church has been a feature of both faiths since the seventh century. I don’t need to list examples, but two of the most famous are the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (church to mosque) and the Cordoba Cathedral in Spain (mosque to church). To me, this is a fascinating image that is, as Sheraz Arshad, the leader of the Clitheroe Muslim community recognizes, “visually symbolic, the coming together of religions.”

The article relates the legal and political struggles that Mr. Arshad has had to face, who simply wanted to find a home for his community of Believers, hurdles which are testimony to the need for interfaith relationships in the contemporary world. Contrary to the views of so many, not every Muslim is a militant jihadist, just as neither is every Christian a fundamentalist Armageddonist. In fact, in both faiths these particular worldviews are by far the minority, but, being the sensationalist representations that they are, make for easy media fodder and therefore guaranteed to receive the loudest microphones. Indeed, the NY Times story here wouldn’t even BE news if there was no local controversy over the transition of the old church into a mosque.

The story speaks more to the increasing irrelevance of Christianity than it does the spread of jihadism. The fact that the old church had been a factory for 40 years should be more upsetting than its resurrection as a new home for Muslims. Mr. Arshad, a progressive Muslim who is also the facilitator of interfaith relationships in England, is probably more representative not only of his own faith, but of many in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well, than the secular politicians and “Christian” reactionaries who have already begun persecuting the Clitheroe Muslims and their new home, despite Mr. Arshad’s point about not having the daily calls to prayer or a dome, which would “look like a big onion” in Clitheroe.

In view of my call for recognizing common ground in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in various faith traditions, Christians who react negatively over this should re-think the stakes here. Should we prefer that our dying houses of worship leave empty shells around to be converted into mass industry? Or should we be grateful for the fact that there are those who know that our religions and spiritual traditions do have a major impact in the world, regardless of whether we are part of that particular tradition? For myself, I will pick the latter; if we abandon our houses of worship, let someone else worship there. If we have a problem with that, the best way to make a difference is not by complaining about it, but by actually returning to our churches.

cmatherpreaching.jpgWho benefits? That’s the question that we have to always be asking ourselves when God talk starts showing up on a mass scale. The modern mass media is obviously a willing partner in the way this works, but I thought it might be interesting to point out that religious rhetoric has essentially always been about this. Whether we’re talking about the use of the Bible in public schools or of the personal faith of presidential candidates, the type of rhetoric that serves as sound bites or eye candy is usually of the “us vs them” variety in the extreme. (“How many minds has he polluted??”) So we have to look – and listen – beyond what is being presented prima facie.

Here’s the thing, though. In these kinds of struggles, where issues are cast in terms of being of absolute, rock-bottom religious issues, the God-talk precludes any kind of compromise, negotiation, or middle ground, because it is understood that religious truths and positions are eternal. As a result, the Religious Right, for example, can cast every political issue on which its adherents disagree as a holy struggle for what God wants, which is, of course, always the same thing as what the Right wants. The availability of a mass media who is more than willing to disseminate such sensationalism all but guarantees that this rhetoric will be heard, no matter how much or how little the rhetoric actually speaks for those who actually listen to it. On a more ominous level, when religious rhetoric is used to justify action that is willed by the Ineffable, it becomes the primary tool for justifying any violent action (such as blowing up skyscrapers or invading impoverished nations in the name of national security), since those who support us are on God’s side. Conversely, organizations and governments who find themselves having trouble with certain groups who believe that the minds of young people are being corrupted by rampant secularism (like school boards who fire biology teachers who even mention the Bible in class) have a ready rhetorical weapon at their disposal; simply label the annoying dissenters as religious fanatics. The press comes in, prints the most extreme quotes that it hears, and the governing body is able to dismiss its opponents as religious nutcases who are by definition incapable of reason, and who therefore are not worth wasting time with in responsible discussion of grievances.

None of this is new. Not even the use of the media for these ends. In antiquity, the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” meant that kings needed to justify their rule to their subject peoples, and the best way to do that was to persuade the subjects that God (or the gods) was/were on his side. Usually this was done in two ways; through success in battle, in which case the king’s victory was attributed to the gods and plastered all over the empire (i.e., published); and through building or restoring temples and sacred rituals, which were also published and distributed. Frequently we find in ancient inscriptions a cause-and-effect relationship between military success and the religious devotion of the ruler. It is not much of a stretch to witness this kind of rhetoric in the 220+ year history of the American Presidency or even in Congress; witness the uproar that ensued after Keith Ellison, an African American Muslim, took his oath of office over the Qur’an rather than the Bible. The mixture of military activity and religious piety is, moreover, abundantly clear in the speeches of George W. Bush.

Rulers in antiquity also found it necessary to occasionally make sure that everyone in the land knew about his or her religious testimony in defense of how he or she conducted his or her life in the eyes of God and how all their actions were undertaken in service to the divine. This kind of self-justification, of course, has been especially prominent during the Bush II administration and with Republicans in general, but as 2008 approaches we are now seeing it more and more Democratic candidates speak openly about their faith. Some are no doubt nothing more or less than insincere politicking, while others, are undoubtedly deeply religious people with sincere faith.

Another point worth mentioning is that ancient texts frequently couch the king’s approval ranking by the gods in terms of how well the ruler carried out the gods’ will and, especially, his or her sacred rites. What is fascinating here is that ancient priests and religious elites who disapproved of a ruler could undermine him or her by propagandizing the failure of the ruler to do the religion of the god in the right way, which would inevitably bring about a national catastrophe if it were left unchecked and which would result in the god(s) leaving altogether. While we don’t really concern ourselves today with strict ritual activity in our churches today per se, there is still a remarkable similarity to the rhetoric here with the way morality is used instead of proper ritual action. We heard Falwell and Robertson blaming the 9/11 attacks on a complete lack of godly morality in the US, in effect saying that God was leaving us as he abandoned the Jerusalem Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Just as ritual infidelity of the society and especially of the ruler betokened national disaster in the ancient world, moral infidelity and secularism makes national catastrophe inevitable, according to this rhetoric. If only the king would restore the old sacrifices, the nation would prosper again … if only the government would make abortions illegal, let our kids pray in school, constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, we won’t have to worry about new national security threats…

Of course, it goes the other way. Kings regularly used religious propaganda to flatter the priests and religious elites in charge of the temples, who not coincidentally served as the bankers and banks of the kingdoms. This kind of rhetoric is, of course, particularly popular during election years, and I have a hunch that 2008 will witness more of this than we’ve ever heard.

Cui bono? Who benefits?

faithsymbolscopy.gifBetween surfing a lot of blogs lately, reading lots of articles and other types of “religious news” pieces, and my own day-to-day work with teaching religion and religious studies, I come across a lot of stuff, some of which leaves me scratching my head, some that leaves me shaking it in disbelief, and, occasionally, some that permits me to nod it, either in agreement or in sleepy boredom.

Two pieces that fall into the “nod” category recently ran across my desk (or, more accurately, my Thinkpad screen). One is USA Today’s piece that reviews Stephen Prothero’s new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, available in bookstores tomorrow. The other is Martin Marty’s short little “op-ed” in today’s Sightings, out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty’s article points out that the US “gets religion wrong” across the board, and he does not simply limit this to politicians. Marty calls out the secular humanists and politicians, but he is fully aware that dedicated, committed religious folks are every bit as part of the failure to get religion “right:” “Fault often lies with religious folk who agitate for the teaching ‘of’ religion – their religion – as normative and exemplary.” He goes on to note that “fault also lies with some tone-deaf academics, including Harvard faculty who ruled up and then ruled down religion requirements in the curriculum. And you can further fault the Rip Van Winkles who have been napping all these years” [note to Marty: many of them are still sound asleep, if not entirely comatose] “since religion came to be central in world affairs.” Marty knows as well as I do that there has scarcely ever been a time in history where religion has not been “central in world affairs,” but his point is well-taken. The general religious public, as much as the politicians, the media, clergy and other religious leaders, and academics are getting an F in religion, which is where Cathy Lynn Grossman’s USA Today article, “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” comes in. Grossman’s review of Prothero’s new book points out what many academics in the study of religion already know to a certain degree, namely, that religious ignorance is a major problem for the US, and not least in terms of national security. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and Grossman gives enough quotes from it to get a sense of the implications of “bombing” the religion test: “If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told that Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to the demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda” (emphasis mine).

Here’s the rub, and I’m wondering if Prothero will address it in the book. Religious rhetoric is always political rhetoric. When Group A fears that its particular identity or worldview or ethical code is under assault by Groups B-Z, the Religious Rhetoric comes out. The thing is that Americans are bombing the test and failing the grade in the subject, so that the religious rhetoric being employed is ineffectual at best and downright dangerous at its (literally) terrifying and terrorizing worst. Rather than provide a forum for edifying debate, rhetorical ignorance, especially from the mouths of sophists like John Shelby Spong, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Sam Hill, and of politicians and influential media personalities generally, sets the stage for a demonizing condemnation based completely on falsehoods, lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings, either willful or unintentional, all to ensure that “we” are ok, even if “we” are not necessarily in positions of power and influence. When we think we’re threatened, we need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat has had many faces.

The cure for religious ignorance isn’t religious or cultural relativism, but neither is it more indoctrination. It also matters little whether the individual believes in God or not or whether he or she is a committed and active member of a religious community. God’s existence isn’t the issue here, and neither is the argument that “religion” is historically more responsible for the world’s violence than any other factor and, accordingly, should be done away with. Religion is not going anywhere, and this is true regardless of whether God really exists or not. Rather than spend our time focusing on all the differences between “our” religion and “their” religion and using those as points of attack, we should be figuring out what the similarities are between us and what our mutual concerns are, both spiritually and “earthly,” and learning how each religious tradition addresses those concerns using their particular cultural expressions from their own wells of tradition. Then, and only then, can we start a dialog that discusses differences without demonizing the Other. Contrary to the popular expressions of relativistic religious pluralism, religions are not all saying the same thing. Religious traditions, including those in the same larger tradition (such as Sunni, Shi’a or Ahmadiyya Muslims in Islam or Baptist, Holiness, or Catholic denominations in Christianity) began with different answers to problems that are common to our humanity and yet which are also unique to specific historical and cultural circumstances, and they express these differently today and have entirely different goals and objectives now than they did when they started.

The immediate challenge, as I see it, is combating ignorance of our own traditions, whether we profess to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else. Prothero’s book may be a good start, but this can’t simply be the domain of academics. It needs to get into our houses of worship, our families, and, yes, our schools. We simply have to start with the basics of our own traditions and with those religions that so clearly have an impact on our current global situation. If we fail to at least understand who “we” are, we’re going to continue to bomb a lot more than just Religion 101.

Just ask the Iraqis.