Robert Wright has written an excellent column on the three monotheistic religions entitled “The Meaning of the Koran.” The basic premise of the article is this: those in the U.S. who preach tolerance of Islam and those who preach opposition to it can both find support for their perspectives in the Qur’an. Liberals like to point out that the word “jihad” refers primarily to the struggle within the self to devote oneself wholly to God. Conservatives can likewise point to passages that describe and support armed conflict with unbelievers. The same could be said of the rights of women within Islam, and the Qur’an’s attitude toward religious outsiders.
The catch, of course, is that the same situation confronts those who pick up the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The religious “Other” comes in for a pretty hard time in the book of Judges, for example, as the Israelites routinely displace and even slaughter their Canaanite neighbors. The tone of the Gospel of John toward “the Jews” (by which the author means the Jewish authorities, primarily in Jerusalem) is consistently disparaging.
By the way: If you want to learn more about the class I’m teaching in winter 2011 on this subject, click here.
So what gives here? Wright claims that all three sacred texts have “darker sides” that compromise their overall message of peace, acceptance, and harmony with God and neighbor. The trick, he says, is what we bring with us to a reading of these scriptures. If our worldview is a dark one, we’re going to focus on those parts of the Qur’an and the Bible that confirm that view. We’re going to see someone else’s religion as a threat, and our own as enjoining a strong (and usually violent) response to that threat. Hence jihadists and their Christian and Jewish counterparts’ consistent use of their own sacred text to justify religious violence. If our worldview is not dominated by that darkness, we’re going to focus instead on the parts (I would say the more numerous and important parts) of our scripture that promote love of neighbor.
So far, so good. I like what Wright says, but he fails to answer a crucial question: What is the role of our religious faith in producing those worldviews in the first place? In other words, if individual Jews, Christians, and Muslims are fundamentally peaceful and loving people, did their religion make them so, or was it something else? By the same token, did the haters among us learn to hate by reading their scriptures?
The answer is complicated, but I want to boil it down to couple of points. First, the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an aren’t teaching those haters to hate. That hatred comes from another source; those people are simply using religion as a rationalization for it. Second, for different reasons and in different ways, all three religions place love of neighbor at the center of what they teach. I’m not qualified to tell Jews and Muslims how to reclaim that center, but I can offer an opinion to Christians.
We must see the cross, not simply as a tool God uses to forgive sins, but as the reality that shapes our whole lives as followers of the Crucified one. The love that God displays in the cross means that God chooses the way of self sacrifice, rather than coercive force, to bring about God’s will in the world. If we can live in the shadow of that reality, then perhaps we’ll have a better idea of what to do next time someone wants to build a mosque down the street.