Posts Tagged ‘Religious Ethics’

The New York Times reported on October 10, 2011 that a “demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests [in Cairo] against the military council.” Twenty-four people were dead and more than 200 were wounded. Witnesses said that several protesters were crushed under military vehicles and about twenty people underwent surgery for bullet wounds. Lest the protest be viewed as purely sectarian or even religious in nature, it is important to note that when “the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christains against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.” In fact, some people in the protest chanted, “Muslim[s] and Christians are one hand.” One protester said to a reporter, “This is not the issue of Muslim and Christian, this is the issue of the freedom that we demanded and can’t find.” To be sure, the police made use of Muslim civilians in favor of an Islamic state and armed with clubs and stones, but the conflict itself was not religious. According to the New York Times, he military council ruling Egypt “has become a subject of public ire for its failure to establish stability and for its repeated deferrals of its pledged exit from power.” Indeed, under the council’s plan at the time of the protest, the military could function “as an all-powerful chief executive for another two years or more.” The Egyptian media was openly discussing whether the military would ever follow through on its commitments to democracy.

Nasser Nasser/AP

 Even as they were out protesting the state rather than leaving what is Ceasar’s to Ceasar, the Christians “said that they scuffled at least three times with Muslims who did not want them to pass.” But the violence did not escalate until the protesters reached the radio and television headquarters in the evening, when the demonstrators and security forces “began throwing rocks at each other.” The media reported that “at least three security officers had died in the attacks by Christian protesters.” For their part, the Christian protesters “insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.” In retaliation, the security forces began driving their trucks into the protesters, crushing at least four. A Coptic priest, Rev. Ephraim Magdy, said, “It is up to the military to explain what happened, but I see it as persecution. I felt that they were monsters.”

I read the entire paragraph immediately above as pointing to the hypocrisy of the so-called Christians who took part in the protest. The same sort of convenient, partisan rationalizing as we read from Rev. Magdy had no doubt been used to justify the four Crusades. It is interesting how the other guy is a monster even though Magdy admits to having thrown stones too. Who was it who said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind, and love those who persecute you? It does not seem likely that the Copic Christians who were marching were being persecuted, so the line, love your enemy, is perhaps more apt.

Both in pulling the persecution card and in partaking in a violent tit for tat, Rev. Magdy comes off as a hypocrite rather than as a disciple of Jesus. It is sad that the priest had devoted so much of his life to something only to miss the point when it really counted. Indeed, he may have missed his calling to enter some military rather than the Church. I can imagine Jesus rebuking him, Get behind me Satan! This is what Jesus says to Peter in the Gospels when the disciple tries to prevent Jesus from suffering unjustly in Jerusalem. That the rock or foundation of Jesus’ movement is so quickly renounced as though Satan may give Christians some pause in assuming that institutional Christianity is (and has been) necessarily in line with its founder. In keeping with the Biblical theme in Mark wherein the insiders are really outsiders because they just don’t “get it,” some outsiders (e.g., strangers) do “get it” even if they are relegated as anonymous Christians at best by the proud.

In terms of protests, I would point to Gandhi rather than Magdy as evincing Jesus’ message and example. I would also point to the Muslims who had the courage to walk with their Christian brothers and sisters in Cairo. I am reminded of Gandhi telling a Hindu man whose son had been killed by a Muslim that if he really wanted to get into heaven after what he had done in the riots, he should go and adopt a child—only make sure that child is a Muslim. Gandhi understood Jesus’ dictum, Love your enemies. It is a pity that so many churlish church-goers do not. Magdy and his fellow “Christian” protesters certainly did not. They were not following Jesus, either in terms of his example or his teachings on how to enter the Kingdom of God. The Coptic marchers should never have picked up the stones, even after being hit. In fact, they should have unilaterally volunteered to become body shields for the Muslims who had joined them! That is what it means to be a Christian—it is not about metaphysics, science, history, politics, or even morality.

Jesus himself says in the faith narratives that he was sent to preach the mysteries of the Kingdom of God within, which can be realized here and now and whose spirit of humility is especially felt in taking a stand in being compassionate when it is least convenient. This is a rather specific strength that is still not typically valued in the world, and is even less often manifested in behavior. Yet valuing and instantiating that particular strength within is what ultimately defines the disciple of that particular movement that could perhaps best be described as mystical and paradoxical in nature. It is a pity it has been so misunderstood, particularly by those who act as though they cannot be wrong simply because lead it. They are like the proverbial wedding guest who shows up to the wedding feast without bothering to wear wedding attire and yet sits himself at the head table.

Generally speaking, it is perhaps all too easy for us to go with appearances and asseverations tied in with the status quo instead of stepping back and permitting some perspective to challenge convenient claims made by vested interests that may be other than what they seem.


David Kirkpatrick, “Rage at Military in Egypt Fuels Deadly Protest,” New York Times, October 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/10/world/middleeast/deadly-protests-over-church-attack-in-cairo.html

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This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God.  I had seen her on a talk show last night.  Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice.   She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis.  For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified?  Was he really a poor carpenter?  Was Mary a virgin physiologically?  The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.  

In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice.  Such praxis, she  maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility.  Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself.   Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach).  In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic.   For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning.   In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing.   Take, for example, “God is love.”   I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence.  Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love.  I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.  

I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief.  Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric.   On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion.   That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced.  It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation.   Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality.   Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.  

I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters.  In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective.   Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect.  That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon.  It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run!   That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself). 

 Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable.    Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans?  It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption.   It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves.  This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption.   It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).  

The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically).   If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant.  When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate.   The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person.   Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.

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This morning while I was stopped at an intersection in the bike lane of a major street, a Gideon stepped into the lane to hand me one of his little bibles.   Sensing that he was so preoccupied with saving me–the Gideon website refers to the aim of reaching “a lost world with the saving message”–I decided to point out to him that he was breaking the law by entering the lane as a pedestrian.   Assuming the persona of a sergeant in a matter-of-fact tone, I said, “Sir, please remove yourself from the bike lane as it is illegal.”  He was undaunted so I repeated myself…again in an official rather than antagonistic tone.  Finally he backed up and resumed his sales pitch from the sidewalk.  

In assuming that I was “lost” and he had “the saving message,” he was not looking at his own falling-short.  He felt himself entitled not only metaphysically, but legally as well–as if to say, “the law doesn’t apply to me because I’m saved.”  …but Jesus is said to have said he came to fulfill rather than break the law.   I have no problem with Jesus’ teachings…in fact, I value them more than the ways of the world.  This does not mean, however, that claim a superior or false entitlement that gives me license to impose my agenda on others…even breaking the law to do it.  What is the expression…clean up one’s own house before breaking into another to tell another that his or her house is dirty and needs to be cleaned in a certain way?   The irony is that the one doing the p0inting is the lost one….the lapses in his or her imposing being lost to him (or her).  

In discussing the ascetic priest figure in Geneology of Morals (section III), Nietzsche characterizes them as being essentially weak yet not letting that get in their desire to dominate others.   Imposing one’s presumption that the other is lost and is in need of one’s own “saving message” evinces the sort of weakness that seeks to dominate.  When Christianity was the dominant religion in the West, such weakness was not transparent.  Now it is…increasingly so.   The passive aggressive aspect of the imposing can be recognized and put back in its place.  My “official” speak is an example of passive aggression being used to counter the passive aggression.   The Gideon probably felt my reaction as passive aggressive (certainly not friendly), though I doubt very much that he recognized his own.  The breach of personal boundaries, such as by a stranger assuming that he is welcome to discuss religion with me, is itself a form of passive aggression.   I suspect that modern society is blind to many forms of presumption…hence we don’t tend to call the perpetrators on it and return passive aggression in kind.   Instead, we feel guilty in not reacting as the Gideons would like.  The guilt, or self-shame, is a form of weakness, according to Nietzsche, which the weak have been able to convince the strong to take on.   The weak take advantage of the strong’s vulnerability…the weak always have their advantage on their minds, whereas the noble strong do not.  I suspect the power of the strong is in recognizing or making transparent the fecklessness and presumptuousness (as well as the passive aggression) of the dominating weak.   I think a better way of responding to them than “officialism” would be to simply draw attention to the subterfuge being used to dominate.   However, I suspect that like a cat around tuna, such transparency would make little or no difference to one with the imposing agenda.  In away, evangelicals are not far removed from merchants.  Neither group is likely to be free spirits.  Hence my attention is on how we may be freed from them.  What is that about knowing or seeing the truth will set you free?  Let me see, and therein be free of, the true nature of truth-imposers!   We need truth-seekers rather than imposers.   I am assuming that we are all human beings…that no one of us has a monopoly on knowing the truth.   Save us from the redeemers! 

Perhaps the question is: is there any salvation from arrogance?  …which is perhaps in the human condition…all of us being innately presumptuous.  A “saving message” that is accompanied by this quality belies itself.  Invalidating such a message and messenger is not sufficient however, for one to be a free spirit–free of even one’s own internal obstacles. For this, one must face and overcome one’s own arrogance….the presumption in my own “official” warning this morning.   This is not something that can be subcontracted in a bike lane.  The self-emptying of arrogance is not something that is accomplished merely by having the “correct” cognitive metaphysical belief (unlike in Buddhism and Christianity).  Neither can it be done by another who is driving to save others (under the presumption that he or she is already saved).  

I believe we would all be doing modern society a huge favor by concentrating on recognize our own arrogance and presumption.   I think this can be done on an incident by incident basis, generalizing from them to see how these qualities reside in our own personalities and related world-views.   Secondarily, it does not hurt to learn to recognize the sordid qualities in others who profit on them remaining hidden, though “secondarily” because the sliver in another’s eye is difficult to see but for removing the plank in one’s own.  Still, the protection of personal boundaries is a matter of social justice, and therefore justified (though here on the world’s terms) in order to restore the natural equilibrium of mutual rights from the encroachments by some.

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