Monday, October 28, 2013

A rose by any other Name

If this is not a rose, email me and tell me what it is, please.
This story was told to me and others on Saturday:

A self-declared atheist was so enamoured with the peace and justice emphasis of some Mennonites that he began hanging around with them, participating in their activities and discussions, etc. At some time—while discussing this, that and the other—a partner in the conversation said, “You're a Christian, aren't you.” The atheist was indignant: “By no means; I'm an atheist, I believe in no God.” Troubled by this confusion, he began to read in a Bible that had been gathering dust on his bookshelf. What he read there filled him with consternation.

“Oh s**t!” the story has him saying. “I AM a Christian.”

Like most stories, the interpretation of this one belongs to the one hearing it. I heard it in a church, told to my fellow Mennonites so I pretty much know what interpretation was intended: the word of God is not bound by the strictures we place upon it. At least I think I know this. As I get older I'm finding that what I once considered ordinary concepts are muddier—rather than clearer—than they used to be. Go figure.

If I were to retell the story, it would be with the intention of illustrating that categorical thinking is rote thinking. When we declare someone to be “a Christian,” for instance, it's pretty much impossible to know what the declarer is saying unless you know where he's coming from. For a certain member of my family, it means the person in question is a “born again” person, a category that includes members of churches for whom “born again” is the essential, fundamental marker, and excluding all members of churches for whom it's not and, of course, all agnostics, atheists, materialists, secularists and any of the vast number of “ists” we talk about. (For a more refined definition of the “born again” Christian, a browse through the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada Statement of Fundamental andEssential Truths will help.)

There are signs that we are all becoming less “categorical” in our thinking as time goes by. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for instance, includes 30 or so member groups and although it enunciates a common creed which most could probably assent to (in part, if not entirely), it's almost certain that if they were to begin a debate on the details of this common creed, their cooperation on mutually-held concerns would end. Such is the nature of linking faith to Creeds that seek to set in stone (or, at least, on paper) “what we believe.” As is, they are able to speak with one voice on many issues. Rote thinking has been set aside for that purpose.

So could even an atheist be a Mennonite or a Baptist, a Pentecostal or a Catholic? What if he attended worship, learned the songs, participated in the activities but continued to insist that he didn't believe Jesus was God, but rather a very good prophet worthy of our loyalty and the best pattern for living? Given that, would it come to him one day that, “Oh s**t, I actually AM a Christian?”

(Conversely, I imagine there's a “Christian” out there somewhere who picked up Christopher Hitchens God is not Great and said after reading Chapter 15, Religion as an Original Sin . . .

“. . . Oh s**t, I AM an atheist!”)

A rose isn't described by its name; call it pigweed if you like, its brilliant colour and pleasing aroma won't change. I think there's a famous quote that makes that point. By a guy named Shakespeare, if I'm not mistaken. Through the mouth of Juliet, I seem to remember.

Monday, October 07, 2013

You, me and Islam

Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief (Robert Frost).

Sometimes things come in bunches, even if you haven't given them a thought for a considerable time, if ever. Like the time you read the word syzygy for the first time, looked it up and then heard the word used on the news that same evening. Some would say, “Coincidence?? I don't think so!”

It happened to me the other day. Jacques Parizeau—former PQ leader and premier of Quebec—published an op ed slamming the proposed Charter of Values and I read a paper given to me by an acquaintance and member of the same church denomination I belong to. Sound unrelated? Not at all.

First, the paper given to me by the acquaintance purportedly summarizes a book by Dr. Peter Hammond called Slavery, Terrorism and Islam: The Historical Roots and the Contemporary Threat, a book I'd never heard of. The summary details why we should be very afraid of Islam:

Therefore, after much study and deliberation . . . perhaps we should be very suspicious of ALL MUSLIMS in this country (emphasis not mine). They obviously cannot be both 'good' Muslims and good Americans. Call it what you wish, it's still the truth. You had better believe it. The more we understand this, the better it will be for our country and the future.”

Second, the report of Jacques Parizeau's criticism of the Charter of Quebec Values says: “He accuses the Quebec government of reacting to a growing fear of Islam and its spread.”

There's the connection. There are people who are convinced that we Westerners should be very afraid of Islam, that we should buy into the theory that there is a plan afoot to Islamasize the whole world, place us all under Sharia law, dispose of all infidels, etc., etc.

Interestingly, nearly every point made in the paper (anonymous, by the way) to prove that Muslims are unfit to be Americans, can also be made of Christians. For instance, it's declared that a Muslim cannot theologically be a good American because “his allegiance is to Allah.” Substitute “Jesus Christ” for Allah and you have the reason why no Christian can be a good American.

My concern today is not that this hate literature is out there; my immediate concern is that it's being circulated in my church and in my circle of acquaintances. People are reading the apocalyptic literature of Islamic conspiracy and shuddering to know what to do. The paper offers no suggestion of how the reader should react to the “facts” it presents, except that he/she should be aware that our communal home is on fire.

The paper I was handed by a fellow Mennonite is reminiscent of the material through which bigots of the early 20th Century “educated” Christians on the danger represented by the Jews in their neighbourhoods. The paper speaks of the percentage of Muslims in a country and what's to be expected as their numbers increase:

“After reaching 20%, nations can expect hair-trigger rioting, jihad militia formations, sporadic killings, and the burnings of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, as in Ethiopia [where Muslims represent 32.8% of the population.]”

Talk like this is frighting good people, softening them up to accept, even condone, more direct attacks on the Muslim minority in North America. And that's probably why a feeble old separatist politician saw fit to leave his home and spread the caution despite his one-time rant that the referendum was lost because of “the ethnic vote and big money.”

My grandmothers wore the hijab, only it was called a scarf, or in low-German, a Doek. She would no more be seen in public without her head covered than in her nightgown. It was a symbol of her fidelity to the faith in which she'd been steeped for 70 years.

I asked a woman of the Muslim faith recently what went through her mind when she saw nearly-naked women prancing about on TV—or in the street. She said that her first thought was that they would be wise “to protect themselves better.” Her second thought was that if she was free to dress as she does, that freedom needs to exist for everyone . . . or else it doesn't for anyone.

The Arab world is in a state of revolution these days. I asked a Muslim prof teaching at the Veterinary College at the U of S what thoughts he had about the civil war in Syria as he listened to the news. (His mother was Syrian by birth.) He sighed and shook his head. “We went from European colonialism to dictatorship and are just now realizing that freedom is possible,” he said. “I fear there will be much fighting and bloodshed before we find our feet in a new and and different world.” (This isn't a verbatim quote.)

Spreading fear about minorities in a country that considers itself a model of freedom and democracy—like Canada, for instance—is not going to help in the struggle to ensure that “we all get to invite our neighbour to sit under our own fig tree and drink from our own cistern.”

Quebec—and all of us, Christians and Muslims for that matter—should take warning from the holocaust; there is great danger in going down the “persecuting minorities” road. The measuring stick we use to judge others is the same stick with which we will be judged.

This, incidentally, is Biblical.

For now, let's at least get to know our neighbours on a personal level before categorizing them by someone else's standards and doing them some unnecessary injustice.