Monday, February 06, 2006

Sorry, my karma just hit your dogma

An act of disrespect or impiety toward something regarded as sacred; gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing

This question arises in the midst of the now-deadly Muslim protests over a Danish newspaper’s editorial cartoon depicting Mohammed, which they consider sacrilegious: Can a non-believer do something truly sacrilegious against a faith not his own?

If it is sacrilegious for a non-Muslim newspaper to publish a cartoon depicting Mohammed, then is it also sacrilegious for:

-- a Baptist to eat pork?
-- a Catholic to kill a cow?
-- a Jew to swear “Jesus Christ!”?
-- a Muslim to work on Saturday?
-- a Buddhist to take communion?
-- a Presbyterian to get an abortion?
-- a Wiccan to cross herself?
-- an atheist to use a crucifix to open a can of beans?

And if those things are truly sacrilegious, what makes some religions capable of absorbing -- even understanding -- the disrespect while others to go on murderous rampages?


Michael Gillespie said...

". . . if those things are truly sacrilegious, what makes some religions capable of absorbing -- even understanding -- the disrespect while others to go on murderous rampages?"

One answer to your question, Ron, in two words, is historical context.

It's relatively easy for those belonging to faith traditions that are politically and socially secure to brush aside or even ignore perceived insults or slights coming from without, especially if the insult or slight, and those by whose actions the potential offense comes, are highly unlikely to have any significant negative effect on the life and well-being of the believer who might be offended.

Most American Christians today couldn't care less what believers in Shinto, for instance, think or say about Christianity.

But that was not the case in the days, months, and years after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Americans felt very threatened indeed by those who believe in the Shinto religion.

Somewhat similarly, many Americans today are suspicious, fearful of, and more likely to be offended by the words and actions of Muslims following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

But, let's expand our view of the historical context just a bit. How might we Americans feel if we lived in a country whose borders had been established not by we who live within them, but by the political leaders of non-Christian foreign powers who assumed the right to draw up borders and establish governments designed to suit their own national interests (and their desire to control our valuable natural resource, oil) rather than those of the inhabitants of our country, us? And after decades living, without rights such as freedom of speech, under the rule of despots established and supported by foreign powers, how might we American Christians react to the intentional and provocative smearing of, say, Jesus, by cartoonists who live and work in the countries that drew our nation's borders and established and supported the despots who rule over us, cartoonists and editors who were, they said, simply interested in demonstrating their right to freedom of speech in their country?

I am often reminded of an account I read years ago written by a Lebanese doctor who worked in the emergency room of a Beirut hospital in the 1980s. As I recall it, the doctor wrote of his encounter with a Lebanese Arab father who arrived home after work one day to find that in his absence an Israeli warplane (supplied by the USA) had rocketed the high-rise apartment building in which he and his family lived. His small children, all three of them, had been alone in the apartment after school in the minutes after his wife left for work and before he returned home from his job. The rocket (also supplied by the USA) had entered the living room and exploded, blowing apart and killing the three children. The man had gathered up his children’s remains, body parts and pieces of body parts, and placed them in a plastic garbage bag. He had brought the bag to the hospital, to the emergency room, which was where the doctor talked with him. The tearful, distraught father told the doctor he didn't know what else to do, where else to go.

Some 20,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, many of them women and children, died violently in Lebanon in the year 1982 alone. They died as a direct result of U.S. support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon--some 20,000--that's roughly seven times the number of civilians who died on 9/11/2001. One wonders, of those Americans knowledgeable enough to locate Lebanon on a map or put a name to the country's capital city, how many were at all troubled by those 20,000 civilian deaths? How many Americans questioned or protested their government's Middle East foreign policy in 1982? For that matter, how many Americans were sorely troubled by the violent deaths of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians who died as a direct result of the U.S. bombing campaign in 2002, or the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who died as a result of the so-called precision U.S. bombing campaign and artillery bombardment during the war to remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power in 2003? Arab and Muslim lives have long been undervalued in the West.

Only now, now that Americans are dying daily on the ground in the Middle East, are serious questions raised regarding American policies and the terrible cost of empire. Why? Because ours is a culture steeped in half-truths and trained in art of selective compassion by the media organizations that provide us with information. For decades we have been bombarded by propaganda that systematically de-humanizes Arabs and Muslims as the evil "other" unworthy of our respect, pity, or compassion. News coverage has seldom bothered to name Arab and Muslim civilian casualties of Israeli or U.S. military actions. Whether the number of dead and wounded is large or small, Arab and Muslim men, women, and children often are mentioned only as nameless and faceless statistics, unless of course they happen to be terrorists, "high-value" targets in America's war on terror. Meanwhile, Israeli civilians, police, and military casualties are more often named, their grieving families are interviewed, their grief-stricken faces flashed around the world on Big Media news programs, while American soldiers are endlessly praised and lauded as heroes, except for "a few bad apples" who were stupid enough to document their own depravity as they reveled in the systematic abuse, torture, and rape of Arab men, women, and children in Saddam's Abu Ghraib prison, a hell-hole refurbished for use by the U.S. military at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

Democracies find it a great deal easier to muster public support for wholesale oppression, exploitation, and wars of national aggrandizement when they are able portray the enemy in one-dimensional terms, as evil terrorists, killers who have no respect for human life. This is one way our leaders and compliant Big Media talking heads so effectively obscure the fact the USA and its allies have, over the years, killed or subsidized the killing of literally hundreds of times more civilians in the Middle East than Arab fanatics and Muslim extremists have killed in the West. And nevermind the decades upon decades of cruel exploitation and ruthless oppression that we in the West would, were it our lot, certainly resist at least as bitterly, as determinedly, and as bloodily as do some Arabs and Muslims. And nevermind the millions of civilians killed by American bombs in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era.

Government censors and the media mavens who do their bidding selectively feed us information and disinformation and attempt to manipulate our emotions while they hide from our eyes and from our ears the true horror of war. We are not allowed to see photos of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops who die in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we are not allowed to witness the terrible plight of the nameless Arab, the faceless Muslim, standing in the hospital emergency room holding a garbage bag containing the remains of his children, weeping under the burden of a loss that will forever blight what may remain of his shattered life. Yet somehow we Americans must come to understand that his children are as dear to him as ours are to us. We must come to understand that the inherent value of human life is not determined by racial or religious differences or circumscribed by political boundaries.

We must come to understand that wars fought by wealthy and powerful nations against poorer, weaker ones are every bit as likely to demoralize the victors as well as the vanquished, that we can neither civilize the world nor transform it into a safe, secure, globalized free market with conventional bombs and bullets or with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. We must come to understand that modern weapons of mass destruction have made warfare potentially suicidal on a planet populated beyond its optimum carrying capacity. We must come to understand that selfish political sagacity itself is ultimately suicidal, destructive of all those qualities that ensure human group survival.

Perhaps what the greatest sacrilige committed against Christianity is the abject failure of some Christians to honor in any meaningful way the core teachings of the founder of the Christian faith, the religion of Jesus, who is reported to have said that the most important law was two-fold, to love God, and to love one's neighbors. When asked who one's neighbors actually were, he replied with a parable about a man who had been set upon by robbers, assaulted, and left by the roadside for dead.

Houston said...

No offense, Michael, but if you're going to write 14 paragraph comments, seriously, you might want to consider starting your own blog.

I'm writing on this subject as well. Check in with me later.

Ron, you're the first writer I've noticed to have hit upon this very important point. Religious prohibitions unique to a specific religion apply to only that group. It might be sacriligious for a Muslim to draw a caricature of Mohamed, but what's that got to do with me?

My religion says that my sexuality is a gift from God. Muslims would stone me. They want respect? They got to show it as well. That would go for Christian fundamentalists, too. We are a multi-cultured fusion of deligtful proportions in this country. One's religious prejudice has no place in the discussion.

Michael Gillespie said...

Hi Houston,

A devout believer in the teachings of Jesus, albeit one who is deeply skeptical of the church that bears his name and ecclesiasticism in general, I know of Christians who are at least as intolerant of homosexuality as any homophobic fanatic of any other faith tradition. I counted among my friends over the years Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims, as well as Christians, and I've never heard any Muslim express any interest in stoning gay people or anyone else. Every faith tradition has its fanatics. Why is it, if you don't mind my asking, that you seem to be so concerned with what you see as the shortcomings of Islam? Apropos the current controversy over the cartoons, as well as your apparent animus towards Islam, wouldn't we all be better off if, as religionists, we sought to learn more about the teachings of religions about which we actually know precious little, and to borrow the best in the living faith of our neighbors who happen to belong to faith traditions other than our own, while restraining the urge to criticize and denounce the worst in their lingering superstitions and outworn rituals--as if our own faith tradition did not harbor equally disadvantageous superstitions and unenlightened attitudes?

Houston said...

I am very clear in my writings that I am anti anything that calls for my death. While Leviticus might call for my death, as a general rule, neither Christians nor Jews seek to enforce its sentence on me. Not so with Islam. Many countries where it is dominant stone homosexuals even to this day, or in the case of Iran, beat them before hanging them in huge public rituals. Call me old fashioned, but I'm against that sort of thing.

There is no moderate school of religious thought in Islam, unlike Christianity. I know many Muslims who have no problem with me as a Christian nor as someone who is Gay. They are not imans.

I dislike fundamentalist Christians with the same passion. If I seem to focus more on Islam, it's because they are in the news. I also think Muslim fundamentalists pose a greater threat to freedom right now.

Two years ago I was on the warpath against Christian fundamentalists. Those were good times.

Chancelucky said...

I happen to think all those things are fine, but the law has always treated "fighting words" a little differently. If you knowingly provoke someone else, you aren't necessarily accountable for the reaction, but that person isn't full accountable either.

There is something of a wavy line between "poking fun" and provoking and yes may folk are just way too sensitive.
Say for instance a non-christian spits on the Bible or flushes it down a toilet, publishes a salacious cartoon of the Virgin Mary in front of a Christian.

We sometimes call the people who act on the impulse to "protect" their faith "martyrs".
Not that I think it's appropriate to burn down embassies or make death threats, but the indignation isn't totally baseless.

SingingSkies said...

Most interesting question. The definition given does not state that the perpetrator of the sacrilege must also hold the item, person, or place as sacred. So, I guess it depends on the beliefs of the observer and the intent of the perpetrator of the act as to whether the action is sacrilege or not.

For example, in response to the Buddhist taking communion - I know of a minister whose mother-in-law was (and still is) Buddhist. She came to worship with her family and came forward at the invitation to communion and he served her. His take on it was that Christ ate at table with those who were outsiders, and that it was and is Christ who provides the meal at communion. So who was he to deny her table-fellowship, if she felt drawn to participate in the meal? I agree!

But then, her participation in communion was not intended as an act of disrespect or gross irreverence, so it would be hard to make that particular event a sacreligious one.

And I'm not so certain that it is the religion as a whole in terms of absorbing or understanding the disrespect, but rather the maturity of belief for individuals and groups within the faith.

There are individuals and groups who commit sacrilege against their own beliefs of the sacredness of life by bombing and injuring/killing those who work at or go to abortion clinics or murdering the doctors who perform abortions. I would have a hard time saying that they are mature in their faith and true to their religion's beliefs.