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Jesus, Islam and the Tinderbox of Religion

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Fightin' Words
Pledge of Respect and Dialogue
The Shadow Side of Religion

It was not worthy of being a footnote, much less a sound bite. When Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Germany on September 12 to some 1,500 members of the academic community at the University of Regensburg where he once taught, it was to bring together reason and faith and to promote “the dialogue of cultures.” But someone mistook the pope’s citing the provocative arguments of a Byzantine emperor in 1391 as his own—and the Church’s—current opinion. If ever there was a case of taking something out of context, this was it.

This wide-ranging dialogue of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and the Persian Mouterizes in Ankara had touched on jihad, the holy war, and why spreading the faith by force is unreasonable. Not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God, argued Paleologus: God “is not pleased by blood....To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death....”

In this, the pope was agreeing with Paleologus. But unfortunately he also repeated the emperor’s polemic challenge to his debate opponent: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith preached.”

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Fightin' Words

The suggestion that their revered Prophet promoted “things only evil and inhuman” sparked outrage in Muslims around the world. They had pounced on a bad translation of the pope’s German original, one which had omitted his disclaimer that he found these words had “a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded.”

Words and exact meanings do matter, as was shown when the reaction to the pope’s speech spiraled out of control. Benedict was burned in effigy in several Muslim countries. Morocco and Egypt recalled their ambassadors to the Vatican. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, speaking at the United Nations, called for legislation against “defamation of Islam.” Seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked. An elderly Italian nun was shot in Somalia.

Pledge of Respect and Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI was floored by the worldwide reaction and said he was “deeply sorry” that his remarks had been misunderstood. On September 25, he met at Castel Gandolfo with ambassadors from 22 predominantly Muslim countries and 10 other Islamic representatives based in Italy. Pope Benedict expressed his deep respect for Muslims, pledged to continue religious dialogue and repeated his fervent wish that Islamic and Christian leaders cooperate in curbing violence.

Remember it was Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) who had joined Pope John Paul II’s Day of Pardon prayer service on the first Sunday of Lent 2000, requesting pardon for sins committed by the Church in the service of truth, specifically intolerance against followers of other religions.

Forgotten in all the brouhaha was the fact that the pope agreed with Paleologus that violence is ill-used to extend faith—or to create respect for it.

The Shadow Side of Religion

What is it about religion that so inflames people? The Regensburg speech came on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Reportedly, the terrorists had shouted that they were doing this “for Allah.”

A PBS Frontline show, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero: The Question of Religion,” explored the role of religion in helping people cope with the losses of 9/11, but also in provoking the attacks, what can be called the “shadow side” of religion.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a former professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, was one of those interviewed for the program. He said: “From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why....I recognized religion.

“Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it’s my vocation.... And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion—because religion can be a passion—the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction....

“I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don’t hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear” (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/ questions/religion.html).

Msgr. Albacete now thinks, “[W]e have a religious duty to face this ambivalence about religion, and to do something about it. To promote that which makes it a constructive force and... [not] a destructive force....”

We have to start by seeing the two edges in ourselves, not just in Muslims. Jesus knew this power of religion. In his commissioning speech to the Twelve, the Prince of Peace shocked them by saying, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34-36). But he also rebuked them when they proposed calling down fire from heaven to consume anyone who did not welcome them (Luke 9:54-55).

Jesus’ coming ignited the tinderbox of religion. But Pope Benedict knows that what began in the stable in Bethlehem must not end in hatred. After all, Jesus came to remind us of God’s love for us. And that means for all of us—including Muslims.—B.B.


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