I had hoped, since I began writing this article before September 11th, that nothing would have come of the threat to burn Koran’s by a small congregation in Florida. Pastor Terry Jones would have decided against going ahead with his plan to “honour” the 9/11 victims of the World Trade Centre terrorist attack by burning the sacred writings of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed. Although he has said he’ll not do it, on the eve of the date, rumours now circulate to the contrary and already one Arab professor has been killed in an altercation regarding the controversy. Whether he goes ahead with his plans or not, the world has, again, already been pulled into the destructive vortices of vitriolic religious debate.
As the Florida congregation prepared to gather tinder for their incendiary gesture, religious and spiritual progressives, like the Network of Spiritual Progressives of which I am a member, have decided upon their own gesture – agreeing to gather together to read from one another’s holy books. The action is intended to symbolically hold up what it is the three Abrahamic faiths have in common, to bring respect and tolerance to the fore, and to expose Pastor Jones’s actions as the intolerant rant of a dangerous fundamentalist religious mindset, something most, I think, already know.
But let’s take a look at some of what could be read at the Saturday gatherings of such interfaith heroes as Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. No doubt the texts will be carefully chosen and these will not be read. If they are, people who gather to hear what Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have in common might find themselves somewhat shocked.
From the Torah:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy… This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)
From the Bible:
But when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10)
From the Koran:
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them. This is because they acted adversely to Allah and His Messenger; and whoever acts adversely to Allah and His Messenger– then surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil). This– taste it, and (know) that for the unbelievers is the torment of the fire. (Sura 8.0012-8.0014)
It is clear from these readings, and dozens more like them, that the little church in Florida isn’t that far off the mark. Neither would a mosque be off the mark if they chose to burn the Torah, Judaism’s sacred scripts. And if a synagogue got a brazier going for the purposes of torching the Gospel, well, it appears their choice to do so would be well within the commands attributed to the God to whom members of all three faiths bow in adoration.
The truth of the matter is that the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are filled with violence, divisiveness, condemnation. So, too, are they filled with passages that condone the destruction of property and persons of other belief systems and nationalities. True, too, is the reality that such content can, and as Jones has reminded us, will be used for appalling purposes. The pastor in Florida is only doing what he believes his God expects him to do. It’s a God he would deny for no one. Not for his president, Barak Obama, who pleaded with him on behalf of Americans around the world, not to go ahead with his plan. Not for his evangelical brother in the faith, Rick Warren, who has called it a “cowardly act”. Not for any “progressive” Christian like me or Diana Butler Bass who drives a car with a COEXIST bumper sticker on it, each of the letters formed from the symbol of a different religion. And he is certainly not going to deny his God for a progressive Jew like Michael Lerner who is bringing together Jews and Muslims and Christians to participate in what Jones could only ever think was against God’s plan. Jones won’t deny his God for anyone. The frightening reality we must face is that he has come to know that God through the Bible, a text most Christians would argue has the right to be called sacred.
Perhaps there was something to the argument that scripture should not be translated into the vernacular. William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 because he translated significant chunks of the Bible into English. He did it so the Bible could be placed it in the hands of common folk, a place we have long understood it belonged. But I’m beginning to wonder if Tyndale was wrong after all. Not that I’d have had him burned for it, of course, but if he’d known the price of placing a Bible in anyone’s hands, including the hands of those who would use it to fan the flames of hatred, maybe he’d have thought twice about it.
Perhaps Tyndale was the first Christian Pandora (a brief moment of syncretism there…) who, with the best of intentions, opened a box of misery that plagues us yet. Maybe the texts that are too obviously claimed to be the authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT), or of Mohammed, or Bahá’u’lláh, or Joseph Smith, or whomever, should only be accessible by those who are not going to take them literally, who have been educated out of the illusions that such books contain revelatory material out of which we can mine morality or privilege. Perhaps they should only be read by those who are disabused of the notion that there is any sort of being that rules the universe and spends his (or her) days dividing us up into those who are right and those who are wrong. Perhaps if the books of all religions were translated only into Latin or some other now-dead language that was understood only by a cloistered, educated elite, the world would be a safer place. After all, ignorance, with a few verses of holy writ in its fisted hand, is not bliss; it’s danger.
Of course, we cannot go back. We can’t use the memory deleting techniques of science fiction to suck scripture out of the brains of anyone not schooled in the use of the tools of critical contemporary scholarship. We’re stuck with totally accessible holy scriptures. For better or worse, the words attributed to God or to God’s prophets are with us to stay.
But we can take away the power of those words, defuse them, expose them for what they truly are. It is a job we must do – those of us who care even a fig about the future and who understand these texts. It is not something that is going to be easy and it’s not something that is going to happen overnight, but happen it must. The alternative is the use of “holy” texts – ours, yours, theirs, whoever’s – as weapons of mass destruction and as missiles of hatred and oppression.
You know, I can swing the word “god” around with the best of them. It doesn’t frighten me. And when I read descriptions of God by those who have studied and grappled with the complexity of the concept, I can almost, not quite, but almost, nod in agreement. If someone argues that “god” refers to what is coming into being through the evolution and exquisite nature of life on the planet, I’m good with that. If someone argues that God is the good we do in the world, I can get there, too. It’s only when the author, Jewish or Muslim or Christian, turns the argument slightly and starts speaking about God’s desire for us to do something, be something, understand something, that I begin to squirm with discomfort. I don’t accept the premise that a concept has agency and the power to act. My understanding of god, if I am going to use that word at all, is the good that I can call out of my life, build through my actions, create within my context, bless into being with the whole of who I am. It isn’t a remote being who wills me to be a certain way, good though that idea may be. Most well-educated liberal theologians – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – don’t believe that’s what God is, either, but they continue to use the word and to ground their arguments in texts they still name “holy”, “sacred”, “scripture”, “authoritative”.
And there’s the rub. We don’t get to have it both ways. Either the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, and any other books identified as divinely ordained are just that or they aren’t. If they aren’t the authoritative word of some divine being or divinely inspired prophet, then we who are the heirs of the critical scholarship that has taken us to new understandings need to stop acting as though they are. Every time we ground an argument in these ancient texts, every time we come up with a new definition for “god” that doesn’t support a literal reading of the texts, every time we process a Bible into a worship space, reverence a mezuzah, speak of the Koran as having been “revealed”, we are reinforcing the authority anyone can then claim that gives those documents a power they do not deserve. In fact, we are arguing that anyone has the right to do so. After all, the fundamentalists are the ones doing what the text says. We who speak of our texts as metaphor and myth are the ones who have to work to make something else out of what is written.
Our world’s needs demand more from us. They demand more than our gathering together and reinforcing the authority of these ancient texts by reading bits and pieces chosen from them that speak of love and compassion, justice and acceptance while covering up the destructive undertones in the rest of those same texts. They demand that we gather together as people of good faith, in the largest most secular sense of that phrase, to talk about and explore exactly what those needs are, and then try to find ways to address them.
It won’t be a particular religion or creed or nationality or race or ability or sexuality or gender that will forge a sustainable future for life on this planet. We will all have to do it together. That the “authoritative” texts of religion can still, in the twenty-first century, deny rights to anyone on the basis of those many things is proof that those texts cannot be used as sources for our direction. The only thing we have that will help us find our way is a deep and reverent sense of love for one another and the desire to honour and protect one another’s dignity and rights. And if there is anything in our ancient texts that supports that work, let’s read it right alongside all the wonderful, rich, inspirational poetry and prose that has ever been written as we, humanity, have sought to express our appreciation of the deep sacred beauty that is life.
© 2010 gretta vosper