“Owning” Our Part

interfaithWe began our fall series of “Faiths in Conversation” last week with a session on the “Religious Sources of Extremism and Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” at the brand new East Plano Mosque. We’ve been doing this together long enough now that we are comfortable challenging each other when something is said that doesn’t sit well with someone else.  This happened last week.

A longtime participant in the conversations approached me after my presentation to say that what I had said – or had not said – had offended her.  Now, nobody likes to hear this, especially in this kind of setting.  And I suspect that everybody just naturally gets a little defensive when criticism like this comes their way.  But this woman and I have been conversation partners long enough now – one of the powerful values of this program if you ask me – to trust each other enough to be honest.  And so she felt free to tell me where she thought that I had completely missed the point in my presentation on “The Religious Sources of Extremism and Violence in Christianity.” Pushing past my initial reflex of shame at not doing a good job with my assignment in her opinion, an opinion I value, and then working hard to suppress my natural response to want to defend myself and what I had said, I really tried to listen to what she was telling me.

Her point was that I hadn’t “owned” the violence of Christian extremism as fully or as explicitly as she thought that I should have.  She is Jewish, and the history of Christian violence against her people, our spiritual mothers and fathers, is just so egregious that she thought that I as a Christian should have been clearer about it than I was.  I think that she wanted me to say less about the sources within the Christian tradition – our “texts of terror” – that are used by violent Christian extremists to justify their actions, and more about where Christians continue to behave in ways that threaten the spiritual legitimacy, and in some cases, the very existence of people of other faith perspectives like hers.

And I get her point, in fact, it was the very point that I was trying to make. Clearly, I did not succeed in doing this in her mind, but my honest intention was to name the way that we who are Christians have a real tendency to evade our own horrifying track record of violence in the name of Christ.  And so, I began my presentation –

“Peace on earth, good will to men” is what the Christmas angels sang the night that Christ was born according to the Gospel of Luke (2:14), and so in the minds of many, Christianity doesn’t have much of a contribution to make to this evening’s conversation about extremism and violence.  Hanan (“our” rabbi) has the book of Joshua that he’s got to deal with as a Jew, and Nadim (“our” Imam) has the whole concept of “jihad” that he’s got to explain as a Muslim.  But as a Christian what I’ve got are the lilies of the valley, the birds of the air and the sweet by and by.  Oh, Christians can take extreme positions and participate in violent acts to be sure.  But such responses are widely thought of as being exceptions to, even contradictions of genuine Christianity which is a religion of love.

The general impression is that there is a kind of violence that is intrinsic to the teachings of the Hebrew and Muslim Scriptures, but not to the teachings of the Christian Scriptures.  And so Christians know all about the brutality of the conquest of Canaan by their spiritual parents, the Jews, and suspect that terrorism is in some way sanctioned, if not actually commanded, by the Koran.  But we have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to our own “dark passages” and bloody history.  This is the only way that I can account for the objections that came from parts of the Christian community earlier this year to the comments that President Obama made at the National Prayer Breakfast about the terrible deeds that have been committed in the name of Christ – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars of religion and the Holocaust – by Christians at times in our history.   We suffer a selective amnesia.

I used this admission as my entry point into an exploration of the New Testament texts that I think have historically fueled the violent oppression of non-Christians throughout history and into the present age.   As I explained, I believe that the book of Revelation is the New Testament’s equivalent to the Old Testament’s book of Joshua, and that the concept of the Kingdom of God – Jesus Christ’s central message – is the spiritual truth that has been most often fashioned into a club by some Christians to clobber others.

Violent Christian Extremists – and let there be no question here this evening that they exist – tend to coalesce around the position that it is their spiritual responsibility to actively engage the hostile forces and establish the Divine Kingdom by their own efforts.  Armageddon (Revelation 19) is an event that they believe that they will bring about by their own armed conflict with the hostile forces.  The Millennium (Revelation 20) is a dispensation that they believe that they will usher in by constantly pushing the world towards its catastrophic climax.  David Koresch, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik all saw themselves as “holy warriors in this sacred struggle” who believed that their acts of violence would hasten Armageddon and usher in the Kingdom.  There are Christians who think and sometimes act like this.  They are advocates of what are known as “power encounters.”  Believing that our God can beat up your God, they are always looking for a fight, hoping that the next confrontation will be the apocalyptic tipping point that will finally unleash the cosmic forces that lead to Armageddon and that will result in the coming of the Millennium.

Of course, I argued that these people represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Christianity, in the same exact way that Hanan, while acknowledging that violet Jewish extremists currently exist who use “texts of terror” from the Hebrew Scriptures to warrant their actions, argued that they represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Judaism, and Nadim, while acknowledging that violent Muslim extremists currently exist who use “texts of terror” from the Muslim Scriptures to warrant their actions, argued that they represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Islam.  All of which is to say that each one of our spiritual traditions can be used by some of “our” very own people in ways that the rest of us find alien and abhorrent.  And our common task as custodians of our traditions is to “own” these fringe movements – privately challenging and correcting their claims, publically condemning and vigorously countering their actions, and earnestly seeking different ways of believing and behaving.

To this end I offer you in closing a version of G.E. Lessing’s “Parable of the Rings.” I read it for the first time in a class on Modern Christianity in seminary back in 1976.  Like any story, it has its limitations – it can’t be pressed too hard or be taken too far – but there is nevertheless a wisdom in this little story that I suspect has the power to change the way that we think and relate to one another, especially as Jews, Christians and Muslims, if we would all just agree to heed its lessons.  DBS+


Nathan the Wise, the last play written by the eighteenth-century philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, contains a fascinating reworking of the classic parable of the three rings… Lessing’s version of the story is set in Jerusalem in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. The play revolves around the complex relationships of three characters, each representative of one of the three great monotheistic religions: Nathan, a Jew; Saladin, the Muslim sultan; and a Christian Templar Knight.

Nathan finds himself in the great Saladin’s palace. The sultan tests Nathan by asking him which of the three monotheistic religions is the best. “You are so wise,” he says to Nathan, “now tell me, I entreat, what human faith, what theological law hath struck you as the truest and the best?” Nathan prudently avoids a direct response and instead tells the parable of the three rings.

There was a man, says Nathan, who had an opal ring of supreme beauty and unusual powers. Whoever wore the ring was beloved by God and man. This ring had been passed down from generation to generation and now was the possession of this man who had three sons, each of whom he loved equally. At one time or another, the man had promised the ring to each of his sons. Sensing that he was about to die and realizing that he could not give the one ring to each of the three sons, the man secretly asked a master jeweler to make two perfect copies of the ring. The jeweler did such a good job that the man himself could not tell which was the original. At his deathbed, the man called each of his sons and gave him a ring and a blessing. After the father’s death, the sons discovered that each one had a ring, and they began to argue among themselves as to which one possessed the original ring. Commenting on their bickering, Nathan links their inability to identify the original ring to our inability to judge which is the one true religion:

[The brothers] investigate, recriminate, and wrangle—all in vain—
Which was the true original genuine ring
Was undemonstrable—
Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable
The one true faith.

The brothers then approach a wise judge to settle the dispute, but the judge responds by saying,

If each of you in truth received his ring
Straight from his father’s hand, let each believe
His own to be the true and genuine ring.

After admonishing the brothers to quit trying to determine which is the original, the judge exhorts each son to accept his ring as if it were the true one and live a life of moral goodness, thereby bringing honor both to their father and to God.

(Harold A. Netland -http://www.christoncampuscci.org )




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