Sinai, Malcolm X and the Reformation: some uncomfortable truths

As I write this post, BBC News informs me that the death toll for the scarcely-believable violence at a Sunni mosque in Sinai, Egypt, is 305. It is possible that this number may yet rise.

I’m a Christian from a very conservative theological background who is currently writing a doctoral thesis on a philosophical concept of worship that is pitched thus precisely because it better enables me to interrogate certain assumptions and presuppositions which theology itself could not easily permit without becoming self-refuting. The ancillary questions which have emerged include those around themes of faith and (mental) delusion, the ways in which worship practices are grounded in ‘culture’ as opposed to ‘Scripture’ (this principle applies to more than Christianity), the capacity of religious adherents to co-exist with those who think differently to them, both inside and outside of liturgical space – and most recently (related to the previous category), the question of the lexeme ‘religious violence’ in relation to the increasingly violence of the ideological conflict that takes place both within religions as well as across religions in ‘worship spheres.’

Psychiatry has no easy answers in terms of clinical care of those whose mental health challenges are intrinsically linked to their religious adherence. My own academic explorations in this area have brought me to the conclusion that actual doctrinal content, sufficiently believed (or accepted), can play a much greater role in the mental health challenges that some people face – and not only in ways which are explicitly religiously-induced. And as a life-long Protestant and Sabbath-keeping Christian, I have been unable to give more than cursory lip service to the 500 year-celebrations of the Reformation. Now, this does not mean that I am not interested in celebrating the genuinely heroic aspects of the Reformation. It does mean that I am only too well aware that the way in which Protestants often represent the situation of the breakaway from Rome is – even if singularly well-intended – spectacularly limited in scope and integrity. The Reformation was massively important in more ways than were ever previously understood and it is more than likely that we will continue to ascertain new things about its importance. But the Reformation itself was, nonetheless, singularly flawed – and the question of religious violence is possibly the greatest of those flaws. In the case of Christianity, a gospel of peace has been transmogrified into a rationale for warfare and bloodshed and none of the easy platitudes offered by conservative Bible-believing Christians for some of what is read in the Old Testament makes the questions concerning how the defamation of God’s honour becomes the reason why some people lose their lives.

So what is the argument for Christianity as a gospel of peace? And how is killing other people in the name of religion a sign of good and stable mental health?

The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng has argued that the Crusades and Inquisition were supported by a theological rationale that goes right back to Augustine – who may have meant well but was sadly misguided. This means that Augustine may have been an even greater influence on the Reformers than is easily accepted (predestination being one important example – and this for those who believe that this doctrine originated with Calvin). And (Jean) Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther (legendary and upstanding Reformers to a man) all concluded after individual journeys of thought that certain groups of religious adherents who would not recant their heresies (as understood by said Reformers) should indeed forfeit their lives (violent force was permissible). Seen in this light, the fact that this latest instance of grotesque intra-communitarian religious violence will re-open the debate amongst Christians (and others) about Islam’s propensity for violence (as a fundamental part of its DNA) should be recognised as a prospective example of one set of religious adherents judging the doctrinal content of another faith tradition while blithely ignoring the enormous questions that could legitimately be asked of theirs.

And of course, all those who follow certain New Atheists and their critique of religion in general (Sam Harris in particular, even more so than Christopher Hitchens comes to mind) will now have some added ‘grist to their mill’ (an old English expression).

There is no way to gloss over the fact that one set of people who believe themselves to be Muslim have decided that another set of people who also declare themselves to be Muslim – in this case, not just Sunni Muslims, but Sufis in particular, who are known for a worship style that many ‘charismatic’ Christians would understand along with other religious adherents whose worship style involves mystical transcendence and ecstasy – should in fact die at their hands because they see the faith given to them by Mohammed (as opposed to Allah) in a very different way. One of the subtlest take-home messages found in the television series The Honourable Woman was that Muslims who disagree with each other will, in the end, even kill their very own relatives with complete impunity. And the British historian Tom Holland has worked on some of the monumental challenges that we find at the heart of Muslim religious thought (I am deliberately refusing to use the word ‘theology’) and found some things which make for extremely uncomfortable reading.

And of course, the question remains: who killed Malcolm X in the Audobon Ballroom that night?!

But when Jesus Himself said that He came “not to bring peace but a sword,” it becomes much harder to ignore the work of Rene Girard, who has argued that violence is at the very heart of the sacred. Now this is an extremely dangerous-sounding idea for many religious types who comfortably believe that while other religions (like Islam) may resort to violence and the like (despicable people), they have the ‘truth’ and ‘light’ and everyone else is just plain WRONG! Girard’s thought possesses subtleties and nuances that this piece of writing cannot possibly address, but his ideas represent a challenge that cannot be ignored by honest religious thinkers. And issues such as these lead us to questions regarding the nature of religious faith and mental delusion – and the enormity of those questions might explain why most religious adherents choose to ignore them!

Now, before non-religious types start wondering why anyone in their right mind would adhere to any form of institutionalised religion, I’ve a quick question: who, exactly, says that the concept of the ‘sacred’ is only applicable to ‘religion?’

Superman: that most intrinsically American of superheroes is – in his own words –  fighting for ‘truth, justice and the American way.’ The net effect of this on some (not all, but some) hearers is that truth and justice are only to be found in the pursuit of the American way. Admittedly, this is not what was said. But the USA has a history of demonising its enemies that goes back further than the 2002 rhetoric of George Bush in the relative aftermath of 9/11. And given the way in which the story of Desmond Doss – a conscientious objector – is celebrated by Hollywood even as other members of his own church denomination bear arms against the ‘enemies’ of the USA, there are some latent, nascent inconsistencies in how we think about those who are not like us – inside and outside of religious contexts. Superman’s values are clearly not understood as ‘religious’ but for many Americans they are ‘sacred’ – and the right to violently oppose those who oppose those values is hardwired into the Second Amendment – and many other ‘locations’ in the fabric of US society.

This mass murder of Muslims by fellow Muslims which has provoked the Egyptian government into an explicit rhetoric of vengeance (“utmost force” will characterise their response to this) cannot possibly be seen as a reason for complacency on the part of those who are not Muslim – whether because of another religion or no religion at all. This piece of writing has aimed to do just one thing – ask all of us to take a moment to think about just how far we would go to defend what we take to be sacred. In this light, we all may not be quite as ‘non-violent’ as we think.




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