I regularly hear criticism -- most of which I agree with -- that condemns ISIS, or the Islamic State, and even the government of Saudi Arabia for enforcing strict religious standards on the populations each controls or thinks it controls.
ISIS, indeed, has imagined that it has recreated an Islamic caliphate, or nation, and that its job is to make sure that nobody does anything or says anything that is in conflict with its leaders astonishingly rigid misinterpretation of Islam.
The most recent example of similarly outrageous behavior in Saudi Arabia is the 10-year and 1,000-lashes sentence imposed on a citizen who started what's described as a liberal online forum to encourage discussion and debate in the kingdom.
In both cases, as I've written before, what this shows is that the leaders of both groups think Islam is weak and needs all kinds of violent protection to survive. Which is silly.
But before we (especially those of us in the West) do nothing but criticize such behavior, it would serve us well to understand our own history.
The reality is that Christian leaders used to act in the same way. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the 1600s, when the Protestant Reformation had created considerable turmoil across Europe and the so-called Thirty Years' War (a religious conflict, to be sure) had pummeled the land.
At this time, says David Nirenberg, in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, "the vast majority of theologians agreed that God expected governments to enforce religious conformity and to punish violations of his laws, without mercy or tolerance."
He then quotes John Calvin, the theological father of my Presbyterian Church (USA), as saying this: "Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them, makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are."
And since the Fourth Century, Nirenberg writes, what he calls "mainstream Catholic Christianity" believed "it was the duty of government to punish infractions of God's law. Failure to do so, it was widely believed, would dishonor God and bring down his wrath on the polity."
Eventually, through the American and French revolutions and other developments, governments slowly got out of the business of being God's enforcers. Thank God. But perhaps it also helps to remember that Christianity has been around 500 or 600 years longer than Islam and that matters of faith and doctrine and practice often take a long time to work themselves out.
I'd say the world is ready for an end to ISIS and to the heavy hand of the House of Saud on its own people. But let's not imagine that they dreamed up such reprehensible actions ex nihilo with no historical precedence.
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THE POST-SELMA SPEECH
In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, here's a link to the speech he gave March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march. As you read it, try to imagine how things were just 50 years ago.