Religions learned long ago what science is learning now

Given how long humankind has held some kind of religious beliefs and tried to live out those beliefs, it should not be surprising that religious people and their leaders have developed lots of ways to help people live better, more productive and happy lives.

How-God-WorksWhich, in some ways, is also the goal of some branches of science, such as psychology.

As this Wired piece reports, "much of what psychologists and neuroscientists are finding about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings and behaviors — how to support them when they grieve, how to help them be more ethical, how to let them find connection and happiness — echoes ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years."

In other words, as the headline on the article notes, "psychologists are learning what religion has known for years." (The article is drawn from a new book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, by David DeSteno. I've read about the book but haven't yet read it.)

Science and religion, as the article notes, often have been -- or at least seemed to be -- at odds. That happens when people forget that those two disciplines try to answer different questions. Science tries to answer what, where, when, how and even who, while religion deals with the why question, the question of purpose.

When they cross into each other's territory, one of two things happens -- they learn from each other or they clash needlessly.

The Wired piece then makes this useful observation: ". . . if we remove the theology — views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like — from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies — tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. And studying these technologies has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from a spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek."

It's a fair question to ask why religion should have to "remove theology." Well, in fact, it doesn't have to. For its view of things it can ground its "series of rituals, customs and sentiments" in theology and understand itself in that way.

All the Wired piece is saying is that those rituals, customs and sentiments can be helpful to people even detached from theological ideas.

No doubt that's true. But I think it would be useful for psychologists and other scientists to recognize how religion created those rituals, customs and sentiments. They grew out of theological beliefs. They had to make sense of -- and not conflict with -- that religion's answers to the eternal questions. So while it's just fine for psychology to be learning from and even borrowing from religion, maybe psychologists would do well to give credit where credit is due.

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THE IMPORTANT VARIETIES OF ISLAM

Are you aware of Nahdlatul Ulama? It's a reformist Islamic group in Indonesia. In fact, as this article from "The Conversation" notes, it's "the world’s biggest Islamic organization with about 90 million members and followers. In terms of membership, the organization hugely outstrips that of the Taliban – yet this face of Islam has not been sufficiently recognized on the international stage." It's more proof that every religion in the world is divided in some way and none is monolithic, even if, like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they may be monotheistic. The point is that there is no single Islam and that as bad as the Taliban is -- and it's reprehensible in many ways -- it doesn't represent the whole of Islam.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an effort to provide mental health counseling through KC area religious congregations -- now is online here.


To counter hate and extremism, first it helps to know where it is

State-of-hate

Extremism of various kinds infects our world. Some of it is rooted in bad religion, some in bad sociology, much in fear and ignorance.

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were rooted in terrible distortions of an ancient and honorable religion, Islam, we need to continue to try to understand the reasons for radicalism and to find ways to defang it.

One way, of course, is to try to understand how bad the problem is. That's what this new study from the Bard Center for the Study of Hate tries to do. Even its author, Robert Tynes, however, recognizes that what he calls the "State of Hate Index" is only a start and is limited by the data available.

As the conclusion to the study says, "The State of Hate Index is the first glimpse of how hate manifests from state to state. It is nowhere near the sharpest picture of the fields of hate in America. It is, however, a sharper view of the dynamics as a
whole, drawn from the most accurate data sources existing to date. Much more refinement is needed. Asian American, Muslim American, Arab American and Latinx-based hate is included in the general framework of SoHI, but it is not broken down into separate, stand-alone variables. . .We need even more accounting of hate-based destruction of property and lives."

Using various measures, the study ranks the 50 states according to the "potential for violence and dehumanization in a given region in the United States." The higher a state's ranking, the lower the potential. So by these measures, the top five states (meaning the states in which the potential for violence and dehumanization is lowest) are New York, Hawaii, Illinois, California and Connecticut.

By contrast, the five lowest ranking states are Idaho (at the very bottom), Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and Arkansas.

Missouri ranked 18th from the top and Kansas 21st.

No doubt there are arguments to be made that these rankings aren't exactly done by hard science and are, thus, debatable. But the point of doing something like this at all is to encourage people to think about the origins of hate and extremism as well as the violence that such radicalism can and does produce.

More than that, it's to get people thinking about what they can do to unplug violent extremism. And that's the subject of the final chapter of my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I hope you will join those of us who are seeking solutions that will make the world a more humane and peaceful place.

One way to do that is to have a look at this new study and find ways to move your state up the list.

(The photo here today came from the hate index study. The caption for it said, "MLK Rally and March in Oakland, California. Photo by Peg Hunter.")

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WANNA RENT A CHURCH?

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, many houses of worship have been struggling to make ends meet. One way some of them have been doing it, this RNS story reports, is by renting out some of their space to other congregations and organizations. There's even a business -- Church Space -- to help them do that. Apparently it's better to rent than to fall into receivership.

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Cover-lle-hi-resP.S.: This past Sunday I preached at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Ill., and then led a discussion about my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance. You can go to this link and watch a video of both gatherings.


What can we do to stop violent extremism in its many forms?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- I'm here by invitation to preach at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest on Sunday morning and then to lead a class related to my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

Home-land-securityIt's a 10 a.m. CDT service that I think you can watch on the church's Facebook page.

Although the new book describes in some painful detail the many traumas my extended family experienced because of the murder of my nephew, Karleton Fyfe, as a passenger on the first plane to explode into the World Trade Center, it also focuses on the roots of violent extremism and what we can do about that, if anything.

Which is why I was so interested in and intrigued by this story in The Atlantic of a city in Belgium that seems, indeed, to have found some approaches that work to defang radicalism.

The story is drawn from a new book on this subject, Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back from Extremism, by Carla Power.

The focus of the book and the article is Mechelen, Belgium, and its inventive mayor, Bart Somers, who has developed a so-far-successful strategy to keep young residents of his town from becoming radicalized and joining such terrorist groups as ISIS.

At the end of my own book, I devote a chapter to exploring how people get sucked into extremism and another chapter to ideas for dealing with that. My list of ideas is far from exhaustive, so I was glad to learn about some things Somers and his community have tried in Belgium.

As Power writes, his "strategy. . .was to try to make everyone in the city feel that they belonged, a lesson for all countries now dealing with extremism. Cultivating a sense of belonging robs the extremists of a major grievance: social exclusion."

Cover-lle-hi-resIndeed, it's well worth noting that one of the main drivers that moves Americans into radical groups that commit domestic terrorism is a sense that there's no place for them in this country. Donald Trump played into that angst when he ran for president with a promise to "make America great again," on the assumption that those who feel left out of society today have in their heads an idea of what America should be, which means something like whatever they imagined America once was.

Power notes that "The Mechelen train tracks sit on what was once the richest seam for Islamic State recruits in the Western world. Belgium had Europe’s highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Syria, thanks in part to groups such as Sharia4Belgium, whose volunteers would travel along the Brussels-Antwerp train line to find fresh recruits. Brussels had some 200 residents leave for Syria. Antwerp lost 100 young people. And in Vilvoorde, a town of only 42,000, 29 residents departed for Syria. Nearly every Vilvoorde high school lost students to the Islamic State. Not a single person left from Mechelen."

One reason, she writes, is that the mayor "fought back by trying to make the city green, clean, and safe."

Well, there is considerably more to his work that you can read about in the article. And his success has not come without opposition. But we in this country would do well to learn what we can from what has worked in Mechelen as we confront the growing threat and reality of domestic terrorism, including the type of violence we saw in the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.

This is a conversation we Americans need to have. And I hope that the new books from both Power and me can help with that.

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POPE FRANCIS DOESN'T BAR PEOPLE FROM COMMUNION

Pope Francis, while reiterating his firm stance against abortion, says that he's never denied Communion to anyone. A move by some church leaders to do exactly that has caused a lot of dissension in the church. But as the RNS story to which I've linked you notes, Francis believes that “Communion is not a prize for the perfect” but a “a gift” marking the presence of Jesus in one's church and community. Francis once again shows himself to be both pastoral and reasonable.


Will 'Religion on the Line' radio show continue?

ROL-21

I got to be a guest this past Sunday morning on the long-running radio program called "Religion on the Line," which the Rev. Robert Lee Hill has hosted for nearly three decades, with some help from his friends, especially Michael Zedek, emeritus rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jehudah.

It turned out to be good timing to be a guest then because Hill had told me a few days earlier that this coming Sunday morning would be the final time the show will air -- at least on KCMO Radio -- and perhaps forever, if another station doesn't pick it up. But he told me when I arrived at the studio Sunday morning that the deadline for turning this call-in show into a dead line has been extended at least until mid-October. So stay tuned.

(The photo here today, which I took last Sunday morning at the studio in Corporate Woods, shows Hill, left, and Catholic Deacon Bill Scholl of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. Scholl now is a regular on the show. Zedek participated in the discussion by phone that morning. The conversation Sunday was mostly about religious extremism and was based on my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.)

Cover-lle-hi-resA few of years ago, Flatland did this piece about this interesting radio show when the program was turning 25 years of age. Zedek has been on the show with Hill for almost all of the show's run, and is quoted in the Flatland piece this way: “Radio, because it is voice only, creates an extreme intimacy that is surprising in some ways.”

Indeed, that atmosphere of intimacy is required when exploring the eternal questions. Yes, there's a place for scholarly investigations into religious matters, such as translations of scripture and the history of how this or that religious tradition developed. But because religion deals with the interface between individuals and the cosmos and especially because it deals with the question of purpose, intimate discussion is vital.

And the "Religion on the Line" radio show has not all been about just one religion. As Hill notes, "We've been the interfaith voice for public discussion on an ongoing weekly basis for 28 and a half years."

If we've learned anything about religion in the last 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's what we already should have known, which is that sometimes religious ideas can be dangerous, a subject I wrote about here earlier this year. For that reason, among many others, we need opportunities to talk openly and honestly about religion.

And for that reason alone, I hope "Religion on the Line" will continue. And so do the loyal listeners of the 6 to 8 a.m. Sunday show.

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A HISTORY OF DAMNING WOMEN TO HELL

Ancient religious texts and cultural teachings rooted in them often have led to views of women as literally damnable, as this piece from The Conversation makes clear. As we hear about and worry about how women in Afghanistan and how they will be treated now under the harsh, fundamentalist rule of the Taliban, it wouldn't hurt to know some of the history of how the other two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, have treated women across the ages and what we still don't get right.


Two decades later, this violent world has yet to be repaired

Burial-stone-a

I have already said in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, what I want to say about this weekend's 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

2-10-16-rose (1)I hope you will read it to get a better understanding of all the trauma that terrorism brings to the world as well as to learn something about how people get sucked into extremism and what, if anything, we can do to stop such radicalism and its almost-inevitable product, violence.

But for this weekend, I don't want to repeat all that's in the book. You can read there about my nephew Karleton Fyfe's life and his death at age 31 as a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. (And if you want to know what the U.S. got wrong in the "War on Terror," I recommend this piece from The Atlantic. Or for another take on that question, this David Corn piece is worth reading.)

Rather, I just want to honor Karleton and all the others whose lives have been viciously cut short by people who think they have all the answers to all the world's mysteries and are willing to kill to prove it.

KDBF-saluteSo I will just show you a few photos from and about his too-brief life.

At the top is a shot of the small stone that marks the North Carolina burial place of the only remains of Karleton that were recovered, a piece of thigh bone.

Next down is a picture of his name on the 9/11 memorial at ground zero in New York City.

To the right is one of the last photos I have of him, taken at the wedding of his one of his sisters in June 2001.

And I will ask you this weekend to think not just about the young man we called KDBF but, rather, about all the people whose lives have been ended or in some other way wounded by violent extremism.

Cover-lle-hi-resMay their memories be a blessing to us as we find ways to bring to the world more peaceful tomorrows.

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AT LEAST THERE'S THIS

One small light of hope that emerged from the 9/11 attacks, as this RNS story notes, is "the evolution and advancement of interfaith cooperation in the United States." That wasn't a new, post-9/11 development in Kansas City, where the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council had long been working. But even here there have been more efforts to bridge the divide between and among various religious traditions. If you're not part of that effort, why not?


A New Testament for people who understand Native American spirituality

The original manuscripts that eventually, over centuries, became the Bible -- the Tanakh (or Hebrew scriptures), the New Testament and, for some, the Apocrypha -- were written in Hebrew and Greek with a bit of Aramaic here and there.

Native-BibleThose versions have been translated, according to this article from Wikipedia (which sometimes doesn't get things exactly right), into hundreds of languages. Specifically: "As of September 2020 the full Bible has been translated into 704 languages, the New Testament has been translated into an additional 1,551 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,160 other languages. Thus at least some portions of the Bible have been translated into 3,415 languages."

वाह वाह. (That's Hindi for "wow.")

But that's as of a year ago. Now we have yet another New Testament translation. This one is done in English but it draws on Native American language and thought to make it more understandable to Indigenous readers.

As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, Terry Wildman, lead translator and project manager, "hopes the new translation published Tuesday (Aug. 31) by InterVarsity Press, First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, will help Christians and all Indigenous peoples read it in a fresh way. (Wildman is shown in this photo along with a photo of the cover of the new translation.)

The relationship between Native Americans and Christianity is, shall we say, complicated, given that many of the early Christian invaders had little use for the Indians (as they called them), who needed to be cleared from the land by hook or by crook to make way for the "manifest destiny" of white people.

So you can understand if some Indigenous people remain skeptical of the religion that led those invaders to commit various forms of genocide on their ancestors. And yet Christianity has taken root among many American Indians, and this new translation almost certainly will make it easier for them to understand the concepts contained in the New Testament's 27 books, or chapters.

For instance, the story notes this about the famous verse John 3:16: "In the First Nations Version, 'eternal life,' a concept unfamiliar in Native American cultures, becomes 'the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony.' The Greek word 'cosmos,' usually translated in English as 'the world,' had to be reconsidered, too: It doesn’t mean the planet Earth but how the world works and how creation lives and functions together, said Wildman. . ."

Every single translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into English or any other language is an act of interpretation. So the First Nations Version is following in the footsteps of hundreds of translators over long centuries. The goal is to open up meaning to readers in ways they can grasp for themselves today and in ways that can connect to how the writers meant their words and how the original readers or hearers of those words would have understood them.

I suppose the surprise is that it has taken this long for this special First Nations version to appear. I look forward to reading it.

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TWENTY YEARS LATER THE 9/11 TRIAL MOVES CLOSER TO STARTING

Cover-lle-hi-resAs we prepare to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this week, the case of the 9/11 organizers continues in a military court at Guantanamo. In fact, the self-confessed 9/11 chief plotter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, appeared in that court yesterday for the first time since February 2020. The slowness of this military justice amounts to one painful stab at the hearts of 9/11 families after another. Beyond the five 9/11 planners on trial, other uncharged people are imprisoned at Gitmo, a clear violation of the Geneva Accords. President Joe Biden has promised to close Gitmo, and there's some evidence that his administration is moving in that direction, but every day Gitmo is open is another stain on the U.S. and on American values. As I note in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, the 9/11 terrorists caused my family and thousands of other families whose members were murdered that day trauma after trauma. It's way past time to end that.

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P.S.: As some of you may know, there will be a performance in KC this Saturday of "The Great Divorce," by the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. As good timing would have it, the new issue of Christian History Magazine focuses on Lewis. And you can read the whole issue for free in this pdf.


Learning from our costly errors in fighting terrorism

Dover

Now that we're past the deadline for U.S. troops to get out of Afghanistan, we would do well not to put that country and the badly named "War on Terror" out of our minds.

Indeed, there are several matters related to this 20-year debacle that we should study with the goal of learning lessons that will prevent us from repeating the errors the American government made there in our name.

One of the first lessons is that military might cannot and will not convince violent extremists that they are wrong. That's exactly the point made in this New Yorker piece. As Robin Wright says in that article, ". . .the central flaw in U.S. strategy is the belief that military force can eradicate extremist groups or radical ideologies."

It's also been one of the founding beliefs of the organization September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. As one of the members, documentary maker Terry Rockefeller, has written recently, any war on terror that relies on violence will not be successful. To read her full statement, download this file: Download 29 August UFPJ Time to Declare.

Something else we need to remember is that we are searching for trouble when we do what radical Islamist terrorists do, which is to try to justify their actions by rooting them in scripture.

President Joe Biden did something akin to that the other day when he dragged a phrase from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah into his remarks after ISIS-K had murdered 13 American troops and many others at the Kabul airport.

This RNS commentary by Ed Stetzer rightly points out that "It was. . .deeply jarring for me and other Christians to hear Isaiah 6:8 used by President Biden in his recent address

“Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.’ Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.”

As Stetzer writes, "I understand the desire to turn to Scripture to make sense of this tragedy, and this is a good thing. However, while men and women were sent on a mission, it was certainly not the mission we read about in Isaiah. Conflating these two is deeply problematic and harmful in the long run. . ."

Politicians have long sought to use scripture to justify their thinking and make them look more pious. But it's the rare politician who is theologically astute enough to do that carefully and effectively. Usually it's a mistake and often a disaster. Ronald Reagan was especially awful at it. He apparently thought he'd been elected our political pope.

Stetzer puts it this way: "It is never appropriate to take the mission of God in Scripture and apply it to the American military, the American dream or the American way of life. They are not interchangeable. The kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms are not one and the same, nor does the kingdom of God depend on the success of earthly governments, movements, campaigns or wars."

Cover-lle-hi-resAs important as that point is, however, it's secondary to the first lesson I mentioned above. Military force is not the way to change the minds of religious radicals. The last chapter of my new 9/11-related book, Love, Loss and Endurance, offers better strategies for trying to unplug extremism. I hope you'll use them instead of hoping for more bombs and bullets against the radicals.

The-rise-and-fall-of-osama-bin-ladenAnd while we're thinking about the failures of the Afghanistan War, may I suggest that you read Peter Bergen's new book, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. It's a terrific read.

Toward the end of the book, Bergen notes this: "On a global level, bin Laden's 9/11 attacks set the course for U.S. foreign policy for the first two decades of the twenty-first century and reshaped the Muslim world in ways that bin Laden certainly didn't intend and that few could have predicted. . .

"The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed days after 9/11. . .sanctioned 'forever wars' that lasted for two decades after 9/11. Three presidents as different from each other as Bush, Obama and Trump used this same authorization to carry out hundreds of drone strikes against groups such as ISIS, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab and the Pakistani Taliban. Few of the strikes had any connection to the perpetrators of 9/11. . .

"Bin Laden's 9/11 attacks also had unpredictable, long-term effects on the politics of the United States. Real estate impresario Donald Trump launched his political career with the lie that President Barack Obama wasn't an American and was secretly a Muslim. This lie was especially potent in the context of 9/11."

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to clear out al-Qaida training camps to prevent further attacks on our country was justifiable self-defense. But to have allowed that task, which didn't take forever to complete, to morph into nation building and to drift into other wars, especially in Iraq, should drive Americans to study this history in depth and commit to making sure that something like it never happens again.

(The photo here today of dead U.S. troops returning to the air base at Dover, Del., came from here.)

Oh, and here's a piece from The Atlantic about what ISIS in Afghanistan wants now. Worth a read.)

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SOME BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TEXAS LAW

As usual, the latest culture-wars story (about Texas' new draconian abortion law) has a backstory about which few people are aware. This piece from The Conversation fills in some of that, pointing to the centuries of debate and discussion in Christianity over not just abortion but also marriage itself. And as scholar and blogger Heather Cox Richardson noted Friday in her blog post, "the modern-day opposition to abortion had its roots not in a moral defense of life but rather in the need for President Richard Nixon to win votes before the 1972 election. Pushing the idea that abortion was a central issue of American life was about rejecting the equal protection of the laws embraced by the Democrats far more than it was ever about using the government to protect fetuses." Pat Buchanan -- and later Newt Gingrich -- have a lot to answer for when it comes to our polarized politics and especially to the culture wars.

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P.S.: The other night I attended a good American Public Square panel discussion on antisemitism. APS created a fact sheet that all panelists (who disagreed with each other about several matters) agreed was an excellent document all could buy into. I thought it might be helpful to many of you, so you can find it here.


What St. Augustine teaches us about religious know-it-alls

Something that often distresses people who are trying to figure out whether religion makes sense to them is the idea that others know God's will and intentions in such a deep way that they can tell you who is destined for paradise and who is a sure bet for hell. (Such people of certitude also have no doubts about whether either heaven or hell exists.)

ConfessionsThis problem of theological arrogance is not new. I recently found proof of that when I finally, finally sat down and read St. Augustine's famous book Confessions. (I'd have read it earlier but I first had to get through all of John Calvin's long and impenetrable books, which I'll no doubt finish in my next life.)

Late in Confessions, Augustine speaks about people he somewhat dismissively refers to as "free spirits in your church," in Garry Wills' translation of the work.

These free spirits come in for some criticism for putting to the test certain matters that are beyond their comprehension, including "separating the saved from the damned." Augustine then adds this: "No matter how spiritual a man may be, he is no judge of people still caught in the riptides of time. How can he judge from the outside which man will reach by grace the final sweetness, which will welter on in the lasting brine of impiety?"

Those matters, Augustine concludes, belong to God, not to humanity. But doesn't "the lasting brine of impiety" sound at least a little bit tempting? Well, maybe not.

Let's remember that Augustine of Hippo lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries (354-430). And, under the strong influence of his mother, eventually embraced Christianity with gusto.

And yet his writing shows him to have some room for theological flexibility. In the last few pages of his book he writes this to God: "I understand that you give us range and opportunity to express in different ways what we understand to be a single truth, and to understand in different ways what we read in a single obscure expression."

Augustine clearly understands the trouble with people who are absolutely convinced that they have it right and that no one else can challenge them. The old saint must have read my book The Value of Doubt. Good for him. He must have received a really, really early review copy.

So Augustine would offer no encouragement to fundamentalists of any stripe these days, whether biblical literalists or the most austere members of the Taliban (see below), ISIS, al-Qaida, the Ku Klux Klan and other such forbidding monochromatic religious minds.

I'm positive of that. Sort of.

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ISLAM UNDER THE TALIBAN WILL BE MONOCHROMATIC

One more result of turning Afghanistan back over to the Taliban is that religious minorities there now will come under enormous pressure. Islam, after all, may be an insistently monotheistic religion but, like many world religions, it is far from being undivided. And the Taliban -- not unlike similar radicals -- is convinced it knows exactly the kind of Muslim everyone should be. Religious persecution almost certainly now will be experienced in even more harmful ways by many living in Afghanistan.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a quiet place where you can ponder the eternal questions -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Conversation, a great resource to which scholars and others contribute, is offering six pieces for people who want to understand more about Islam. Not to convert people, just to educate them. You can read the first one here and sign up to receive the others as they're published.


Why is the Middle East such a mess? Here's an answer.

If you think problems in what today we call the Middle East (Do you know how it got named that?*) are so deeply embedded in history that they form a Gordian knot impossible to undo, you're not alone and you may not be wrong. But if a solution of some sort is to be found, knowing the history of the region is vital. (Just as U.S. leaders should have known more about the history of Afghanistan before spending 20 years and huge amounts of blood and treasure there.)

Politics-of-persecutionA new source for Middle East history is about to be published (this coming Wednesday): The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire, by Mitri Raheb. (*There's an intriguing answer in this new book.)

In the end, you may or may not agree with some of his conclusions about why things happened and what to do about it now, but at a minimum there is revelatory history here that can give us the kind of perspective we need to get a better understanding of everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iraq war to the Ottoman Empire to colonialism and on and on.

And here's a summary from the book about why this matters:

"In the past two centuries, the Middle East experienced twenty-six wars, meaning an average of one war every eight years. Several countries were devastated by colonial wars or torn apart by civil war. The Middle East houses 5 percent of the world's population and yet is home to 25 percent of the world's conflicts, 57.5 percent of the world's refugees and 47 percent of the world's internally displaced people."

The intentional focus of the book is on the fate of Christians in the area, and the news there isn't good.

"Without peace," Raheb writes, "it will be difficult to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its origin."

The reality, of course, is that Christians have been both the persecuted and the persecutors, as this book makes clear.

It has become a standard complaint among American Christians who identify themselves as evangelical or conservative that Christians are often victims of persecution, both at home and abroad. But the story is considerably more complicated than those who say that often are willing to acknowledge. Consider, for instance, Iraq. As Raheb writes:

"The largest wave of Christian emigration from Iraq was triggered by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Under the false pretext of nuclear weapons and smoking guns, the United States invaded Iraq and dismantled the Baath party of Iraq and the Iraqi military. This brought chaos to the country and paved the way for ISIS to take over. Over a million more Christians felt defenseless and fled Iraq to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while many migrated to North America and Australia. . .The United States, which is now eager to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East, actually brought about the biggest blow to one of the ancient Christian communities in the region through its sanctions and invasion."

To look at this history of persecution of people of faith -- especially Christians -- Raheb goes all the way back to the early days of the faith and especially to the way in which the Roman empire persecuted followers of Christ.

Then he focuses on the research that's been done at Dar al-Kalima University of Arts and Culture since 2006.

The various ways in which foreign Christian missionaries, especially from the U.S., influenced life, economics, politics, religion and more is a subject to which Raheb pays considerable attention. This still plays a role in Middle Eastern life today. That's especially true in light of people who identify as conservative Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ can't happen until Jews, represented by the modern state of Israel, control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which Muslims now control.

Early Christian missionaries to the Middle East, Raheb says, "thought of themselves as superior in religion, race and culture to the other monotheistic religions as well as to the local churches."

If that surprises you, you've missed a fair amount of world history.

And if you've heard about but don't know much about the 1860 massacre of Christians by the Druze on Mount Lebanon, that history is recounted here in considerable detail.

Colonialism, too, plays a major role in this story, for as Raheb notes, "by the end of World War I, the entire Middle East and North Africa were fully under European control."

Well, there is a lot more packed into a 207-page book, and I won't take more time and space to get into it all. But this is important reading even, as I say, if you disagree with some of the author's conclusions, including his implied and direct criticisms of modern Israel.

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ANOTHER TERRORIST GROUP TO KNOW

Cover-lle-hi-resWe may now add to the list of violent extremists getting lots of press in the U.S. and around the world the name of ISIS-K. Who is that? This RNS story describes its origins and its differences with the Taliban. And here is an explanation of the group from The Conversation. Across human history such radicals have plagued the world. We can't just give up and accept that they'll be here forever. We simply must find ways to stand against faith-based extremism. I devote the last two chapters of my new book to explaining some of the roots of extremism and what we can do to unplug it. I hope you'll join the effort to do just that.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a quiet place where you can ponder the eternal questions -- now is online here.


Expect Shari'a-based Taliban rule to be harsh, unbending

If you've been paying attention to Afghanistan, you know that the now-in-charge-again Taliban is committed to governing on the basis of Islamic law, called Shari'a.

ShariaA lot of American imagine that Shari'a amounts to heartless brutality, including cutting off the hands of convicted thieves and keeping women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

That's why some efforts have been made in the U.S. to prevent courts and other legal authorities from ever considering Shari'a in their rulings. I wrote about that foolishness several years ago here.

But if you are serious about wanting to know about Shari'a in depth, I point you toward a book by my friend Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas. His weighty 2011 book, Understanding Islamic Law (Shari'a), is the definitive look at this subject.

As Bhala notes in the book, calling Shari'a just "Islamic law" "is not wrong. But from an American legal mindset, it is incomplete in two respects." First, Shari'a really means a path, a way and spirit of living to which Muslims are called. And Shari'a isn't limited to just legal matters. As Bhala writes, "Shari'a is to govern all of life."

In some ways, thus, Shari'a is for Muslims what the Torah is for Jews and the teachings of Jesus are for Christians -- a description of how to live in harmony with God's purposes.

All of that said, there are ways to live by Shari'a and then there are ways to live by Shari'a. The Taliban has shown that it is a theologically fundamentalist-extremist group that inevitably picks the most radical and harsh interpretation of Shari'a. So the last thing we can expect from the Taliban is approval of female imams.

Media outlets are starting to offer interpretations of what we can expect from Taliban rule now. Some of it has been misleading, to say the least, as this commentary from Yahoo News indicates. The money line from that piece: "Islam is not a monolith, Muslims represent a sixth of humanity and any simplistic reduction of Islamic law to savage brutality is woefully ignorant and unhelpful." But this USA Today piece, by contrast, tries to help readers understand what Shari'a is and how the Taliban might rule in light of it.

As the story notes, "Shari'a is the set of laws and precepts that govern the daily lives of Muslim people. It is based on a combination of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, and teachings from the prophet Muhammad.

"Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a former Pakistan high commissioner to the U.K. and Ireland, explained to USA TODAY that 'Shari'a law, or the word Shari'a, has, in the context of contemporary culture, become highly controversial and distorted in its understanding." Ahmed, whom I've met and heard speak, is right, and he has spent considerable time and effort trying to educate people about Shari'a.

Again, Ahmed to USA TODAY: “Shari'a means literally ‘the path’. . .All systems and religions have a way to a better, happier, more prosperous and a more pious life.”

Ahmed also told that newspaper that Shari'a “is defined very clearly by the Qur'an,” but interpretation of the text from scholars, governments and cultures have drastically differed.

Afghanistan-leeExactly. And it's important to remember that even though Muslims believe that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over more than two decades, it needs to be interpreted for several reasons, including the fact that every translation of the book from its original Arabic is itself an interpretive act.

It's also important to understand the history of religious practice and interpretation in Afghanistan. As Jonathan L. Lee writes in his 2018 book Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present, ". . .since the 1920s Afghanistan's legal code has been strongly influenced by Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four Sunni legal schools, or muzhabs. Most Afghans are deeply religious and adhere to the beliefs and practices of Islam, though many urban Afghans are not particularly regular when it comes to observing the five daily prayers. Islam, while it is rigorously monotheistic, is far from being monolithic and there are many strands of religious belief and interpretation, ranging from deistic rationalism to the puritanical exclusivism of movements such as the Taliban."

That's just more confirmation that if there is a rigid, humorless, punitive, oppressive way to interpret the Qur'an and Shari'a, you can count on the Taliban to choose that method -- despite recent Taliban leadership claims to the contrary.

Another important point that Lee makes in his book is that "Islamic law is often blamed for (the) restrictive culture, but customary law, known as 'adat or rasm wa rawaj, is equally important when it comes to determining gender roles in Afghanistan and often denies women rights that are accorded them by the Shari'a." Indeed, scholars who study Islam often say that when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to Arabic culture, it was quite liberating for women, giving them, for example, the right to own and inherit property and to maintain control over whatever wealth women brought to a marriage.

Indeed, as Islam in its early years expanded into areas beyond the Arabian peninsula, it often encountered harshly patriarchal societies that simply ignored or defeated the ways in which Muhammad's teachings were supposed to free women from such strictures. The culture, in other words, won out over the religion.

I would love to be proved wrong about what to expect from the Taliban, but anything less than extremist interpretations of Shari'a and the Qur'an will shock me. I hope to be shocked but won't hold my breath.

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A NEW TITLE FOR A BOUNDRY-BUSTING PASTOR

The kicky and fascinating Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I heard speak at my Kansas City church a couple of years ago, has been installed as the "pastor of public witness" for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her many fans, including those on her email newsletter and prayer list, will cheer. In some ways, this new designation is simply her denomination's acknowledgement that the work she does anyway is ministry. You can sign up for her newsletter here. But if a few common swear words that she regularly employs offend you, perhaps you should avoid doing that.