Friday, December 31, 2010

Religion of War

Remember September 2010? The news stories then were predominantly filled with threats about Americans supposedly under attack from Islam. A proposed Islamic community center in New York City was going to irretrievably disgrace our memorial to 9/11 victims. A media-savvy preacher with 50 congregants in Florida threatened to burn a copy of the Qur’an to protest “godless Islam” – until he accomplished his real goal of international attention. Protests against proposed mosque sites were breaking out around the country – including places where Muslims had been worshipping quietly for years. And, of course, politicians looking for headlines – and their sycophants at Fox News – came out with all kinds of statements that insulted and unnecessarily challenged the religious compassion and tolerance that is part of the best definition of America. Talk about “aiding and abetting the enemy”: we managed to prove that our enemies were exactly right in accusing Americans of being hostile to the Muslim and Arab world.

All of those supposedly relevant and important news stories magically disappeared in the noise of the 2010 midterm elections. But no wonder that they left upwards of 40% of Americans – most of whom have never met a Muslim or read a single word of the Qur’an – distrusting Islam and viewing it as a “religion of war” directed against non-Muslims (and Americans in particular). Who can blame them when we read the following examples of calls to violence from supposedly religious scripture:

1. “They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level with them. So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of God; if they turn back to enmity, then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them. Except those who seek refuge with a people between whom and you there is a covenant, or those who come unto you because their hearts forbid them to make war on you or make war on their own folk. Had God willed He could have given them power over you so that assuredly they would have fought you, So, if they hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, God alloweth you no way against them. Ye will find others who desire that they should have security from you, and security from their own folk. So often as they are returned to hostility they are plunged therein. If they keep not aloof from you, nor offer you peace, nor hold their hands, then take them and kill them wherever you find them. Against such We have given you clear warrant.”

2. “[For the wicked and deceitful who are against me] … let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out … As he clothed himself with cursing like as his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones ... Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the Lord, and of them that speak evil against my soul.”

3. “… ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other God; for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

4. “Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bounds, and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance).”

5. “It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect … I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed. I have wounded them that they were not able to rise: they are fallen under my feet. For thou has girded me with strength unto the battle: thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me. Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me. They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the Lord, but he answered them not. Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets.”

These are certainly very violent images, ones that should give all peace-seeking peoples concern. It is understandable that we would reject those who advocate such violence in the name of the religious promotion of one faith over others. Yet exactly who is it that we are to reject?

Examples 1 and 4 above are God’s words through Muhammad in the Qur’an. But examples 2 & 5 are verses from the Psalms, typically portrayed as some of the best poetry to God found in the Old Testament. Example #3 is God’s word through Moses to destroy non-believers. So towards what peoples, what faiths, are we to target our resistance, focus our rejection, marshal our defenses against religious violence?

Virtually all religions were born in violence and persecution, requiring a vigorous defense to survive. Various Hebrew kings, Muhammad, and others fought to birth and nourish their religions. Yet killing and warfare are easily addictive. From such a violent birth, how do we know when it is time to stop fighting, to avoid crossing the line from religious defense into earthly aggression?

Jesus asked us to “love our enemies as ourselves”; God spoke through Muhammad to admonish Muslims to “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” Yet millions of people have been persecuted and died as local cultures and man’s ego have perverted God’s messages into mankind’s pursuit of wealth, power, geography or revenge for all kinds of self-justified reasons. When we are truly threatened, we must resist such actions upon us. But “As we resist the action, we must still love the person.” (Dalai Lama)

In our religious texts and in our own minds, we can find justification for anything we do if we start with our self-serving intention and work backwards. Any religion – Christian, Jewish, Islam – can be rationalized into violence by a precise selection of code words, fueled by ambition towards personal power. It is in the overriding spirit of our faiths where there is moral consistency across all beliefs – a spirit of unthreatened confidence in all beings, a knowledge that real Truth needs no forced rationalizations. Right versus wrong is known in all our hearts intuitively if we just listen quietly to that intuition. And Right is the same for all of us, however differently our faiths may express it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Headlines Are Not News

I recently signed on to my online browser, and was greeted with a breaking top news headline that said, “Federal Judge Rules Health Care Law Unconstitutional.” Considering all the time and effort that went into creating and passing this bill, a decision to nullify it would seem a significant and noteworthy news event. So I chose to read on.

As it turns out, buried down in the heart of the story were three extremely important clarifications (corrections?) of that headline:

1. The federal judge who ruled on this case only deemed one portion of the bill unconstitutional – namely that portion that mandates that everyone buy health insurance as of 2014;

2. This Virginia-based federal judge ruled in one lawsuit brought solely by the Virginia Attorney General (an AG who has on repeated occasions shown questionable judgment in his ability to distinguish between his personal political agenda and his broader obligations as Virginia’s chief legal officer), so the result of the judge’s decision would only affect the citizens of Virginia;

3. Nationally, 12 other federal judges have already previously dismissed out-of-hand similar state-brought lawsuits as without merit; two other federal judges who did elect to hear such cases both ruled the law constitutional. So the more correct box score now reads: 14 individual judges have approved the law; one has not.

We all know that, in this highly politicized climate, the Obama health care law will ultimately wind up in the Supreme Court. That event is still years away, moving through all kinds of interim legal and political wrangles and the various court jurisdictions and levels. Once it arrives in the laps of Chief Justice Roberts & Company, it is anyone’s guess what will then happen. But that is for later. So in the broader context of “legal process,” yes, the Virginia decision was noteworthy, but nowhere near decisive – contrary to the impression created by that news headline.

Unfortunately, this more balanced, more complete perspective of the Virginia ruling got completely lost in most all news reporting of that day. The “unconstitutional” headline statement ran unchanged in most all other reporting media – both online as well as cable and network news programs, including the little “news ticker” that runs across the bottom of our TV screens.

News headline writing is a uniquely creative art form. Headlines are typically not written by the author of the in-depth article but by a separate person supposedly skilled in collapsing and highlighting an entire story into perhaps less than ½-dozen words, all without distorting the story itself. It is not an easy task. The author may in fact never even see the headline prior to publication, usually with no opportunity given to comment on or edit it. I am sympathetic to those who perform this challenging and necessary task. But I am more concerned about readers who come away from a headline with a wrong or significantly incomplete understanding of the underlying news. It is similar challenge that television guide editors face in seeking to describe an entire movie plot line in 3-4 words, often with laughable results – e.g. Gone With The Wind (“Woman saves her home”), or The Wizard of Oz (“Girl leaves Kansas”). But however difficult the challenge, the news headline – designed to both get our attention and to entice the reading of the full report – must be subject to the same standards of accuracy and objectivity as we expect from the story itself. In this instance, that standard was not met on what is acknowledged is a critical and emotional subject in America.

We are bombarded today by far more news, or opinion masquerading as news, or “news” that we should have no interest in, than we can possibly absorb. (How many Lindsay Lohan or Mel Gibson stories do we have to read before we can comfortably conclude that these are two significantly troubled people?) In our self-defense of this onslaught, more and more of us must scan the news in order to just stay marginally aware of what is happening around us. In times past, leisurely reading the morning and/or evening newspaper at the breakfast table or after dinner was part of our daily routine. Today we have very little time available to read full news reports from start to end, much less to then think and reflect on what we have read.

Nevertheless, the responsibility remains ours for staying properly informed, and basing our opinions on substantive and well-reasoned information. We need to pick our information sources wisely; differentiate between reporting, versus informed opinion, versus soapbox self-promoting demagoguery; and continually remind ourselves that when we “scan” the headlines, we only see a list of topics that we may need to follow up on. Good headline writing can help us with our task of being informed. There is input in a news headline, but there is clearly no knowledge therein. Gleaning knowledge, and from that wisdom, is still our job to do.