Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Religious War?

Somewhere round 1990 I began thinking about the whole issue of religious conflict following a careful reading of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, an Englishman who teaches history at Yale. Several elements in that book set me thinking, and watching the rioting over the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in recent days has reminded me of one of them.

Kennedy cogently points out that there is inevitably unrest in societies and between societies when there is an excess of young men, unable to find adequate employment, and with time on their hands. One of the illustrations he used was of the Vikings, whose late first millennium population explosion pushed them out of their Scandanavian fjords and sent them as raiders across Europe, the Mediterranean, and into Asia. Isn't this one of the problems that Islamic nations have today, I found myself thinking as I watched on television as the Danish and American flags being burned somewhere or other in the Islamic world.

Then I delved into some of my writing from about 8-10 years ago, finding bits and pieces that I have used a great deal in my speaking but I have never published. In 1998 I spent some down time in the summer working on possible scenarios of the environment against which we would be working as we moved into the 21st Century. One of them is entitled Ferocious Religious Conflicts Break Out.

Now, before I share this piece with you let me give you a notion in futuring language of scenarios. A scenario is not an attempt to predict what is going to happen, no one can do that. Only divinely-inspired prophets or lucky fools have ever foretold the future correctly. I know for certain that I am not a prophet -- and I hope to goodness that I am not too much of a fool! Scenarios are really attempts to paint pictures of what might emerge having looked at what has happened to date, having viewed all the variables possible, and then having asked and tried to answer the questions, "what if?"

Each portrayal of the possibilities in a scenario is incomplete, and each has to be modified on an on-going basis to keep up with the procession of changing events and circumstances. Some scenarios will prove to be so badly wrong that a few years on we will look back at them, smile, and wonder that we could have been so stupid. However, they do give us an idea what might happen so that we can be prepared for as
many eventualities as possible.

Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson, in their 1993 book, Russia 2010 write, "'Scenario planning'... is a structured, disciplined method of thinking about the future. We believe that it is an effective technique for tackling questions about the future and reducing complexity. It seeks to open the mind to diverse ideas and to get beyond the tradition and trap of simple extrapolation. It can facilitate an earlier recognition of change, thus promoting flexibility. If successful, it
makes 'surprises' less surprising, and, as such, helps one to 'look around the corner" (Page 8-9).

I posited several scenarios in my thinking that summer. One was that secularism could carry everything before it. A second was that there would be a third great schism (which I think is now happening between orthodoxy and progressive religionists), and a third was that there would be ferocious religous conflict. What follows in what I wrote about ferocious inter-religious conflict in the summer of 1998.


"Foreign Affairs journal is a learned publication you are not likely to stumble across very often in your local mall or on the airport newsstand. Neither is it much quoted in the popular press. However, an article in their summer 1993 edition entitled The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntingdon, an eminent Harvard professor, hit the headlines. Prof. Huntingdon's theory was simple but it made a lot of sense: that in future it will not be ideological conflicts like
the one between Communism and Capitalism which will shape the world, divisions will be cultural, between civilizations.

Between the world's families of civilizations there are fault lines as active as the tectonic plates on which the world's continents float. Before the ideological struggles of the last half century, these have been the places where clashes have taken place, now things are returning to "normal" and this is happening again.

The example which is easiest to illustrate this reality is the explosive situation which has torn the former Yugoslavia apart. As both a high schooler and as a seminarian, I traveled through the rugged beauty of Bosnia, not dreaming that one day Catholic Croats would be at the throats Orthodox Serbs, while both would be snarling at the indigenous Muslim population. A major fault line passes through the Balkans, and this civilizational earthquake is taking place. Other invisible faults
lie between Arabs and Africans, and various East Asian cultures.

Cultures have been sculpted by religious and ethnic factors, thus unsecularlization becomes that much more of a crucial factor as the world returns to conflicts which reflect the clash of civilizations. "As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an 'us' versus 'them' relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion" (Huntingdon -- The Clash of Civilizations).

Where religious circumstances are fluid there is likely to be intense competition between groups. I recently spent a fascinating afternoon with the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria (Peter Akinola's predecessor) during a short visit he made to the USA. He had come directly from northern Nigeria where Christian mission is effectively reaching into traditionally Muslim territory. He graciously sought to play down tensions between Islam and Christianity along that particular fault line, but even if there are cordial relationships between leaders of church and mosque, the same is not necessarily the case on the streets and in the villages. There, as in other parts of the world where Christianity and Islam share turf, there have been violent clashes.

Perhaps one of the most frightening examples of religiously inspired communal disorder in recent years was the destruction of the Babri temple in Ayodhya, northern India, in December 1992. Both Muslims and Hindus claimed this particular spot as a holy site, and violence broke out between the competing religionists for the control of the site. As news of what was happening spread, further rioting took place all over the country, hundreds losing their lives.

The intensification of religious commitments heightens passion and adherence to distinctives. As emotions rise good judgment tends to fly out of the window, and more primitive instincts take over. Even within fairly homogeneous civilizations intense religious and philosophical battles are taking place. In the United States, we are seeing what James Davidson Hunter has called Culture Wars. A conflict
is polarizing between those who are broadly conservative and broadly liberal groupings. Each is seeking to shape the governing principles which shape our common life. Theological liberals, feminists, peace and justice types, and other progressive forces generally line up on one side of the argument, while theological conservatives, traditionalists and middle Americans tend to be on the opposite side of most battles. Those of us who would take the middle ground are being forced to pick sides.

"Family values," abortion, gun control, education, and a host of other issues are being ferociously fought over. So intransigent is either side that our society is further fragmented. If we needed evidence of the growing ferocity of these internecine debates within our culture, the gunning down of doctors at abortion clinics by irrational pro-lifers more than provides it. Each side seems terrified that the other might gain ground and take the advantage.

"Though competing moral visions are at the heart of today's culture wars, these do not always take form in coherent, clearly articulated, sharply differentiated world views. Rather, these moral visions take expression in polarizing impulses or tendencies in American culture." (James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars, p.43, HarperCollins, New York, 1991)

In the years ahead we could find eruptions of religiously inspired feuding on the increase. This could batter the ability of Western democracies to remain intact with the array of human rights we now take for granted. It could also lead to harassment of people with differing religious views, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that organized religious persecution could follow that.

Those of us living and working in the USA need to be working extremely hard to find ways for diversities of religious commitment to at least co-exist with one another. If we are to avoid a deepening of intra-communal distrusts, this will be a fundamental task for the churches in coming years, in cooperation with local synagogues, mosques, and other religious communities. Attempting to develop principles of mutual respect does not necessarily compromise one's commitment to the
essence of the Christian gospel, but it could provide a leavening influence in an increasingly argumentative society.

If we try to do something like this, it will require enormous honesty on the part of parishes and individuals, and a willingness to face up to those prejudices and shortcomings which lurk just beneath the surface of our urbane and good-mannered lives. I am certain that as dialogue and cooperation deepen, we will be forced to let go of cherished ideas and, perhaps, privileges, as we discover their offensiveness to others. Perhaps it will be necessary for Christians to model for others how to be courageous witnesses for our faith, while at the same time respecting and learning to live with those whose faith or philosophy might be
deeply at odds with our own.

If such a process is to succeed, it will be necessary for Christians to have a better understand the substance of the Gospel, as well as other faith traditions. Believing people should be able to separate that which is non-negotiable from the packaging in which centuries of Christian tradition have wrapped the life-changing message. Maybe the hardest facet of such a process will be dealing with those within the churches who are either unable or unwilling to reach out in human friendship to
other religious or aggressively secular communities.

When I worked as a pastor in Rochester, NY, I belonged to an interreligious ministerial association. Christian and Jewish clergy in our area met on a monthly basis for lunch, fellowship, and a sharing of views. Each Christmas we had a more extensive party at the rectory of the largest Roman Catholic church, the meal always being presided over by the elderly monsignor who had been pastor there for as long as anyone could remember.

One Christmas the senior rabbi was sitting beside him as he pronounced the blessing, leading us in the Lord's Prayer. This Jewish pastor joined in as heartily as any of the Christians there. As we were sitting down the monsignor turned to Aaron Solomon and asked him why he had accompanied us in the prayer. The rabbi turned to him, smiled gently, and responded, "Tom, you should realize that it's a good Jewish prayer." We all laughed. But perhaps this little tale is a parable of the kind of reaching out that is necessary if we are to avoid bitter religious feuding in the coming century.

As we look beyond the United States, a realization that religious disputes are going to be more charged and could turn bloody will call for a different, more humble approach to mission. It would be disobedience to refrain from taking the message of Christ to those for whom he died, but far greater sensitivity will be required of us.

There has been far too much breast-beating among Christians about the so-called alliance between the churches and the imperial impulse of the Western powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but we have until now been undertaking our global ministry from base of the dominant world culture. Not only is all that changing, but as we develop our strategies we should be aware of the inflammatory possibilities of our witness. Someone has wisely said that both Christianity and Islam in particular
have 'bloody borders.'

Perhaps there are three questions Christians preparing for cross-cultural ministry should be asking of themselves, then re-asking when they are in their missionary situation:

* How do we effectively incarnate the risen Christ?
* What do we have to learn from past missionary practices, and what do we have to forget?
* Are there historical models for us to learn from?

I have always been entranced by the story of St. Francis of Asissi's mission to the Sultan during the Crusades. Traveling to the Holy Land as a humble pilgrim, he cross the Saracens' lines and found himself in their leader's presence. There he not only had opportunity to speak of his Savior, but he also garnered oodles of respect. As we look backward perhaps there are women and men like him who have much to teach us."


Resurrecting and re-reading what I wrote eight or so years ago I am a
little shaken at my perspecuity, particularly in light of the war in
Iraq, tensions with Iran, problems with Palestine, 9/11, the rising tide
of Islam in Europe, the inability of secular westerners to understand
the sensitivities of the Muslim world, the failure of the Muslim world
to understand either secular western democracies or Christianity, and so
on, and so on.

So, I share this little offering with you asking you to remember that it
was not intended to be a commentary on what is going on in the world
right now, rather an attempt to prepare ourselves for what might lie
ahead as we got ready for the new millennium.

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