June 21, 2004
Specter of Strife
Martin E. Marty
At a recent event that commingled superstars (e.g., Rhodes and Marshall scholars, Nobel prize winners, etc.) from fifty nations, "my favorite atheist" came up with two questions for me. The first had to do with the panel on which I had just served: "how can you believers believe without evidence?" That one was easy. I turned the question over to a Christian-and-scientist University of Chicago graduate student. She handled it well. The second was harder: "I fight religion tooth-and-nail because of the evil religious people bring: wars, terrorism, ignorance, hatred. On balance, wouldn't you agree that religion is bad, not good for the human race?"
That question is always haunting. As a believer, I see and know the good that faith (and "spirituality" and, yes, "religion") can do, in a world where secular forces have produced more wars, terrorism, ignorance, and hatred. One takes solace in seeing faith-filled compassion in action, the joy of finding meaning in life, of keeping eternal and transcendent issues before us, in inspiring acts of mercy and, sometimes, of justice. But this Sightings columnist is charged daily to sight religion in the news, and any day's news brings enough to give pause.
Try The New York Times from Wednesday, June 16. Page one: "The specter of sectarian strife coursed through the streets of Baghdad" as hundreds of furious Shiite Muslims accused a hard-line Sunni cleric for ordering the deaths of six Shiite truck drivers. Pages three and four: "Violence in Kashmir invades a most sacred space" and a man is killed while kneeling at prayer amidst the fighting of Islamic insurgents and Hindus. In Nigeria, "churches and mosques" were razed in a daily tit-for-tat war between Muslim and Christian militants, as "overwhelmingly Christian" and Fulani Muslim herders kill each other in "the cycle of vengeance."
In France, an Islamic cleric and some followers were arrested because their "fundamentalist mosque" was a headquarters for fighters against secularism in France. In Norway, authorities dropped charges against, but keep trying to expel, a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist firebrand. In Pakistan, a Sunni leader accused of murderous attacks against Shiites was arrested.
In the "ecumenical absurdist" category, this year of all years, we read that the Vatican claims that "fewer heretics were tortured and fewer witches were burned at the stake during the Inquisition than is generally believed." (Apparently only 1.8 percent of the arrested were burned). Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness, but wanted precision about the fact that 98.2 percent suffered short of death. The Southern Baptist Convention pulled out of an international organization critical of the United States, God's favored people, calling it liberal and "anti-American." Not in the headlines that day were the stories of clerical abuse and the almost lethal battles in which both sides engage over all matters sexual and some scientific.
I was glad that the bell rang for dinner as headlines like these ran through my mind and I began to contemplate apologetically spilling red wine on my atheist friend's tux.
Where are "the better angels of our nature," God among God's peoples?