Monday, May 13, 2013

Demonizing the Other

the vast expanse of the wilderness outside my retreat house

Yesterday the Pope canonized 800 Italian Catholics who were killed by Muslim Turks back in the 15th century for refusing to convert to Islam. In our own age, when the tension between Christianity and Islam is at a fever pitch, I think this canonization was a mistake and can only contribute to the already existing alienation.

I am certainly not saying that it was right for 15th century Muslim rulers to force Christians to convert. However, when I look at the historical record, "forced conversion" is something that has clearly been been a widespread Christian practice as well. 

During the Crusades, hordes of Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. During the Inquisition, Jews either converted to Christianity or they faced torture and death. Christian missionaries invaded the countries of the New World and decimated the native cultures in their zeal to make new converts to Christianity.

Yesterday's  canonization of these new saints turns a blind eye to the blatant record of Christian imperialism and domination and paints a picture of Islamic barbarism. It fosters a perception that Islam is a religion of terrorists whose only goal is to make everyone Muslim.

But the primary reason I think yesterday's canonization was a mistake is because it is one more example of how religious institutions "demonize the other." The message yesterday was "We honor these saints because,  even under the threat of death, they held onto the one true religion."

As I see it, religious institutions of every stripe - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever-  are prone to this demonization of the other: "Our side contains the truth, we have God in our box- the other side has no truth (or has less truth). So, if you want the truth come on over into our camp."

Out here in the desert I look out into the vast wilderness landscape and I think about how impossible it is to put the vast expansive mystery we call "God" into a nice, neat little container. The idea that any one religion could "possess" the truth as opposed to some other religion seems ludicrous and even preposterous to me.

Every human heart seeks the truth. The journey of faith is followed along many different paths but we are all fellow pilgrims seeking the truth.  Instead of demonizing the other, we should be learning from and helping one another along the way. 

Rumi, the Islamic mystic poet put it this way:

Move beyond any attachment to names. Every war and every conflict
between human beings has happened because of some
disagreement about names.
It's such an unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there's a long table of companionship set and
waiting for us to sit down.

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