By Kelly James Clark
Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict
Edited by Kelly James Clark
Apr 30, 2012
312 p., 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
"Omnipotence needs no defence," is the title of the essay by Abdurrahman Wahid, the first democratically elected president of Indonesia. He had me at the title -- how simple, how obvious, and yet how often misunderstood. God is omnipotent yet we treat him as though he is a wimp who couldn't survive without our assistance. God is all-powerful yet we act as though his feelings are easily hurt by infidels who don't believe or behave in just the right ways.
But the Abrahamic religions are united: God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, needs no defence. Violence and intolerance in the name of God is to misunderstand, not to follow, God.
Glenn Beck may have revised downward his uninformed estimate that 10 percent of Muslims are terrorists if he had had the chance to meet the recently deceased Wahid. Before he was President, Wahid was the spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the world's largest Islamic organizations, with close to 40 million members, where he promoted the rights of minorities and non-Muslims. Since God needs no defence, Wahid writes, "Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes."
Nicholas Wolterstorff's piece is the mirror image of Wahid's. Wolterstorff, the former Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, has a different view of God. His Christian God is not so impervious to the slings and arrows of human existence. It's not as though he thinks blasphemy hurts God's feelings, but he see injustice as the wronging of God and also human suffering as the wounding of God. The cry of the oppressed is, paradoxically, the cry of God himself: "The lament of the victims as they cry out "How long?" is God giving voice to God's own lament." And so to pursue justice and liberty and thereby relieve human suffering is likewise to heal the wounds of God.
While the Christian scriptures teach that love has no bounds, Christians throughout history have set narrow limits to their love. They have betrayed their own deepest commitments, in the name of God and against practitioners of other religions. The institutionalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire set an apparently pacifistic religion on a path of violence. The Crusades sought unsuccessfully but at great human expense to rid Muslim "infidels" from the holy lands. The atrocities and religious wars of the Reformation, committed by all sides, caused the river Seine to run red with blood. But this is not the only story and it is full of caricatures.
Arik Ascherman, former director of Rabbis for Human Rights, concedes the tensions within his tradition about how to treat other human beings. God, after all, ordered the killing of every man, woman and child in Canaan. And he admits that there are voices within the Jewish tradition who claim that "Love your neighbour as yourself" is better translated as "Love the one like you." Yet Ascherman finds within the Jewish tradition that both informed and nurtured him that Judaism demands the active pursuit of universal human rights and social justice. A particularistic religion, one with very special demands on its followers and a very special relationship with God, can nonetheless fire the heart to love of neighbour.
Makes one wonder: is it religion that specially tempts people to intolerance or just plain old human nature? Are human beings as such tempted to intolerance and so require the superhuman to break them out of tribalism and violence toward the stranger?
The authors of Abraham's Children don't speak in a single voice. There are, after all, five each Muslim, Christian and Jewish contributor. Even within a tradition, the authors speak in different voices. The Jewish contributors, for example, are staunchly on the right or on the left--and yet are committed to liberty, peace and tolerance. Some of the Muslims are Sunni, some are Shia, yet they all seem to like Rumi the poet; if you don't know Rumi that alone is reward enough for reading the Muslim essays. And the Christians are Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal.
Geography also casts peculiar lights and shadows on each essay. The authors are from the US, Israel, Turkey, Palestine, Indonesia, Iran, Croatia, and Jordan. Yet we find their different experiences, different stories, and different tensions resolved within the differing faiths of their common father, Abraham, who followed the God who needs no defence.
Kelly James Clark is a Senior Research Fellow, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, Grand Valley State University