“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
Perhaps I should retitle this post “Unraveling the Web”. There is a duality of treachery and naiveté at work in our world. That has, of course, always been the case. But today a new veil seems to have descended over nations, clouding the judgment of the innocent; its opaqueness obscuring the deception and intent of the deceivers. We must not allow ourselves to be so hoodwinked that we are left to repeat the phrase of failure: “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” Nor can we take refuge in the hubristic assertion: “It will never happen here.” For even in the United States, unwitting citizens have fallen victim to intentional malevolence.
Only by exposing the first thread we can hope to avoid being ensnarled in an intricate web that paralyzes not only the body, but also the mind. And to understand the depth of insidiousness, the true nature of this deceit, we might begin in the Middle East with ISIS and the name of God.
For all its propaganda, the so-called Islamic State has nothing to do with God. It is not about submission, as the word Islam means. It is not about faith. If anything the Islamic State is an insult to true Islam, for rather than calling for submission to the one God, it demands obedience to itself and its own narrow construct of religion. ISIS is an insult to every faith. Much more evil though, is that at its core ISIS is an insult to Allah.
Along with submission, Islam also means peace and purity. But these ideals, like freedom and justice, cannot exist in a society where the beliefs and self-described “truths” of some—a singular interpretation of revelation—are determined to be the only interpretation, and consequently forced on everyone. This remains the case whether those “truths” are held by a majority or a minority; whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim truths. In other words, peace, purity, freedom and justice cannot exist in a society that is ruled by religion. Any religion. But then ISIS is as uninterested in those virtues as it is in truth. As uninterested in truth as it is in faith.
The Islamic State was woven from a seemingly simple thread that seduced the innocent: Submit your lives to God. But as that thread pivoted from point to point, and the web began to take shape, the idea of the divine was lost in a complex and convoluted design. God faded into mere illusion. The twisting and tangling fibers serve oppression and megalomania in pursuit of world domination, or what the ISIS rebels euphemistically call a worldwide caliphate.
The first Arabs to be ensnarled by ISIS did not recognize its deceitful use of religion. They did not realize the extent to which someone else was about to determine the meaning of submission to God. “Wow! They didn’t see it coming.” The effect was too swift. The entire Middle East, and by extension the rest of the world, quickly became entangled, stuck to the silk. Violence is now both the attraction to this web and the only way out—unless we can find a way to unravel the net of ISIS, expose its true purpose, disengage its hold on people and emasculate the ideology. That requires the whole world to remain on alert.
In the West it was initially easy to be critical. Distance from the fighting, combined with ignorance of Islam, lead some westerners to sit smugly in judgment. After all, “It will never happen here.” But reality is far more complex and unsettling, because Muslims are not the only ones to fall prey to religious treachery and twisted faith.
A quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis (he never wrote it, but it does reflect his thought) reads: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Such a statement twins two worlds—politics and religion. It speaks to the advancement of corporations over people; to a government by the corporate elite, for the corporate elite. It also suggests the inability of US citizens to recognize when they are being manipulated and their faith and patriotism distorted for someone else’s design and gain.
All across the South and creeping up through the Midwest, state after state has duplicated deceptive and misleading legislation all designed to sow division and enshrine bigotry. From voter ID, to welfare, to immigration to marriage equality, Americans are being conned by clever, reckless, and yes, duplicitous, politicians. These wholly unnecessary and ostensibly simple laws are being codified for one reason only—to dominate and control.
But most cunning for their disingenuousness are the legislators invoking religious freedom. The problem is, this concept of religion does not represent freedom. It is a new kind of slavery. Not unlike ISIS in Iraq, in Syria and beyond, these American politicians have decided what true religion is, how to live it, and how to shun and exclude anyone who is different. These politicians are no closer to true Christianity than ISIS is to true Islam. But then, like their counterparts in the Middle East, they are not interested in truth, either.
ISIS is coming to America. In fact, it is already here. We have yet to determine its nomenclature. But make no mistake: It is the same beast. A different name; a different religion. The same kind of leaders; the same result. And when it is too late, when these purveyors of false truth have successfully duped and misled the country, the average American citizen will be left with only one reply, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.”
Neither a god nor a saint, he was just a man. He was imperfect—as we all are. He was sometimes authoritarian—as some of us are. He was forgiving—as few of us are.
Twenty-seven years a political prisoner, he was cut off from the world, most of those years unable even to touch family. Only through coded messages could he communicate with others and learn of the continuing struggles for freedom in South Africa. But he persevered and emerged from prison not only a free man, but staunchly principled and resolute.
Like many prisoners, he was forced into hard labor—the useless task of breaking boulders with a hammer. Contrary to the desires of his captors, it did not break his spirit. He drew nourishment not from food, but from the truth. He grew strong through the power of justice and the inevitability of freedom.
In his solitude he managed to escape the lure of bitterness, discovering, instead, that the enemy was as weak and human as he was. He learned to love his oppressors. From that love he learned to forgive. From that forgiveness he was able to forge a path toward reconciliation, equality and justice. He rose to become the father of a new nation in an ancient land.
While it was encouraging to watch him walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison and greet the welcoming crowds of Cape Town, it was stunning to hear him speak not of retribution, but of peace, never wavering in his quest. Giving no inch to either hatred or prejudice, he called on everyone to embrace the needs of the other, especially the disenfranchised. He was a man for all people, a man for all seasons.
Despite his greatness it is slightly less than cynical to suggest that we will not see his like again. That is a sentiment we have heard before, because he have seen men like him before. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just two. To suggest that no others await the world stage is to guarantee that what they stood for will never be fully realized. The truth is that left to our own devices, without the inspiration of men like these, we choose to close our eyes to the needs of others. We choose to create and recreate worlds that are defined as us v. them. We choose to imprison ourselves in a world of our own concerns and desires. We almost always choose violence over peace.
Today we must do more than pray for Madiba’s passage. We must do more than give thanks for his life. We must commit ourselves to his work. Look at India post Gandhi. Look at the United States post King. Nelson Mandela’s life and accomplishments must not dissolve into discord, inequality and injustice. We must continue the cry of the poor, the cry of people the who are oppressed and denied their rights and freedoms: Amandla! (Power!).
Thank you, Madiba for an inspiration. May we do more than treasure your memory. "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa")
This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.
Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.
Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.
The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.
Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?
The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?
The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:
“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”
Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.
It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.
It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.
It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.
At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.
If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.
Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.