By Canon Alan Amos, New Age Islam
09 January 2017
Dear Sultan Shahin,
I feel I can do no better thing at the beginning of this “new year” than to write to my dear Muslim friends. And I have to begin by recognising that this “new year” is of course a Western construct which has become “universalised” - which in itself presents a something of a problem. New Year for Islam or for Judaism is something different; no doubt also for a number of other faith traditions. As I write, I am aware that this “New Year” attachment - or antipathy – can itself give the opportunity for violence, as we have just seen in Istanbul. The terrorist attack on a high-profile “high-life” nightclub on the Bosphorus has rightly been condemned by Turkey’s Muslim religious leadership. But there is also an undercurrent in Turkey, where before the New Year the more popular “religious” press was stoking up anger against this “Western” and perhaps therefore “Christian” idea of what civilisation is and represents. And suggesting that it is shameful for Muslims to be associated with such things.
Well, apart from Muslim viewpoints, I can’t say that as a Christian I am full of admiration for the partyings of the international jet set. Not in a world of so much inequality and poverty. However that is a long way from any justification for a brutal terrorist attack. My son lives and works in Istanbul, and so for personal and family reasons Istanbul is close to my heart at this time. It is hard seeing the structures of communal life threatened and torn apart; and the obvious answer of more security tightening up, more arrests, perhaps more “repression” cannot deliver an adequate response.
At such times I turn to those spiritual guides whom I have learnt to trust, those whom I find helpful in interpreting to us “the word of faith” from our spiritual traditions. One writes:
‘The Struggle With Terrorism
There’s an old axiom that says that the country with the best poets eventually triumphs. The strength of a people, in the end, lies not in its military power, but in its faith, moral fiber, imagination, and in the vision of its poets, artists, philosophers, and priests.[ I might add musicians, theologians, sheikhs, imams, sages and rabbis.]
Never has this been more true, and harder to believe, than today in our struggle with terrorism and the merciless violence it has unleashed all over the planet. To make peace with terrorism, as we are painfully learning, will require more than guns and military might. It is going to require new imagination, new poetry, and a moral stretch to which we are unaccustomed. This is a different kind of enemy, one that seems to grow the more it is crushed.
The novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, in a book of essays entitled Small Wonder, brilliantly describes what we are facing:
“This new enemy is not a person or a place, it isn’t a country; it is a pure and fearsome ire as widespread as some raw element like fire. I can’t sensibly declare war on fire, or reasonably pretend that it lives in a secret hideout like some comic-book villain, irrationally waiting while my superhero locates it and then drags it out to the thrill of my applause. We try desperately to personify our enemy in this way, and who can blame us? It’s all we know how to do. Declaring war on a fragile human body and then driving the breath from it—that’s how enmity has been dispatched for all of time….”
But now we are faced with something new: an enemy we can’t kill because it’s a widespread anger so much stronger than physical want that its foot soldiers gladly surrender their lives in its service. We who live in this moment are not its cause, instead, a thousand historic hungers blended together to create it—but we are its chosen target. We threaten this hatred, and it grows. We smash the human vessels that contain it, and it doubles in volume like a magical liquid poison and pours itself into many waiting vessels. We kill its leaders, and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes, inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror now requires of us something that most of us haven’t considered: how to defuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick in hand.
The enemy, in the end, as Kingsolver points out, is not a person, a country, or a religion, but hatred itself. Only hatred can call forth this kind of sickness, indiscriminate murder done in God’s name. Only hatred sees murder as martyrdom. And, as Kingsolver points out, we’re not its cause, but its target. This is not to say that some of the things we have done in history and some of the things we still do today are not to blame for helping produce this (It’s wise to ask the question ‘Why?’ when someone hates us so powerfully) but the kind of hatred that foments murder in God’s name draws upon more sources than those for which we are to blame. Moreover this kind of hatred can’t simply be beaten with guns because it isn’t like fighting an army; it’s like fighting a plague, people die but the disease continues on to infect millions of others.
So what’s to be done? While military strength can never ultimately subdue this, this doesn’t mean that is isn’t necessary to contain it. A disease needs to be contained even while it is being fought. But, at the end of the day, winning this battle will require something beyond guns and bombs. To win, which ultimately means to win over, will require poetry, imagination, and a vision drawn from genuine religion.
Kingsolver, in searching for some vision, draws upon the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason finds himself facing a particular kind of dragon which when it is slain and its corpse falls to the ground becomes even more deadly because each of its teeth germinate and instantly produce a new enemy, fully armed. So each time he kills an enemy, the enemy multiplies. He sees the impossibility of his situation, every time he kills something, he has more to fight. Eventually a woman who loves him, Medea, tells him a secret: Hatred only dies when it is turned upon itself. Jason takes her advice, gives up his sword, and instead finds a way to throw a rock cryptically so that it triggers an internal riot within which his enemies fight each other. Later Medea also shows him a way to slip an elixir of contentment into the mouth of sleeping dragons so that they remain peaceful.
Hatred only dies when it is turned upon itself. We are right in trying to contain it, but eventually it can only be defeated from within. In the interim, we need better poetry.’
This was written by Father Ron Rolheiser SJ, who teaches in Texas. It is a great deal more profound than anything likely to come out of the Trump administration, where I am afraid that the “quick fix” will be the order of the day. Such an approach that Rolheiser suggests also takes time, and spending lengths of time is not appreciated in the world of business deals. But the healing of our world will take time, and lots of it. The comfort of us, as people of faith, is that the one Lord is Master of time; it is his special “sacrament” of healing, if I can be permitted to use that word.
Back to the new year. Of course “the new year” is a deception; whatever has changed between last month and this? Nothing more than the normal flow of the course of time. And yet in our faith traditions there is always the possibility for something really new, authentically new, in our personal lives and the lives of our communities and nations, when we turn to the One who is the source of life, the source of our renewal, and who promises our resurrection. Let’s put our hope in the right place!
With warmest regards,
[P.S. the quote from Father Rolheiser comes from a blog of the St. Louis Jesuit University, Missouri USA: liturgy.slu.edu/EpiphanyA16/reflections_rolheiser.html and is therefore not copyright but the authorship should be acknowledged. I have omitted one phrase from the Kingsolver quotation which was in the original article, as it seemed designed for a specifically ‘Christian faith’ audience but was not necessary to the article’s argument.
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