Pope Francis

Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia

Pope Francis appeared to step into the quagmire in Iraq last week when he reportedly “endorsed the use of force” against ISIS. He was speaking a week after Obama authorized U.S attacks on ISIS military positions to stave off the threatened destruction of refugees in the Kurdish mountains. So was the “Pontiff of Peace” sprinkling holy water on airstrikes, perhaps even embarking on “the last crusade”?

No, in fact, the pope was doing nothing of the sort. His message was garbled through glib and superficial reporting, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has shown in an excellent analysis in The Daily Beast of what the pope said and didn’t say.

However the pope’s statement – and subsequent misinterpretations – clearly show how urgently the leaders of the three Abrahamic religions need to start talking face to face rather than through press statements. The crisis in the Middle East goes far beyond the military and political conflict, horrific as it is. At a deeper level, the spiritual identity of all three religions is under assault from the militarization of language and glorification of conflict.

To respond to these spiritual temptations of power and dominance, there’s an urgent need for these religious leaders to declare a “spiritual emergency” and meet in a “spiritual summit” to speak clearly to their faithful, from their respective traditions and scriptures, in defense of their shared values and vision of faith as applied to the current circumstances.

Instead, we are getting the dribs of “sound bytes,” like last week. The pope was in the midst of his international travel and was asked about the airstrikes. He only said that that it was morally proper to “stop an unjust aggressor” and explicitly added,“I don’t say bomb, make war.”

He also warned against the misuse of force:

To stop the unjust aggressor is licit, but we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest.

He didn’t offer pat policy answers but suggested the United Nations should consider the key questions: “‘Is there an unjust aggressor? It seems there is. How do we stop him?’”

The secular press immediately linked this to other Vatican statements and over-interpreted so they could fit into the Procrustean bed of violence and conflict. The New York Daily News is fairly typical:

Pope Francis on Monday blessed the use of force to stop the vicious Islamic radicals overrunning Iraq, but he said any intervention first must be backed by the international community. His comments – in an extraordinary news conference aboard the papal plane – came as President Obama announced that Kurdish and Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, had recaptured the giant Mosul Dam from the extremists.

The reporter then weaves in his own interpretation, strings together some quotes from the past and inserts a comment from another Vatican official who may be important, but in a hierarchical church is clearly not the top guy. The reporter continues:

Still, even with the Pope’s qualifications, his comments represented a shift in the Vatican’s steadfast opposition to military force in recent years. Last year, for example, Francis staged a global prayer and fast for peace when Obama threatened U.S. air strikes to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. The Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, signaled the evolving Vatican position when he said last week, “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.”

Even without the help of the palace press, the underlying religious crisis is plain for all to see. Of the ten military powers involved in the wider Middle East conflict, only four are avowed secular: Syria, Lebanon, Kurdish Iraq and the United States. The other six – Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah, Shiite Iraq, ISIS-controlled Sunni Iraq, and Iran – claim to base their identities on their religions.

This militarization of religion attacks its core. In a courageous column in Salon.com on Aug. 4, Rabbi Michael Lerner recognized the danger of Israel “murdering the Judaism of love and generosity” with its brutal bombing of Gaza. While acknowledging the traumas among both Jewish and Palestinian communities, he takes American Jews and Jews around the world to task for having:

… taken a turn that is disastrous, by turning the Israeli nation state into “the Jewish state” and making Israel into an idol to be worshiped rather than a political entity like any other political entity, with strengths and deep flaws. Despairing of spiritual salvation after God failed to show up and save us from the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned the religion of compassion and identification with the most oppressed that was championed by our biblical prophets, and instead come to worship power and to rejoice in Israel’s ability to become the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Interfaith Relations also hit the nail on the head two weeks ago in its call on Muslim leaders to denounce the persecution of Christians and religious minorities by ISIS in Iraq saying, “All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them. If not, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have?”

Yes, exactly. What credibility indeed! But this doesn’t apply just to Jews and Muslims. Those of us who identify as Christian are equally accountable for our behavior. Our historical legacy of anti-Semitism and “crusader” mentality remains the shadowy co-conspirator in this current catastrophe. In this current crisis, how is our behavior matching our call from God?

In early June, before the Gaza rockets and bombing began, the pope seemed to show the way toward inter-faith communication when he invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel President Shimon Peres to the Vatican for prayer.

However, the pope needs to reach beyond political leaders to the religious. He should convene an international interfaith council of imams, rabbis, cardinals, priests, and scholars. They should set aside theological differences and historical grievances and provide a clear analysis of common values and faith, grounded in tradition and scriptures as a basis for responding to the disastrous events that are unfolding throughout the Middle East.

And if they cannot agree, then these disagreements should be also articulated and proposed as the focus for prayer and meditation. After all, through Abraham and his descendants, through Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed, we are all being called by the same God, right? Is God at war with Himself? Most certainly not!

However, until there is such a meeting, we are left with uncoordinated bits and pieces of the inter-religious conversation as reported, and misreported, by a careless and confused press.

As we’ve seen, Muslim leaders have not needed the chiding of the Vatican to denounce ISIS. There have been statements pouring from Muslims around the world against these extremist jihadists as “takfiris” or division-sowers, who accuse other Muslims of being infidels, and spread sectarian violence among all the religions. Last Sunday, the Grand Mufti of Egypt asked the international community to refer to the group as “ISIS,” not the “Islamic State.”

Among other Islamic statements:

From Egypt:
Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, has denounced ISIS as a “danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption.” Allam continued, “[They] give an opportunity for those who seek to harm us, to destroy us and interfere in our affairs with the [pretext of a] call to fight terrorism.”

From Saudi Arabia:
Top Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, called ISIS the “enemy number one of Islam” and said that extremism, radicalism and terrorism “have nothing to do with Islam.” He said Muslims suffer as the “main victims” of the extremism of ISIS because they divide and attack other Muslims. “In Islam, after heresy, dividing Muslims is the greatest crime.”

From the United States:
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has said that American Muslims reject ISIS as “un-Islamic and morally repugnant.” In an August statement, it added,”No interpretation of Islam condones the torture and murder of civilians, the destruction of houses of worship or the targeting of religious minorities.”

From senior Sunni religious scholars:
The International Union of Muslim Scholars has also said the actions of ISIS, such as expelling Christians from their historic cities and homes in Iraq, “violate Islamic laws, Islamic conscience and leave but a negative image of Islam and Muslims.”

From a worldwide Islamic group:
Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents fifty-seven countries and 1.4 billion Muslims, has denounced the forced deportations and actions of ISIS in Iraq as having “nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.”

From Turkey:
Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s top cleric, the spiritual successor to the caliphate under the Ottoman Empire, also has castigated ISIS for its death threats against non-Muslims. He said a true interpretation of Islam is based on peace, toleration,understanding, and love.

Islamic scholars need to focus on this [because] an inability to peacefully sustain other faiths and cultures heralds the collapse of a civilization.

He thinks “medical and psychiatric terms” are needed to explain ISIS, since perhaps it is “a product of a social trauma caused under the shadow of lunacy and violence by people whose conscious(ness) have been bruised and see no trouble in the ruthless killing of other humans.” “Such traumas have no place in Islam, in any of its sects or dispositions,” Gormez said.

So the pontifical council should recognize the Muslim world’s strong and unified denunciation of ISIS, both on humanitarian and Islamic grounds. Now the question is this: Can these leaders include Jewish scholars and rabbis in the conversation and speak clearly of their faith and values in midst of this whirlwind? The spiritual message needs to be heard now more than ever.

 

David A. Sylvester, a committed Roman Catholic and occasional Tikkun blogger, teaches philosophy and English as a Second Language at Bay Area colleges and holds master’s degrees in Catholic theology and Jewish studies.

 

 

 


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