THE STONES CRY OUT
An indigenous Palestinian Christian responds to a lecture given by a pope.
On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on ‘Faith, Reason and the University –Memories and Reflections.’ In the speech, he chose to insult the founder of another faith – Mohammad.
In response to the pontiff’s lecture, Dr. Munir Fasheh wrote the Pope a long letter: the nineteen-page letter was titled: An Indigenous Christian On Palestine, Christianity & Islam. I received a copy of that letter, which inspired this two-part essay.
Background of the author:
Dr. Munir Fasheh was born and raised in Palestine and remembers the first uprising against the occupation of his land. It was called the Intifada, an Arabic word meaning a “shaking off.” That first Intifada (1987-91) was the Palestinian community’s concerted struggle against Israel’s military control over their community, a gentle neighborhood that included Christians and Muslims who resented military control by a foreign invader. Resistance movements opposing the taking of their land by Israel’s occupying forces predictably followed. Occupation continues today with no end in sight; just as predictable, is the growing resistance among Palestine’s ordinary citizens of every faith.
Dr.Munir Fasheh, the author, tells an indigenous American story attributed to an old Cherokee chief teaching his grandson about life. He uses a tale about two wolves. “A fight is going on inside all of us,” the chief tells the boy, “a terrible fight between two wolves; one is evil – he is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, kindness, truth, compassion and generosity.”
The young boy thinks for a moment and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old chief pauses then simply replies, “The one you feed.”
In his letter Dr. Fasheh says, “It is unfortunate dear Pope that you chose to feed the wolf of hatred and greed.”
He continues using the past 500 years of history to point out hypocrisy. When Columbus came to the shores of the new world, he was greeted with warmth and hospitality by the indigenous native people. Columbus wrote in response: “They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all …”
“Native Americans were feeding the wolf of love and peace; the Europeans fed the wolf of destruction and hatred,” Fasheh rebukes. In a world suffering from environmental degradation, poverty, hunger and repression, “I wish that you had fed in your speech the wolf of love and peace…” Though sounding academic and harmless to some, the Pope’s words will do what the first Crusades did almost a thousand years before and today leads to harming Christians.
When Muslims came to Jerusalem, the letter goes on to say, not one in the city was killed and not one was forced to convert. Until the Crusades, the majority population in Syria was Christian; and no one was forced to become Muslim. Central to Islam is “iaa ikraaha fiddeen” – no coercion in religion.
If fringe groups violate this commandment today, it is considered an abuse of Islam, similar to the way some Christians violate the laws of Jesus. Karen Armstrong, a former nun and author of religious books including biographies of Jesus and Mohammed says, “Until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity.”
The Qur’an strictly forbids coercion and regards all religions as coming from God: despite contrary Western belief, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.
Extremism and intolerance today are “a response to intractable political problems – oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands… and the west’s perceived ‘double standards’
– and not to an ingrained religious imperative.”
The violence in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, was blamed on Islam, while Western nations bear a measure of responsibility. “…feeding our prejudice in this way, we do so at our own peril…” The Muslim world directly occupied by Western troops (or indirectly supported by them), are a constant reminder of the Crusades.
Christ was not on the side of Christians against others but on the side of people against those who were crushing people. Throughout history, struggles have been between people and communities and those who want to control them.
The “main issue is between people/communities and power, control, winning and greed. The clash is not of civilizations or religions but one of people against power.
Those trying to crush Islam today were crushing predominantly Christian Nicaragua in the 1980s: and before that, it was mostly Buddhist Southeast Asia (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam).
“Love one another” was a main message of Jesus. He was on the side of the people and condemned by the powers in his time. For a Christian to say he or she loves God but hates a neighbor is as hypocritical as the Muslim who sides with violence in opposition to the teaching of Islam. Today, taking the side of the people is condemned by powers that control with weapons. “They see us as Christians or Muslims but not as communities that include both (which also included Jews before 1948) living within harmonious relations.”
The “war on terror,” his letter emphasizes, is to cover a deeper war: war on communities. “People are nurtured by communities but controlled by institutions…” Lost in 1948, the loss continues at an increasing rate.
The issue for Jesus was clear, either be on the side of Caesar or the people.
“Your statement Pope Benedict – unfortunately- was on Caesar’s side. I was hoping that the Vatican chose a saner path.” His hope was to hear a Christian voice, one calling for an end to wars rather than one justifying support for more wars that adds insult to injury.
He says it’s not too late to seize opportunity to regain Christ’s spirit: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mathew 5:5).
History shows the struggle between two wolves – Caesar against the people: names change but “the logic remains the same.” Today it’s Arab and Muslim peoples; a few years before it was peoples of South and Central America and Southeast Asia, Blacks in Africa and Jews in Europe, Christian against Christians in Ireland, Muslim against Muslim in the Middle East… Lost is the message of Jesus “love each other.” Taking the side of the people is dangerous, borne out during the “assassination era” of the 1960s which saw the deaths of – JFK, MLK, Malcolm X – taken out for standing with the people.
He turns to the quote made by the 14th century Byzantine Emperor: “Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Fasheh puts it succinctly: “…in today’s world, Islam in many places is perceived as being on the side of the people, while [institutionalized] Christianity and Judaism are taking the side of the Caesars. … and explains why communism was popular in the 1950s and ‘60s – it was perceived as being on the side of the people.” During what became known as “the McCarthy era,” the House un-American Committee launched interrogations targeting the arts and communities, .
He distinguishes between the people’s way of living and the outside perception of the institutionalized religion or political affiliation stamped on an individual by outsiders by people lacking a depth of knowledge about the religion or organization they disparage. So when Fasheh describes his mother’s Christianity as a way of life, he distinguishes her daily practice as a Christian who could not read and knew no biblical scripture but held community values handed down since Jesus walked her land: simply – “love one another.”
People’s Islam today inspires at the personal and community levels, and is least connected to power. It is the secret of its vitality, inspiration and hope; and gives its believers freedom to interpret it in light of their realities. People who carry the spirit of Christ in their daily lives but do not subscribe to an organized faith are devalued, suppressed by the powers of control. It would be all but impossible to achieve the office of president in the US, if a candidate does not declare membership to an organized religion, preferably Protestant. The furor over President Kennedy as a Roman Catholic caused heated speculation over whether the country would be run by the Vatican; and throughout the Obama presidentsy, rumors about his being a Muslim created fear in the minds of people who never asked about what a Muslim was and what are the tenets of Islam.
Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador was a priest of the people. He practiced and taught about the need for Christians to work for justice. On March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Eucharist, he was shot and killed at the altar by a death squad, becoming yet another martyr in history’s long line of those stand with the people for dignity and justice against control by the powerful. Yet, their words live, resonate and inspire.
Fasheh laments the passing of the Christianity he knew growing up in Palestine. “Similarly, Judaism that, during the 18th and 19th century was a main voice on the side of the people lost that spirit with the rise of Zionism.”
Today, he says, an independent and freethinking Jew is labeled “a self-hating Jew.” And for Christians or anyone who stands with Muslims, who have become the victims of “Christian” or “Jewish” armies, is labeled (kindly) as “misled” or accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-American, or unpatriotic: disparaging labels designed to humiliate and weaken the spirit.
He continues by saying that the “secret” of attracting people to a religion is to order it as being on the side of Caesar or on the side of the people. Jesus felt the pain of the people standing with them against the strong and privileged. A Christian who carries His spirit today would be on the side of Muslims who today are experiencing tremendous suffering and destruction at the hands of those who”proclaim to be guardians of Christianity and Judaism.”
A good part of Islam – especially within the Shi’a tradition – is still not institutionalized; it dwells in the hearts of people affording them dignity. Power and dignity do not go together. Mosques are open to people -all people. In occupied Palestine, Muslims risk their lives to scale the apartheid wall built by Israel to keep people apart; and to keep Palestinians from going to Jerusalem to pray at the mosque. By contrast, churches are becoming deserted while mosque attendance is increasing. The reason, he says, is because Islam provides dignity to people. You will not see stars or crosses, pictures or images; only Qur’an verses in Arabic around the inside of the building. Imams do not dress in royal garb, mumble incantations or speak a lofty lingo incomprehensible to the people.
It is time that westerners abandon the fact that western civilization is not the only way to return to sanity and peace; that institutionalized religion has become an agent of alienation of the people.
Dr. Munir Fasheh concludes his admonishing letter: “One step you could take, dear Pope, …is to reinstate the interfaith initiatives inaugurated by your predecessor, John Paul II and to add your voice against the wars that are planned ahead.”
What Jesus brought is love, freedom, faith in people and refusal to do harm to anyone or anything, all of which are contrary to the logic of institutions and big organizations. He advocated “freedom from rules and laws that are inhuman and harmful to people.” Love one another is a commandment for all people and is meaningless if one does not have faith in people. They are not laws made by states, governments or institutions but by people yearning for peace and acceptance.
The challenge we face today is that of feeding the wolf of love, peace and justice in each person and particularly challenging for the church if it is going to reside again in people’s hearts and ways of living.
I submit this with respect…and hope,