Religious intolerance, bigotry, contempt, hate crimes....these are subjects begging for a moderate perspective. The acts behind the emotions are contemptible, and those who commit them are much more to be pitied than scorned.
There is a kind of righteous indignation that is aroused within each thinking, somewhat rational somewhat enlightened and somewhat tolerant and liberal person who wants to enter the fray, into the heat of the furnace, perhaps partly for the drama, certainly for the crushing boredom and even possibly for the fight for something worth fighting for.
And that something, underpinned by the constitutions of liberal democracies, is religious freedom and tolerance. But no matter how indelibly the words religious freedom and tolerance are imbedded in the legal documents, or even in this culture, and in the history of a country, there is an even deeper fear that grips many of those whose lives are, or for them, seem, threatened by the faces, apparel and beliefs of those of a different faith, culture, ethnicity and race. And this is especially true when radical elements of any group have, or plan to wreak havoc among those they consider the devil incarnate.
In fact, it says here, that there is even more danger among people of faith, that the language of the projection of "evil" will emerge when the status quo is treatened. Those whose lives represent a deep and profound commitment to a faith, and to the study of its scriptures, and to the observance of its liturgies, and to the sacraments of its observance, and to the hierarchy of its institution, run a rather significant risk of becoming apostles, evangelists, even shamans on behalf of that faith, and thereby also run the risk of considering other opposing faiths, the agent(s) of the devil. The afficionadoes, if you like, of a specific faith, provide much of the fire, both heat and light, that keeps the faith alive, and generates new adherents. In the lives of uninitiated recruits, the words, actions and role modelling of the "leaders" take on a life of their own. Much has been written about the projections of individuals, especially those seeking comfort, solace and guidance out of their painful situations, onto the leaders in faith communities. This is true in Christian, Muslim and, undoubtedly to a lesser extent in Jewish communities, for the simple and profound reason that the Jewish faith community does not seek to convert others. They examine, fairly critically, the lives and the intentions of those seeking admission to their faith.
Yet among the more dominant, in numbers at least, two faiths, at least, there is an apparent clash of both motives and agendas. Both believe that their faith offers the best, and perhaps the only, route to salvation, for the world. Consequently, they wish to propagate their beliefs, their knowledge of their respective holy writs (Bible and Koran), their histories including their scholarship, and their vision, apparently gleaned from God, through Jesus Christ Resurrected, or through the prophet Mohammed, of the "new world", the new Jerusalem...through the acceptance, practice, discipline and engagement with the faith community of adherents. And, as Karen Armstrong points out in her insightful and compelling "The Case for God," whenever a group of fundamentalists is threatened, they reply by becoming even more aggressive in their presentation of their particular case for their brand of religion, faith, holiness and salvation.
The dozens of attacks on Islamic centres and mosques across the United States, most of them unreported nationally, and the growing threat to the physical expansion of others (through proposed changes to zoning laws in municipalities) and the strong wave of opposition to the construction of a Moslem Holy Centre in some relative proximity to the Ground Zero site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, prompted one Muslim observer to note that if these statements and actions, in opposition to a particular faith project, were being uttered by Moslems against Christians, the reaction would be very different, and who can legitimately and confidently disagree with him?
I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical christian church, in which expressions of bigotry and contempt were uttered publicly and formally in homilies from the pulpit. As a member of that church, in my early teens, a friend and I, while swimming at the local town beach, were assaulted with rocks from what I now know to have been a group of Roman Catholic kids who were venting their form of religious bigotry. One of those rocks actually landed, somewhat violently, on my forehead, in spite of my ducking under water to avoid the attack. I never reported the incident to my family, or to the authorities, probably for the simple reason that I did not understand it, and was somewhat embarrassed that it even occurred.
Later in midlife, as a deacon in what I then naively believed was a searching and questioning faith, The Anglican church, I encountered "christian" fundamentalist evangelical lay people whose grasp of the faith was infantile at best and frightened and insecure at worst, and their receptivity to challenge was to push back in the only way they knew how: through name calling, and through character assassination. I was called "the anti-christ," a "heathen" and "fag" and a "new-age" cultist by people whose complete control of their church communities was being threatened. The drama that ensued not only engulfed me but also my successor who, allegedly, suffered a nervous breakdown, or nearly, and formally requested a new assignment. Had I been more capable of self-care, I would have taken a similar route to re-assignement much earlier.
In another situation, in the mid-nineties, I encountered a backlash of clergy loyalists, when I merely requested an honorarium for travel. When the clergy received unprompted and blind calls from parishioners, who used words like, "He is a leader and you (the incumbent priest) are not!" I was immediately removed from duties in the parish. Jealousy is another of the sparks that ignites the dry wood that encases much of christian architecture and especially feminist theology in the absence of self-repecting male leadership.
In another situation, after having confronted U.S. parishioners for nearly four years in a concerted and only somewhat supported effort to revive a dying mission, I was, once again, dubbed a "fag" and ambushed out of the situation by people whose wannabe leadership was not supported by their commitment to their own spiritual growth and development, thereby, in my view, rendering them unfit for faith leadership at that time. Bringing in more money and more people is not an adequate benchmark for a faith community's leaders! It is simply another form of the profit-driven corporation, under the guise of a faith community.
Once again, their revenge, based on jealousy, and my failure to take appropriate steps to secure adequate support, resulted in my resignation.
In the course of my training, I was assigned to a parish in which the previous clergy had taken his own life at the altar, in the only known liturgical suicide in North American church history, at the time. He had been directed by the bishop to fill the coffers and the pews, and had commented to his secertary at noon on the day of his death, that he refused to manipulate the people into filling the coffers and the pews, although he know how to accomplish that goal. I remain humbled by his sacrifice, his integrity, and his tragedy and I was supported by my faculty advisor in the writing of my graduate thesis on the subject of death and resurrection in that parish.
The christian church has been, is, and continues to be, a place where violence of words, of belief, of emotions and of human conflict in its ugliest forms plays out. And one can only take the position that eventually tolerance and respect, two of the necessary cornerstones for "agape" loving relationships will become strong enough to replace fear, intolerance, bigotry and suspicion within and between all faiths...surely that is not another naive and innocent hope?
Even if it is, it is worth hanging onto!