Sunday, February 22, 2015

Religion and Human Rights

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Religion can be a source of oppression, even in a democracy.  Our Founding Fathers understood the dangers of a “tyranny of the majority” in a democracy and provided libertarian human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and expression, to protect minorities in the U.S. against such a tyranny—and there is no tyranny worse than a religious tyranny.  That has been evident in Egypt since the democratic upheavals of 2011.
            Daniel Drezner of the Brookings Institution has identified Egypt as “…the authoritarian regime that presents the most severe challenge to the West.  This is because [President] Sissi thinks his authoritarianism serves a higher purpose, and an awful lot of Westerners agree with him. To see what I mean, read Der Spiegel’s hard-hitting, excellent interview of Sissi:”

SPIEGEL: Human rights groups complain that the oppression during your time in office has been worse than it was under Mubarak.
Sissi: One cannot define human rights as narrowly as you do. If the Muslim Brothers manipulate people’s awareness or distort their beliefs, then that is also a violation of human rights. If you are unable to receive good or even adequate education and shelter and cannot find a job and have no hope for the future, that is also a violation of your human rights. Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression. Even if this were the case, though, people in our country are free to say whatever they like.
SPIEGEL: You’re the only person to see it that way.
Sissi: We are a partner in this battle [against Islamist extremism], but we are waging it here in Egypt. We had already begun our fight one and a half years before the formation of the coalition. If we fail in this fight against terrorism, the entire region will be embroiled in turmoil for the next 50 years. Europe will also be threatened with attacks by the extremists. I already told my European friends this, one and a half years ago.

            Drezner continued, “The reason Sissi’s raison d’etat is so disturbing is not just that it resonates with Egyptians, but that it resonates with Westerners. Many in Europe and the United States see authoritarian rulers like Sissi as the only effective bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has fumbled formula after formula for political reform in the Middle East, with none of them working out very well. The Arab Spring has curdled everywhere outside of Tunisia. No one has any bright ideas about how to make democratic progress in the Middle East anymore. So what scares me about Sissi isn’t his appeal for external political legitimacy — all rulers seek that.  It’s that in Sissi’s case, his appeal will succeed.”

            Sissi’s idea of human rights—rights to an education, shelter and a job—are more political aspirations than human rights since they are dependent on variable social and economic factors that make them unenforceable as legal rights.  By way of contrast, civil and political human rights like the freedoms of religion and expression are enforceable since they protect against government abuses like prosecution under apostasy or blasphemy laws rather than guarantee government benefits.

            Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, has noted that “nearly half of the world’s countries punish blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion.”  Bollinger cited the 1964 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times vs Sullivan that “…committed America to a realm of expression in which debate would be ‘uninhibited, robust and wide open.’  Sullivan was widely understood right away to have established a national norm, and it was followed by numerous decisions expanding on this new sensibility.”
            Bollinger expanded his advocacy of free speech beyond the U.S. to international law:
            Issues that until recently were matters of local prerogative, such as representations of the prophet Muhammad, are often geographically unconfined. With unrestrained exposure and access, emboldened individuals are making common cause with their fellow citizens, and governments are feeling besieged by their unexpected demands. For now at least, a chief effect of the global forum is to generate resistance from those who perceive the new world as a threat.
            Governments whose authority is ebbing have been increasingly brazen in their attempts to silence critics….To counter these regressive trends, it is critical that we nurture the norms, laws and institutions needed to support free expression globally. There is a sound foundation on which to build. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly after World War II and subsequently reaffirmed by the nations of the world, unequivocally asserts the freedom of expression and the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Just as, over the past century, the First Amendment moved from the periphery of America’s civic consciousness to its center, Article 19 must gain a similar familiarity, globally.

            Bollinger urged U.S. economic policies to promote the freedom of expression worldwide, and concluded: “[T]he American experience shows that the backlash to new ideas and cultures, now evident in many countries, can be overcome.  The yearning for freedom of expression is universal.  There is nothing uniquely American about it at all.”

            Over 200 years ago Thomas Jefferson championed the freedoms of religion and speech for the fledgling U.S.  Today apostasy and blasphemy laws deny those fundamental freedoms to religious minorities in Islamist democracies like Egypt.  The freedoms of religion and expression were derived from natural law rather than religious law, and they were never taught by Jesus or Muhammad.  Even so, Western religions have conformed their doctrines to libertarian human rights since the Enlightenment, but that has not happened in Islamic cultures.  Until it does, a tyranny of the religious majority will likely prevail in Islamist democracies.

Notes and References:         

On religion, legitimacy and human rights, see the blog on Faith and freedomposted on December 15, 2014; also see Religion.Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights at pages 2-3, 7-8, and 10-17.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is Religion Good or Evil?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015, President Obama generated a flurry of commentary when he suggested that religions could be the source of evil as well as good and related ISIS to Islam, something Islamic nations have taken care to avoid.  It brought to mind Karen Armstrong’s recent book, Fields of Blood, in which she made an impressive argument to exonerate religion as the cause of the evils of war (see the blog on Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy posted on December 29, 2104).

            E.J. Dionne commented on the prayer breakfast and noted that the President affirmed the obvious when he said, “We’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”  And when he condemned the Islamic State as “a brutal vicious death cult that in the name of religion carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism ...claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”  Obama cautioned Christians not to “get on our high horse” and to “remember that during the Crusades and Inquisitions people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”  He could have also cautioned Jews, since the story of Joshua at Jericho set a Biblical precedent for ethnic cleansing.

            Richard Cohen ignored historical precedents that associate evil with religion and argued that ISIS atrocities are not religious but caused by a universal force of evil that is totally detached from Islam.  Cohen cited the fact that ISIS terrorists are Sunni Muslims like many if not most of their victims.  He failed to recognize that intrafaith sectarian differences can generate as much religious hatred and violence—the essence of evil—as interfaith differences.

            Michael Gerson used political considerations to detach evil from religion, citing the “Bush/Obama approach [in which] terrorism is an aberration that must be isolated [from religion]” and Gerson recalled George W. Bush saying, “I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.…And I believe that people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people.”  The problem with that reasoning is that Islam makes no distinction between religious and political objectives; but even in Western cultures that distinction can be blurred, as with Christian right-to-life zealots who kill abortion doctors.

            Eugene Robinson took the President to task for suggesting that Islam needs a Reformation or Enlightenment to conform its ancient laws to modern standards of legitimacy, and said that “…comparing the depredations of the Islamic State with those of the Crusaders is patronizing in the extreme,” implying that Muslims are “slow learners” when it comes to distinguishing between God’s will to do good and Satan’s will to do evil.

            Whether patronizing or not, Islam needs to follow the example of Judaism and Christianity and embrace the libertarian political ideals and reason of the Enlightenment to be compatible with modernity.  That would amount to a Reformation of Islam, and it would have to begin with the law.  Muslims consider Islamic law, or Shari’a, as God’s immutable law, and use apostasy and blasphemy laws to protect the sanctity of Islam.  The prohibitions of Shari’a conflict with the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression and also deny women and religious minorities the equal protection of the law.                                

            Michael Gerson acknowledged that Islamic law is problematic: “It is harder to separate divine law from  positive law in a faith where the founder was also a political and military leader.”  Gerson urged that Presidential rhetoric on this contentious issue of legitimacy “should not be theological but phenomenological” and should characterize the conflict with ISIS as the peaceful people versus the terroristsrather than the peaceful people versus the radical Islamist terrorists to avoid causing “…a global firestorm.” 

            It is a mistake to deny that Islam has a role in motivating the terrorism of al Qaeda and ISIS; but it is also a mistake to believe that mainstream Islam supports such terrorism, even as an increasing number of young disaffected Muslims are attracted to ISIS.  Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, includes great diversity of believers.  A primary objective of the ISIS Jihad is to polarize Jews and Christians against Muslims, creating the fear that Islam is threatened.  Such religious polarization must be resisted.  Only Muslims can determine the future of Islam, but Jews and Christians can support progressive Muslims in their battle with radical Islamists for the heart of Islam by engaging in interfaith dialogue that seeks to reconcile these Religions of the Book on common values, while acknowledging their differences.

             Is religion good or evil?  The President got it right when he said it can be both.  God’s will is to reconcile and redeem while Satan’s will to divide and conquer, and Satan does a superb imitation of God and does some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque.  But God’s good can prevail over Satan’s evil if people of faith put love for their neighbor—including their unbelieving neighbors—over condemning and trying to convert them.  If Jews, Christians and Muslims promote religious reconciliation rather than division, it will help the forces of good overcome those of evil, and in the process vindicate religion as a source of good, not evil.      

Notes and References:
Related blogs are Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacyposted December 29, 2104, and  Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? posted February 8, 2015.

E. J. Dionne, Obama’s Christian Humility, Washington Post, February 8, 2015:

Richard Cohen, The Universality of Evil, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:
Michael Gerson, Step Up the War Against ISIS, not the Rhetoric Against Islam, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:

Eugene Robinson, At the Prayer Breakfast, President Obama Struck a Patronizing Tone, Washington Post, February 9, 2015:

On Joshua enforcing the Hebrew ban at Jericho, see Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 6.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Throughout the Bible, light is a symbol of God’s presence and darkness a symbol of the absence of God or the presence of Satan.  In Gnosticism, light and darkness represent the opposing forces of good and evil in a great and unending cosmic battle.  For Christians and Muslims, evangelism is about promoting their religion as a light shining in a world of darkness; but it is a light visible only to believers, with unbelievers condemned to eternal darkness. 

            Jesus taught his disciples to follow him and spread the good news of the Gospel, like a lamp spreading light into the darkness: “Do you bring in a lamp and put it under a bowl or a bed?  Instead, don’t you put it on a stand?  For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out in the open.  If anyone has ears, let him hear.”  The good news was that the light of God’s transforming love and mercy could dispel the darkness of sin and give people new spiritual life, reconciling and redeeming them into the universal family of God (Mark 4:21-23; see Matthew 5:14-16; 10:26-28; Luke 8:16-17; 11:33-36; 12:2-5; John 3:19-21; 8:12). 

            Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own; and he never taught any belief that provided only one way of salvation and condemned all others to hell.  That came later with Church doctrine and dogma that limited salvation to those who believed in Jesus Christ as God’s one and only Son, and that believers were saved from the ravages of hell through the crucifixion of Jesus as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of their sins. (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:14-18)  It was only natural for Paul and other Jews in the early Church to understand the crucifixion that way since Mosaic Law provided for the atonement of sin through blood sacrifice.  But Jesus was critical of blood sacrifice, and like prophets before him Jesus taught that God wanted mercy, not sacrifice.    

            Jesus taught his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God’s only Son, and the word of God—the good news of the Gospel—was that sinners could repent of their sin and be reconciled and redeemed as children of God based on the transforming power of God’s forgiveness, love and mercy.  God’s blessings were not limited to Jews and were not dependent on obedience to Mosaic Law as taught by the Pharisees.  The good news that had been hidden and that was meant to be disclosed was that God’s love fulfilled Mosaic Law.  It was now love over law.

            The Qur’an, like the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes holy law as a standard of righteousness, and like Christian church doctrine it limits salvation to believers.  In Islam it is belief in the Qur’an as the immutable word of God, while in Christian doctrine it is belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son.  Both the Qur’an and church doctrine assure believers that they will have eternal life in heaven and condemn all unbelievers to eternal damnation in hell. The Qur’an states that Jews and Christians are People of the Book, but it also condemns as blasphemers and unbelievers all those who believe that God had a son. 

            The Qur’an gives Muslims the evangelical mission to promote Islam by word and sword, and the violent evangelism of radical Islam today seems to be to expedite divine judgment and dispatch all unbelievers, including Jews, Christians and non-conforming Muslims, to hell.
            Christianity and Islam are competing religions that measure their success by the number of their believers, who now represent over half of the world’s population.  While Christians now outnumber Muslims, Muslims are growing faster than Christians.  But even as globalization has brought Christians and Muslims closer together than ever before, their evangelical competition for converts with exclusivist claims for salvation has prevented better interfaith relations. 

            The exclusivist claims of Christianity and Islam are based on fundamentalist religious beliefs that defy knowledge and reason and generate more darkness than light.  If it is God’s will to reconcile and redeem all people into a universal family of God, and Satan’s will to divide and conquer God’s people, history has shown that Satan has done a superb imitation of God using fundamentalist religious beliefs to divide and conquer people of faith by encouraging believers to condemn unbelievers, and Satan has done some of his best work in the church and mosque.    

            Both Islam and Christianity claim to embrace the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including our unbelieving neighbors.  With Jews, Christians and Muslims now living closer together than ever before, evangelism needs to shift its priorities from condemning and converting those of other religions to reconciling with them.  If Christian and Islamic evangelism can promote religious reconciliation rather than exclusivism, then it can bring the light of God’s reconciling love into a world of darkness and be a force for good rather than evil.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #7, Lamp on a Stand, at pages 43 and 44 of the J&M Book.

Related blogs are those on Religion and reason, posted on December 8, 2014; Salvation and reconciliation into the family of God, posted on January 4, 2015; The greatest commandment posted on January 11, 2015; and Love over law posted on January 18, 2015.          

Jesus echoed the prophets Hosea and Amos when he said: But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (see Matthew 9:10-13; 12:7; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21, cited in Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous at page 17 of the J&M Book)  On blood sacrifice as a Jewish ritual for atonement of sin, see Leviticus 17:11, and those Jewish sacrificial rituals at pages 603-651 in the Appendices of the J&M Book.

On Christian beliefs that distort the teachings of Jesus, see Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.

On the lack of Biblical evidence that God condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation in hell, see Robert H. Bell, Jr., Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every  Person Who Has Ever Lived, Harper One, 2011.

For provisions of the Qur’an on belief, unbelief and rewards and punishments for Jews and Christians, see pages 469-485 in the Appendices to the J&MBook; on the morality of violence in defending and promoting Islam, see pages 498-502 in the Appendices to the J&M Book.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Love, Marriage and Homosexuality

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Perhaps the most volatile topic in religion and law today is the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.  The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an support the marriage of a man and a woman and condemn homosexual relations, while Jesus never addressed the morality or legality of homosexuality. Today homosexuality, like blasphemy, is a capital crime in some Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia.  If homosexuals are our neighbors, then making them criminals is a clear conflict with the mandate to love God and neighbor in the greatest commandment

            Love is a term with several meanings that are differentiated by the Greek of the Bible: eros, the love associated with sexual desires, philios, or brotherly love, and agape, the altruistic, unconditional and sacrificial love taught and exemplified by Jesus.  Agapelove is the opposite of those human appetites or selfish desires commonly referred to as love in our hedonistic culture. 

            There is no evidence that Jesus ever experienced erotic love or was ever married, but he affirmed the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and condemned divorce (Mark 10:5-12).  Jesus also spoke of the dangers of sexual desires when he condemned sexual immorality, lewdness, lust and adultery (Mark 7:17-23; Matthew 5:27-30).  But Jesus never addressed homosexuality, and he once spoke favorably of eunuchs in advocating celibacy (renouncing marriage for the kingdom of heaven) for those who could accept it (Matthew 19:11-12). 

            Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was married more than once, giving him personal experience with sexual relations.  The Qur’an allows Muslim men to have up to four wives (Sura 4:3) and to have sexual relations with slaves “held by their right hand.”  It also gives husbands the power to discipline their wives by striking them, and requires women to “cover their adornments” to avoid exciting the sexual desires of men.  Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an provide extensive laws on marriage, divorce and sexual relations, while the teachings of Jesus say little about sexual issues and instead emphasize forgiveness and agape love for others without making any distinction for sex. 

            Mosaic Law describes homosexual behavior as detestable with offenders to be cut off from other Jews and even put to death (see Leviticus 18:22, 29 and 20:13).  Both the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an include stories about the “wickedness” of homosexuality in Sodom and Gomorrah before Lot (Lut in the Qur’an) and his family left and those cities were destroyed by God (see Genesis 19:4-29 and Suras 7:81; 11:78,79; 15:67; 26:165, 166; 27:54, 55; 29:28, 29).  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah did not mark the end of Lot’s sexual immorality; after his wife died Lot slept with his daughters and sired two sons by them. (Genesis 19:30-38).  

            While Jesus did not elaborate on how love related to intimate personal relationships, the Apostle Paul did so, even though he, like Jesus, was never married.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (I Corinthians 13:4-8)  And Paul later wrote to the Romans that love fulfilled Mosaic Law. (Romans 13:8-10)

            Paul also described marriage in his time and place, with wives having subordinate roles to their husbands similar to those provided in the Qur’an (Ephesians 22-33); and Peter described the duties of husbands and wives in much the same way. (I Peter 3:1-7)  These men were describing the cultural standards of their day, which have changed dramatically since then.

            The above are a sample of the religious standards of legitimacy for marriage, divorce and sexual relations found in the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an and the teachings of Jesus.  Obviously, they should not be considered immutable moral or legal standards today.  The principle of agape love, however, has passed the test of time and is the standard by which we should determine the legitimacy of all human relations, including marriage and sexual relations.  Our current laws on marriage, divorce and sexual conduct may have been influenced by ancient religious laws, but they were made by elected representatives and are continually being modified to reflect changing cultural standards.

            The debate over same-sex marriage should not be governed by ancient religious standards of legitimacy that condemn homosexuality as a sin or crime, but instead by the timeless principle of selfless love that tolerates differences and puts the interests of others ahead of our own preferences and religious traditions.  It should be expected that cultural standards of marriage and sexual relations will change over time, and that the standards of legitimacy that govern them will have social, political and economic consequences that are as relevant to those changes as traditional religious standards.

            Homosexuality has come out of the closet.  While some believers consider homosexual acts a crime and others consider them immoral or abnormal, in the U.S. a person’s sexual preferences are now considered in the same category as a person’s religious preferences, so that homosexuals are entitled to equal treatment under the law.  The current debate is not over the right of homosexuals to have a legal union, but whether that union is considered a marriage.  That is a complex legal issue with Constitutional implications that will ultimately be decided by the courts, not the church.                 
Notes and References to Resources:

For the teachings of Jesus on marriage and divorce, see Mark 10:5-12 and Matthew 19:3-9 and commentary for Lesson #6, Marriage, divorce and human sexuality at pages 39-42 of the J&M Book.

On the teachings of Jesus on celibacy, see Matthew 19:10-12 in Celibacy and sexual preference at page 165 of the J&M Book.

On provisions in the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible on marriage, divorce and sexual morality, see Selected provisions of the Qur’an on family law at pages 491-497 and Selected provisions of Mosaic Law on family law in the Appendices to the J&M Book at pages 578-584.

Jesus once addressed an ancient Jewish variation of marriage known as levirate marriage in which men were required to marry the widows of their deceased brothers.  Once Jesus was asked who would be the husband of a woman in heaven who had been married to seven different brothers during her life.  Jesus told them: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25; see Life after death and resurrection at pages 74-77 in the J&MBook)  Apparently angels in the kingdom of heaven are like eunuchs and have no sex.  The Gospel of Thomas suggests as much when it has Jesus say: "...when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female be female, ...then you will enter [the <Father's> domain]." (Thomas 22:4, 5, 7; see also Thomas 106:1 and 114, at page 40 of the J&M Book.).