The past week has been a study in interfaith dialogue, and its difficulties, spread out across the front pages of the world's newspapers, with little explicit comparison or commentary. The events speak for themselves, and the task at hand is to continue to be balanced and fair in commentary in the face of the day's world news, knowing that the comparison might have looked a bit different on some other day of the year, or at least the decade. It has not been so long since the U.S. clergy abuse scandal has been on the front pages that we could easily set that aside, ignore it, and mention only the negative pictures of Islam and the positive pictures of Christianity in today's papers. We know that most Muslims did not spend the day burning somebody else's embassy building somewhere in the world, and we know that it is not realistic to blame the vast majority for what a small minority has done.
Still, setting aside the temptation to paint all Muslims with broad strokes, knowing that the same stereotyping has sometimes hurt us too, the day's news still presents a vivid picture of a difference in how Christianity sees God, and it does not appear to be only the minority of either faith who differ from each other on this issue.
The February 5 issue of Famiglia Christiana published Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, together with his own introduction to it, written for the newspaper. The introduction appears in English today in ZENIT here, alongside today's ZENIT articles about the priest who died Saturday, Father Santoro, whose body arrived today in his home diocese of Rome, that story here.
True enough, we too feel the pain of media bias at times, of the "Christianophobia" that has struck public Christmas displays, the "Happy Holidays" and "Holiday Cards" and all the rest, when we begin to feel that every other religion is protected in the public square while we are the ones to be protected from, for some reason, and when it seems that so many people in public office think that "freedom of religion" means "freedom from Christianity" and little more. We understand the anger over the cartoons that prompted Muslim anger, but it is hard to understand the response to that anger, and it is hard to understand so large a number of people who have been convinced that their rage and desire for revenge express the nature of God.
Do they believe, as we do, that non-believers will see God's love in our love which reflects His? Not from what we have seen in these days.
Do they pray, as we do, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?" Surely not. They most certainly have not shown the belief in a forgiving God who encourages us to imitate His forgiving nature by forgiving those who offend us. Jesus said:
15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.
Matthew 7:15-17 (RSV)
Does the implication of this ring in the minds of anyone other than Christians as we watch today's news? Or would they simply think that we were being self-righteous to say it?
The Danish Prime Minister today called for Muslims to refrain from violence in what he called a "global crisis", announced in a major article on BBC Online. Protests spread to Africa. Of course the extremists are taking advantage of the situation. It is a situation that lends itself to being taken advantage of. But they have not had a difficult time of it, finding people willing to cooperate with their efforts. They want to avenge the insult to Allah. Other Muslims will not support the extremists, ofcourse. But where is the Muslim opposition to revenge? The Muslim faith in turning the other cheek? Jesus said:
But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5: 39 (RSV)
In seventh century Sinai, there was a desert monk who lived in a time when Christian monks in Sinai had to be careful what they said as the early Muslims attacked other monasteries in the area and took political control. It is often thought that he and his fellow monks must have struck a deal, that they would be careful what they said about the Muslims and, in turn, the Muslims would not attack their monastery as they had attacked some other Christians. The references to Islam in John Climacus's Ladder of Divine Ascent are subtle and cautious and few. And yet he counseled his fellow monks:
The remembrance of what Jesus suffered is a cure for remembrance of wrongs, shaming it powerfully with His patient endurance.
Worms thrive in a rotten tree; malice thrives in the deceptively meek and silent. He who has expelled malice has found forgiveness, but he who hugs it is deprived of mercy.
Some labor and struggle hard to earn forgiveness, but better than these is the man who forgets the wrongs done to him. Forgive quickly and you will be abundantly forgiven. To forget wrongs is to prove oneself truly repentant, but to brood on them and at the same time to imagine one is practicing repentance is to act like the man who is convinced he is running when in fact he is fast asleep.
I have seen malicious people recommending forgiveness to others and then, shamed by their own words, they managed to rid themselves of this vice.
Never imagine that this dark vice is a passion of no importance, for it often reaches out even to spiritual men.
- St. John Climacus (also known as “John of Sinai” and “John the Scholastic”), The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 9 ("On Malice"), ca. 7th century, translated from the Greek by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, c. 1982, Paulist Press (The Classics of Western Spirituality), pg. 154.
Could we really hope that Sinai could turn back to its roots, could recognize in today's contrasting headlines the face of God in Christ's persistent love, demanding forgiveness? Could Turkey too, as Father Santoro had hoped, be fertile soil today to receive the seeds sown there of the presence of Christ? Perhaps, and yet we cannot be too overconfident in hoping that the land that once bore the fruit of some of the greatest Christian scholars of all of history might one day again be Christian.
The contrast is sharp, set in motion by the seeming coincidence of the issuance of the first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI and the reaction to a Danish cartoon. But is it visible to those caught up in the anger of the Muslim extremists, convinced that God wants their anger, that God needs their revenge? The message of hope in Father Santoro's wish to take the Gospel back to the world where so much of the richness of the Christian faith began is a message that we might only hope will win, at least, tolerance from reasonable Muslim voices and perhaps, in time, a greater understanding of what their own roots are, of who their own Christian ancestors were, and of what was lost to them in the seventh century that might yet be regained. God's grace and mercy have no boundaries. Surely, it at least reminds us of what we have, in gratitude, and of our own need to exercise such forgiveness and grace.