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The Pope, Islam and options for Christian renewal

Matthew Hamilton | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The world’s reactions to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statements reveal quite drastically the signs of our times, and point to the urgent need for a renewal of Christian theology.

The Pope quoted from a Byzantine emperor’s ignorant and degrading words about the irrationality of Islam in general and religious warfare in particular. Many observers have claimed that Muslim leaders took these comments out of context: Benedict did not mean to directly attack Islam – he was simply trying to illustrate another point. That is true. But that is exactly the problem. The Pope used one Islamic understanding of God’s will as a straw man to hold up in contrast to his own vision of the relationship between God and reason in European Christian thought. He wasn’t talking to Muslims, he was talking about them to European Christians in order to illustrate a debate relevant to German professors. As a result, he seemed surprised to find that many Muslims were not only paying attention to what he had to say but were willing to take to the streets over it.

But that is exactly what you get when you try to do theology without any serious regard for the now global social and political context in which you speak. The age in which Catholic leaders can talk about Muslims as if they are not in the room is over. They are not only in the room in Africa and Asia but also in the heart of Europe itself. Benedict’s speech was a nostalgic address to the good old boys of the European academy. From a man who chided liberation theologians for focusing too narrowly on their local context, Pope Benedict’s own comments show a serious lack of regard for the universal Church. Outside of Latin America, the majority of Christians today live in the so-called Third World among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Maoists. The theological problems of the post-Christian German university are not their point of reference. They are the ones who will suffer as a result of the Pope’s narrow horizons when their churches are fire-bombed in reaction to his comments.

Liberation theologians and comparative theologians have been saying for decades that Christian theology must be done from the context of struggles against oppression and empire, taking into account the undeniable reality of multi-religious societies. These approaches can no longer be treated as optional extras – they are a matter of life or death for Christians of our generation. Yet the solution is not simply to watch our words and make sure we do not make politically incorrect comments about our Muslim neighbors. That is all that liberal dialogue amounts to and it is going nowhere. Instead, we need to take our multi-religious context into account in all aspects of our theology as the basis for genuine renewal.

Undoubtedly issues that Pope Benedict raised in his speech need to be addressed, but they need to be approached from this new vantage point. The Pope was speaking out against a post-Christian European society that disregards religious thought as an important and rational facet of civilization. I agree that secular chauvinism is a problem. However, I know of a constituency a bit larger than the theology faculty at the University of Regensburg – the majority of the world’s Muslims. For well over a century, European secular chauvinism has attacked Islam, calling it backwards, medieval and superstitious, labeling it a hindrance to development and progress and a threat to civilization. European nation states and now the U.S. have used this logic to justify their colonization, subjugation and torture of Muslim peoples. Not only Islamists, but also many other Muslims today are justifiably angry about the fact that their faith has been trashed and their land stolen in the name of the Enlightenment. As I argued in a recent letter (“A stand against double-barreled white supremacy is necessary for international improvements,” Sept. 5), the wars in Iraq and Lebanon were justified by the claim that the U.S. and Israel were bringing secular-rational civilization to backwards, irrational peoples. When Muslims around the world heard Pope Benedict quote a Byzantine emperor about the irrationality of jihad, they assumed (perhaps correctly?) that the official Catholic Church had allied itself with the secular crusades of Western white supremacy, Zionism and U.S. Empire.

If Christians today are worried about the dangers of living in a secular society, then why do many fear the revival of Islam and the immigration of Muslims into Europe and the U.S.? Why not ally with these Muslims to build a new society that overcomes the imperial sins of secular chauvinism? Christian and Muslim theology are equally capable of generating and sustaining a social vision in which everyday people are democratically self-governing, smashing the false idols of the nation-state and capitalism and embracing people of all faiths in universal brother- and sisterhood. Why not seek out Muslim allies who share this vision and work with them against the secular state as well as any aspiring Christian or Muslim reactionary authoritarians? Certain Palestinian Christians experienced such a possibility in the multi-religious popular committees of the Intifada. In sha’ Allah, they will not be the last.

Christians should stop wasting their time trying to convince the secular academy that religious language is relevant to public life and should simply make it relevant by becoming historical actors. Here is what a true Christian leader would have done in Benedict’s shoes. The minute the war in Lebanon started she would have responded. When Neo-Nazis opportunistically used anti-Zionism as a pretext to attack Jewish shops in Rome, she would have called on Christians to stand with their Jewish neighbors by forming self-defense committees. Then she would have made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Palestine. Refusing to land in any airport named after the racist David Ben Gurion, she would have landed in Jordan and crossed over into the West Bank. She would have announced that she trusted her Muslim brothers and sisters to defend her and hence would travel unarmed, refusing to be escorted by either the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority since both of them are the illegitimate prison wardens of the Palestinian people. She would have traversed the steps of Jesus, sitting at table with Muslims and Arab Christians along the way. She would have refused to meet with any Israeli Zionist politician but would have sought fellowship with groups of anti-Zionist Jewish civilians from Israel and around the world. Marching toward the Church of the Nativity, she would have invited her Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters to an interfaith prayer vigil at the place of Jesus’ birth, and together they would have prayed for the liberation of Palestine and Lebanon, the fall of U.S. empire, and a final end to both the Christian and secular crusades.

Matthew Hamilton. is a theology graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at mhamilt5@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.