Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why don’t the moderate Christians speak out?

Every time I give a public talk about Islam, I can count on this question: “Why don’t the moderate Muslims speak out? Why don’t they condemn terrorism?”

I then tell the audience that moderate Muslims have, in fact spoken out, on more than one occasion. I share with them the condemnation issued by 500 leading Muslim leaders and clerics after violence flared in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. I cite the overture by a large group of progressive Muslims to Christian and Jewish leaders to engage in serious discussion about how to improve relations between Islam and the West. There are more.

But, I then say, not one of these statements against terrorism—and there have been more—was covered by a prominent news stories in the leading papers, or on TV news shows. When I finish, I see the skepticism still brooding in the eyes of all too many in the audience. They have the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN and NPR. Why should they believe me?

Media Selectivity

Happened again this past Sunday. Driving away, I got to musing about the “why don’t the moderates” question, and made some comparisons. Why, for example, haven’t moderate Christians spoken out against Pat Robertson’s outrageous declaration that the 7.0 earthquake is God’s punishment on Haiti for ‘making a pact with the devil.” Why don’t moderate Republicans (the few that remain) speak up and condemn the outrageous disinformation of the Right? Why don’t moderate Israelis and Palestinians speak out against the extremists in their own camp?

But of course, they all do speak out, a bit at least. I’m sure countless Sunday sermons mentioned the not-so-Reverend Mr. Robertson unfavorably, at least in passing. I know Jewish and Muslim peace activists who work together, bring peace-seeking people together, send out press releases, and do not appear in newsprint or TV news shows. Every Muslim I know is appalled by Islamic extremism.

The news narrative of our times is interested only in Islamic terrorism. We hear little about the large number of progressive Muslims seeking religious, political and social reform in the Muslim world. As a Chicago news reporter told Eboo Patel, the bright young Muslim-American creator of the Interfaith Youth Core (which brings kids of all faiths together for common social action), “good deeds like yours are not newsworthy.” And of course, in one spectacular recent incident, a “moderate” Muslim did: the father of the “Christmas underwear bomber” reported his dangerous son to the American authorities. But nobody in power listened.

In the same way, the (largely secular) media seems only interested in the more conservative and extreme forms of Christianity. Robertson gets press. The National Council of Churches does not. Creationists disturbing the peace of school boards are covered. The annual interfaith weekend celebrating the compatibility of evolution and religion, faith and science does not.

Moderates are....too moderate?

The fault, however, can’t be laid solely at the media doorstep. Moderates (who come in many styles from conservative to liberal) are, after all, moderate. Civilized, mannered, accustomed to intelligent discussion and debate rather than the street brawls more and more of society seems enchanted by in politics, reality TV, and elsewhere. We stand aghast at the outrageousness of the extremists, in word and deed.

We live in perilous times, when the “worst are full of passionate intensity” as Yeats put it long ago, and it all too often seems that the “best lack all conviction” because they issue calm and reasonable statements and hold symposia.

So, let me suggest to any of you any “moderate” peace-loving internet surfer who may read this the following: instead of stewing about “why don’t moderate Muslims speak out?” why don’t we moderates stoke up our own passion about speaking out against the extremists who give a bad name to our faith, political party, or whatever: in personal conversations, letters to the editor, wherever we can. If you’re a Christian, for example tell your kids, your Jewish friends, your agnostic neighbors how embarrassed you are that people like Robertson trash your faith. That Jesus weeps over such viciousness.

Be passionate about civil discourse. Be passionate about the value of truth and the evil of disinformation. Be passionate about the best aspects and highest ideals of your religion, political party, or moral code. Don’t be ashamed to state your values and give reasons for them out loud, courteously but with feeling. As Yeats warns us, if the “center cannot hold, things fall apart.”

Which they seem perilously close to doing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why don’t conservative commentators like Avatar?

So far, the conservative writers on the Op-Ed page of the NYTimes are 2-0 against the 3-D blockbuster Avatar and its “left-learning” producer James Cameron. David Brooks claims the storyline is “simplistic.... offensive.... racist.... escapist,” covertly anti-American and demeaning to native cultures. Ross Douthat tells us that the film (along with past hits like The Lion King and Dancing With Wolves promotes a dangerous and delusional “gospel of pantheism” and a romantic view of primitive cultures which isn’t nearly as good for human beings as his kind of Christianity, which he tells us provides humanity with a “way out” of Nature, which is “amoral and cruel.”

The unsuspecting reader may not realize how much these sophisticated commentators reflect a much more down-and-dirty campaign by right-wing Christians to block serious criticism of the global marketplace’s environmental destructiveness. Their main talking points just happen to be that such criticism is “leftist” (and therefore essentially un-American), and “pantheistic” (essentially anti-Christian). Criticism of the “desacralization” of Nature that so characterizes modern Western culture is quickly deftly avoided by smears rather than direct response to the environmental critique.

“Simplistic,” or just too pointed for comfort?

The storyline of Avatar is certainly open to the charge of “simplistic” — bad corporate lust for resources backed by a grim military phalanx battles against earth-loving, tree-communing, dinosaur-flying natives. The dialogue is peppered with snarky barbs aimed at “quarterly profits” and “shock and awe” campaigns with clear contemporary references.

Indeed, the plot is so morally simplistic that one might be tempted to dismiss it—except for the fact that it is so sadly representative of the real moral struggle for our planet’s well-being being fought out this very day. The global climate change deniers, the heedless overfishing, the relentless habitat and species destruction, the poisoning of the water and degradation of the oceans—all in the name of “progress” (which more and more seems to equal “profit”) — all these are so morally obtuse, alas, that they already form simplistic stereotypes of themselves. Our civilization, our global market, cannot continue on this destructive path. That’s the real “bottom line.” One doesn’t need to be “leftist” (and I’m not) to agree with the critique.

"Pantheism" phobia

As to the “pantheism” charge, Douthat apparently has such Christian-Right selective vision that he gets major plot and character points of the film wrong. He imagines (incorrectly) that the Na’vi are a gentle, paradisiacal people (they’re not), that “Eywa, the All-Mother” is a deity morally indifferent and devoid of personal traits (She’s not), and that human beings are “not at home” in the midst of Nature’s “cruel rhythms” because, presumably we’re above all that, being spiritually superior to nature (huh? and exactly where did we come from, if not this world?)

So much of Douthat’s kind of Christianity (that strange marriage between Jesus and free-market capitalism) seems blissfully unaware of how profoundly unbiblical, how in service to the world-view of the modern, denatured world, it actually is. If animals are intelligent and trees en-spirited we might have to behave differently toward the world that sustains and supports us.

And the Bible says.....what?

Far from dismissing nature as merely “amoral and cruel," the Bible sees it as alive, en-spirited and indwelt by God. Cruelty is there, but cooperation and community, too (see Psalm 104). Human beings, far from being “above nature” are made out of the very elements of the planet (“dust thou art”), created right along with the land animals on that symbolic Sixth Day, made in the “image and likeness of God” in order to tend and keep the earth (Genesis 1). Not only that, the Bible reports the experiences of prophets who see nature as imbued with Divine Spirit (“heaven and earth are full of His glory” — Isaiah 6).

The whole world is caught up in what can only be described as a kind of planetary worship (“O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord ....sun and and snow....summer and winter.... mountains and things..... whales..... fowls....beasts and cattle.... everything that hath breath..... bless the Lord” — In the Catholic edition of Daniel). Sounds a lot like the planet Pandora to me. Furthermore, this immanent presence of God in the world, God’s “glory” is described in Scripture as a feminine energy and Spirit, Holy Wisdom, “the fashioner of all things” (Wisdom 7-9) who is “at play” among human beings. How shockingly like Pandora’s deity Eywa, the All-Mother!

The earth is a) the Lord's or b) a Pantry for human beings

The purposes of industrial and post-industrial society are all-too well served by seeing Nature as a gold mine for human needs, a set of resources for Man, rather than hew to the Biblical vision of humanity as the steward of the planet, the choir director of a planetary act of worship. But if it is really true that “the earth is the Lord’s,” there might actually be moral constraints on our ways of “using resources,” as we still put it. And it might also be true that Pandora’s “living web of interconnected creatures” is an apt and biblically resonant portrayal of planet earth. If so, "sharing resources" with all the other lifeforms in the web might be a more biblical viewpoint.

Biblically, "the earth is the Lord's" in all its multi-species "fullness" (Psalm 24). If Hollywood is friendlier to Native American, Eastern and New Age spirituality than to Christianity, it may be because Douthat’s version of the faith speaks so loudly today, and is so strangely joined at the hip to a run-away marketplace that badly needs a course correction. And that, underneath it all, is most probably why Brooks and Douthat don’t like the film.

But I’m happy to say that Avatar, in spite of its moral over-simplifications, seems very much on the side of the angels to me.