Trouble and strife indeed. Fitna, the short film in Dutch by Geert Wilders physically hurt my eyeballs, like a video nasty would. Some of it is so harrowing, I had to cry. An attack on the Qur’an and the Prophet, no doubt. Implicitly, however, Wilders provokes deep and hard questions for strong believers of any faith, including myself.
‘Happy shall be he that takes and dashes your little ones against the stones’ sings Psalm 137. The children of the Edomites, a kindred race of the Hebrews yet loathed by them, are meant. And, should you ever desire a warrant for genocide at God’s behest, just peruse the Book of Joshua, chapters one to ten and have your fill. However, hypothetical Mr & Mrs Cohen, of London’s Golders Green, do NOT go about gleefully praising those verses and even less urging their imitation. Ditto for the overwhelming majority of Jews. And I hardly need to state that Hebrew scholars do not interpret such passages literally. Indeed, Christian writers like St Augustine and Origen held that OT conflicts are symbolic of wars of virtue against vice. Christians certainly should understand them spiritually, not militarily.
The NT Book of Revelation looks more challenging. Its cosmic scenario of strife between good and evil, culminating in the final battle of Armageddon, has been injudiciously invoked to buttress some human conflicts. Such as the now defunct confrontation between the Soviets and the West. Way back the priest protested against that lethal misuse of a holy text. To justify being willing to nuke millions of Russian civilians. I pointed out the key actors of Revelation are God and his angels, not the CIA or the SAS. The righteous suffer innocently. They do not go about cutting off the wicked’s heads. The mysteries of the book are indeed profound and still await full unravelling. St John’s vision is perennially valid. So Revelation has much to teach humanity. Because its pages are suffused with God’s breath. It does not enjoin killing but forbearance.
Jesus’ message is one of peace. That did not stop philosopher Bertrand Russell from penning ‘Why I am not a Christian’. The Messiah’s blasting of an unfruitful fig-tree and his sending demons into a herd of swine which then rushed into the sea and perished would indicate he was not a nice guy. Huh! While bowing before Russell’s high logical and mathematical mind, I must grin at his religious exegesis. Wittgenstein was right when he sniggered, apropos such popular scribbling, that ‘these days Russell is not going to kill himself doing philosophy’. Bertie was a non-conformist, yet I surmise he judged Christ by the standards of a liberal Anglican vicar, with all his feebleness and stupidity. Jesus of Nazareth was made of sterner stuff. By the way, at some stage in his dotage, Russell actually advocated using the atom bomb on the Rousskies. Definitely not nice, that one!
Adumbrating these matters with Sergei, a snazzy German lawyer, in a café in Doha’s fashionable Villaggio (an apotheosis of kitsch globalisation), he brusquely challenged me: ‘All very well, Father. But you are beating about the bush. Fitna is about Islamic violence, not Jewish or Christian. Where do you stand on that? Or do you just enjoy pandering to Muslims?’
Wallahi! Plain speaking, eh? Just to go on pandering. Fitna has an imam attacking liberalism and democracy as Western ideas. He was right. Indeed they are. Europeans have enthroned them in the place of the God of their fathers – a God whose very name our shabby politicians are ashamed even to mention. But, intellectually speaking, there is nothing self-evidently true or eternal about such concepts. And they represent only a strand of Western thought, though one currently all-powerful. What is more, the fruits of liberalism and democracy are not uncontroversial. The invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both flagrantly illegal and immoral acts, have been waged in the name of liberal democracy. NATO troops fight and rain bombs there everyday for, they say, democracy. And liberal Britain, the modern cradle of this gaff, and party political-crazy Italy, the countries I know best, are a mess. Soaring crime, drugs, abortion, alienation, rootlessness, immorality, religion in sharp decline, family in pieces, illegal immigration, youth adrift…geddit? Maybe it is time for those who think, and who are men and not mice, to put their heads together and to study whether a better system to manage society may not be at all conceivable – and desirable.
Fitna also extrapolates ‘hard verses’ from the Qur’an and links them with violent and repugnant deeds, like 9/11, the beheading of hostages and so on. Extremist preachers and desperate men are portrayed as if they represented over a billion Muslims. Wilders has gone over the top there, and deliberately. He may well have wished for large-scale violence to follow, to validate his point. He knows there are thriving Islamic and ‘Islamist’ movements in the West, from Turkey to Egypt, that worry Western people and media and politicians alike. So much so the latter have all rushed, like Gadarene swine, to defend Islam against Fitna. With friends like those, Muslims do not need enemies…
As to holy but hard verses. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells somewhere of a discussion he had with a very strict Orthodox rabbi over a passage in I Samuel 15:8-23. The prophet Samuel tells King Saul God commands him to wage war on the Amalekites. To utterly destroy them: men, women, children, infants, animals, the lot. That Saul does. He massacres the enemy. He only spares the leader, King Agag, plus some juicy animals. But Samuel hears God telling him he is angry with Saul, because the king has disobeyed him in not slaughtering everything and everybody. So Saul repents and, when Agag comes to Samuel, trusting in mercy, the Bible says: ‘Samuel hewed Agag into pieces before the Lord in Gilgal’.
After much soul-searching and inward struggle, Buber relates, he told the wise rabbi he could not believe God had really dictated that awful action.
‘You don’t believe that?’ countered the venerable old man, with deep voice and terrible eyes. ‘What do you believe then?’
Again Buber hesitated, struggled with himself and spoke eventually: ‘I believe Samuel had misunderstood God’s will.’
The rabbi looked him in silence for a while. Then he spoke, quietly: ‘I believe that, too.’
Revd Frank Julian Gelli