Unbelief on the Move, Thank the Good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.


Peace in the Middle East Can Begin with Apologies

Today a BBC interview with Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish provided a much-needed wake up call to the world.   Dr. Abueleish lived in Gaza with his family in 2009 at the time when the Israeli army was striking back at the Palestinians. Two shells crashed into the bedroom of his house, killing 3 of his daughters and a niece while wounding several other family members.   Since then his mission has been to help end the violence that has engulfed the entire region. For him, a key part of this would be an apology from Israel, something he has not yet received.   Why would this be important? Because, he explains, it would be an acknowledgement that he and his family were not just the detritus of battle, worth no more than the rubble of a fallen building.  They were and are human beings, with all the dignity and value that entails.  This is the lesson that people in conflict forget time and time again. We dehumanize our opponents treating them as vermin or targets instead of  neighbors–real people, human beings.

It would have been so easy for the doctor to slide into a never-ending hatred of those responsible, but, as the old saying goes, hatred is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your enemy to die. There has to be more, there has to be reconciliation, and for that there has to be a willingness on both sides to seek restorative justice and not retribution. It begins with the stories– the pain, the losses, the fear–all parties listening to the others,  humanizing what has been dehumanized.  Then there have to be apologies. It’s difficult to see why the Israeli government or military or both cannot say they are sorry for what happened to those girls in Gaza that day.  They claim they were firing on militants and maybe they were, but why should that make it more difficult to apologize?  Are they afraid of seeming weak?

Dr. Abueleish turned his back on hatred.  His way of dealing with his loss has been  to establish a foundation that encourages women from the Middle East to study at universities: Daughters for Life.  

He feels that educating young women is one of the keys to finding peace in the Middle East.  One of the keys.  There are so many.  But who can doubt that he’s right and applaud his efforts.


Athena Speaks to the Middle East

If there’s one thing the Middle East needs right now, it’s a touring company performing Aeschylus’s Oresteia. This ancient trilogy shouts down the centuries to us, begging us to reconsider our self-destructive, violent behavior and come up with better answers than suicide bombers, chemical weapons, and macho warriors.

To remind you of this tale: Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, returns home from war only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. Their son, Orestes, at the insistence of Apollo, then kills his mother to avenge his sire. But this stirs up the Furies, the frightening, bloodsucking goddesses of vengeance, who haunt Orestes and drive him nearly mad as the images of his bloody deed repeat endlessly in his mind.

The third play in the trilogy is the resolution of the battle between the old bloodthirsty way of doing things and the new. The Furies represent the older paths of revenge killings and eternal war between tribes.  As they close in on him, Orestes flees to Athena (Wisdom) and begs her for justice –“Apollo made me do it!”   Athena proposes an innovation: the jury system where evidence of crimes is heard and a vote is taken among the citizen-jurors to pronounce guilt or innocence. When it’s all over, Orestes has won, and the Furies have lost. They are furious and threaten to let loose their anger, poisoning the ground of Athens with blood and blight, but Athena convinces them—and this is the key part– to give up this outmoded thinking and instead, to join her in helping the people of Athens by watching over them. In return, the mortals will bow to them, thank them, and bring them offerings.   After some heavy-duty persuasion, the Furies agree. They are given a new home, new duties, and a new name. They are now called the Eumenides—the blessed ones. The jury system was born and blood feuds are no longer the norm.  It’s called civilization.

The fighting in the Middle East may not be about family feuds, but there is enough enmity between religious sects and ethnic groups to keep the countries of the region in chaos for many centuries to come.   They invoke the name of Allah, but Ares, the god of war, seems to have a firm grip on the minds of many.

Where is the Goddess of Wisdom that could convince them to put down their weapons and arbitrate their differences?   Where is the tribunal that could hear them impartially? And what is the argument that would transform the losers, whoever they might be, into partners for peace and protection?

No one knows, and so we have the civil wars, the tribes and sects, Us vs. Them.  The UN, which could be the tribunal, is ineffective.  The peaceful passages in their holy books are ignored in favor of those that promote violence and retribution.   The old ways aren’t working.

As Lucretius said so long ago: Tantum religio, potuit suadere malorum.

“Religion can lead us to so many evils.”

Wisdom crieth aloud in the street but can’t be heard over the sound of gunfire.

Turkey, Stop the Attack on Kurds in Syria!

The madness in the Mideast never ends.   If one area calms down, you can bet that another part of the region is heating up.   Now Turkey is charging into what was once Syria in order to quash a Kurdish takeover of the province of Afrin.   The Turkish president Erdogan tells us that the Afrin Kurds are linked to the Kurds in Southeast Turkey who have been fighting for independence from Turkey for years. He is determined to clear the Syrian border of Kurds, not just in Afrin but perhaps all along Turkey’s lengthy southern frontier. He’s setting about doing it this week with airstrikes, artillery barrages, and now tanks on the ground.

If only there were someone with some good sense and charisma who could step in and say, “Let’s stop the bombing, stop the tanks—let’s sit down and figure this out before any more people die!”   There is no one like that apparently, unless it would be Vladimir Putin who commands some respect in the region. It’s hard to think of an American who could step up to the plate. Is there anyone in the Land of the Free who the people of this region look up to enough to listen to? Some movie star? Some Dennis Rodman of the Middle East who has won the hearts of the dictators, demi-dictators, and rebels?

But isn’t it clear to everyone what the best outcome would be?  Let’s look at what the various parties want:  The Kurds want self-determination for the regions where they are a majority. They’ve already got it in Iraq (though they almost blew it with a demand for absolute independence recently). The Turks want to keep their borders as they are, and they want to stop Kurdish militants from acts of violence within those borders.  OK, so let’s try giving the Kurds autonomy, lots of autonomy over there in the Southeast….maybe that would be enough self-determination for them to stop their attacks. As for Assad in Syria, he wants his country back intact, and the only way he’s going to get it without an even lengthier bloodbath is by granting autonomy to the Kurds in the lands they currently control. And then, the Syrian rebels, who come in different varieties– well,….OK, they will be left out of this particular discussion because there are only so many complications that can be dealt with at one time.

So given all this, my imaginary charismatic hero would say: “The key is to keep the borders as they are, but guarantee more autonomy for ethnic groups within those borders. That’s what’s happening in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, and that’s what is happening in places like South Tyrol, Scotland, Quebec, and was happening in Catalonia until the latest rise in tensions. Grant the Kurds in Syria autonomy in provinces and villages where they are a majority, guaranteeing the rights of other ethnic groups within those regions as well.   Grant the Kurds of Turkey the same autonomy, while denying them independence. If the Turks are worried about the potential for terrorism, let’s set up a UN force that will police the area for a while. It would be cheaper than years of war, thousands of deaths, decades of anger and vows of revenge that the current direction will inevitably bring.

If the parties won’t come to the table or won’t agree once they’re there, let’s bribe them with a sizeable chunk of money that would go to infrastructure, rebuilding what has been destroyed, and upgrading what has survived.    It would be money well spent.