Finding an oasis for our souls in the East
By: Larry McGehee
In the Christmas season just ended, millions of minds — ours included — turned to the Middle East, making mental pilgrimages to the birthplace of faith.
That region, scorched and blown, barren of the snow and carols that time has tacked on the Christmas story, seems to be the most unlikely place for religious faith. Yet it is the place where not only Christianity, but Islam and Judaism as well, began: three faiths, not one, and each of them significant in its impact upon history and mankind.
Yet there it is — the Middle East, quarrelsome, fratricidal, bloody, irrational, a never?ending “trouble spot” forever festering, feuding, fighting, fomenting. How has faith spawned in such a contentious context survived for so many centuries? More importantly, why have three such global faiths, all based upon the love and intercession of God, not been strong enough to make and to keep the peace?
We recall that belief in the unused potential of those faiths was what led America’s President Carter, Israel’s Begin, and Egypt’s Sadat to Camp David, whence they emerged with pacts of promise. Yet the struggles and holy wars continued, and spread as far north as Bosnia and Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan — and Iran and Iraq. Less violent strains even appear in America with the growing divisiveness and derision between non-angelic wings of Christians.
The slaughters of the innocents by acts of terrorism and religious fanaticism today seem little less deadly than in the days of Pharaoh or of Herod. Has faith disappointed the world?
Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps the proper question is, “Have believers disappointed their faith?” What kind of irresponsible response to true faith can twist God’s love around 180 degrees to justify man’s hates? Religion in the hands of tyrants and demagogues is a dangerous thing. Fanaticism is an unfaithful faith.
In the Exodus, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and led from within a pillar of fire by night and a column of smoke by day, but we are not following faith when we burn each other. Vengeance, violence, viciousness, and vituperation were not the songs the early Hebrews, the first Christians, and the first Muslims sang. The scriptures of all three faiths teem with words of peace and stories of peacemakers, with demonstrations of God’s love and of mankind’s faltering and fickle responses to it, and, most of all, with the repetitious admonitions to live up to faith instead of dragging it down.
Annual celebrations of the birth of faith are more than thanksgiving days. They are days of renewal, days for re?evaluation and for rededication. The reason faith bloomed in the Middle East desert was to show the world that faith was the only thing that could bring beauty to wastelands. If a garden could grow where none seemed likely, the story of the creation of Eden can be repeated again and again. Sadly, the world keeps repeating the whole story of Eden. It needs a different ending than eviction and exile. We seem unwilling to return to Eden. It needs a two?way faith, a faith worthy of the faith placed in humankind.
The only response theologically consistent with God’s love of his creation is to love both God and creation in return. Approach with caution those who claim to preach true faith while wielding swords of hatred. Jeopardize not your soul or your neighbor by blindly following those who pass off their own judgments as God’s . Avoid like the plague the sickness unto death which quarantines us from the love of God and from each other.
The thing of which we have to remind ourselves over and over again is that the Middle East is everywhere. Wherever there is a They apart from our We, there is a We apart from the holy Thou. Wherever there is callousness, there is an unanswered call?waiting. Wherever there are blinders, there is an unfollowed Middle East star.
There is indeed a Middle East in each of us — a desert in our souls and a dehydration of our desires to love others despite all else. The blessing and lesson of Christmas and of Hanukah and of Ramadan is that faith can blossom in the most barren of places.
Can blossom — despite the unjust desserts of our desserts. Even here. Even now. Even in the Middle East.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Messenger 1.3.08