By Eugen Schoenfeld
I am tired of the news. For years without end, we — the Western world in general and the United States in particular — have been confronted with the same problem: Two theological forces face each other, and each claims to have a moral right to confront and bear arms against adherents of another religious group.
Sometimes it seems that Islam believes that the existence of another religious faith is in itself an offense. This unremitting and unforgiving stance by Islam and Christianity reminds me of an old big-band song, “Something’s Gotta Give.” The lyric is simple enough: When an irresistible force such as you meets an immovable object like me, you can bet as sure as you like — something’s gotta give.
The essence of this song is the necessity for compromise. But you can bet as sure as you will that most religions cannot and do not compromise. Each religion claims a G-d-given right to speak for G-d and says it is the only true religion because of revelation. Each claims that the other is wrong and that its adherents violate G-d’s will and will be punished.
Neither follows Luke and Matthew’s cautionary perspective: Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own? Can anyone be certain that his is the only true religion and that adherence to his religion is the only way to please G-d and be rewarded with salvation?
Let me caution the reader: I am not saying that Islam is merely a speck in comparison with the Christian log. I am saying that Christianity and Islam have the same problem. Both advocate an uncompromising theology. Both religions propose that no one can achieve salvation without converting and accepting the tenets of a particular religious view.
Not long ago I hired a person to retile my bathroom. “You are a very nice guy,” he told me, “and I am so sorry that you will not get to heaven. You must convert to be saved.”
Where did this Christian get that idea? It is a central tenet in the Christian Bible. A mild example of this view is to be found in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you are saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is G-d’s gift, not from works, so that no one can boast.”
There are many harsher statements that are directed against Jews and that explain why Jews will suffer eternal damnation.
Islam has a similar point of view interspersed in the Quran, especially in the second sura (chapter), which states that “Allah has cursed them (Jews and Christians) on account of their unbelief,” for so little it is that they believe. Verse 98 of the same sura states: “Whoever is the enemy of Allah and His angels and His apostles and Jibreel and Meekaeel, so surely Allah is the enemy of the unbelievers.”
It seems that Christianity and Islam have a common denominator: the rejection of the legitimacy of other beliefs. Each proposes that other faiths do not advocate nor represent the will of G-d. Christians propose that G-d gave them the latest truth, just as Islam has a similar view of Christianity. It took almost four centuries for the Catholic Church to seek peace and accommodation with the Protestant faiths. The inverse is also true. As late as John Kennedy’s election to the presidency, many Protestants opposed him because he represented Papism.
This brings me to the central problem. It took many centuries of war and hostility for the Catholics and the Protestants to accommodate each other. It will take even longer for Islam to seek accommodation between the Sunni and the Shiites, let alone with Christians and especially with Jews.
Accommodation does not mean acceptance of each other’s theological legitimacy; it is merely a temporary agreement to coexist. Protestants and Catholics, for their own interests, became tolerant of each other’s existence. In spite of accommodation, each religion continues to maintain that it has the exclusive path to salvation.
In fact, as I look at Israel, I hope that Orthodox Judaism will learn to accommodate the other branches of Judaism. We, too, must learn to live together and accept the reality that modernity brings diversity.
In the United States, Christian acceptance of Judaism is a recent development. My own experiences taught me that Christian acceptance of Jews was tentative in the 1960s.
For economic reasons, I left Washington University in St. Louis and followed my major professor to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. While completing my doctorate, I took on the task of being the rabbi and spiritual leader to the Jewish students on the campus and to the community.
A few times I was invited to a breakfast given by and for the ministers and priests who worked with and for students. I was never asked to give a blessing, and all prayers were offered in the name of Christ. All breakfast plates included bacon and ham, and in spite of my request not to have these meats placed on my plate because as a Jew I abstained from eating pork, they never ceased giving me a plate with pork.
The few times I was invited were purely symbolic. No one approached me or included me in their conversations and planning. I was asked to be a silent partner.
Yet we in the United States are reluctant to make accommodation with Islam. Most politicians and many vocal ministers use national security to justify our military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim nations. But is national security at stake?
I am concerned that our success in World War II led us astray from letting other countries follow their destiny. Instead, we adopted the failed political views of the 19th-century European colonialists. We refused to learn from history.
We haven’t learned from the colonialist mistakes that led our own nation to rebel and seek our independence. Instead, we are becoming colonialist, involving ourselves in other countries’ struggles and seeking to control them. We follow failed policies, and we laud the efficacy of domination by force.
I find great similarities, for instance, between the McCarthy inquisition and the Catholic Inquisition. Unless we want to experience the economic problems of Russia, which tried to dominate Afghanistan, or France, which waged a prolonged war in Indonesia, or England and other European countries that had colonial empires, we must extract ourselves from futile policies of colonialism.
President Barack Obama knew this and promised to return to the views of our founders, who fought colonialism. But somewhere he was co-opted by the dark side.
For our own economic well-being, and in order to bring back the ideals of humanism, we must leave our battles with Islamic countries and let them solve their own religious and national problems. It is their war and not ours.
Of course, we must be vigilant against those in our country who seek to destroy our way of life. That should be our dominant national issue. Our problem, in addition to safety, is to improve the lives of our citizens. We must separate ourselves from Islam and its internal problems. Waging wars, particularly unwinnable and prolonged wars, will not save us from another 9/11 or Boston or other jihadist hostilities.
Am I an isolationist? Far from it. I believe in the idea of the United Nations (if we make it work) and in the adage taught in the Bible: Come let us reason together. I believe in the imperative of accommodation, whether with Russia, China or the Muslim countries. I also believe in punishment through isolation of those who seek to destroy other countries’ internal peace.
I believe that moral imperatives are more important than the economic interests of some industries and the desire for some people to gain political power.
I hope that our government has more sense than to be chivied into a war that cannot be won by the United States or any other country. All colonialist countries, in spite of their massive armies, have failed. Russia failed in Afghanistan, and that war nearly led to its economic destruction.
Let us be aware: The writing on the wall is clearly visible. It tells us the same message of doom that was sent to Persia over two millennia ago: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”
Will the United States heed it?