Religion Today

Friday, January 23, 2015

Charlie Hebdo's True Goal

The Muslim terrorists who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, claimed to be retaliating for the magazine’s attacks on Islam and on Muhammad, its founding prophet. Islam was not Charlie Hebdo’s only religious target. Jews, Catholics, the Pope and even Jesus were often subjects of the publication’s cartoons.
The killings of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are horrific, both for the loss of life and for the shockingly appalling way they were carried out. And the “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) phrase brought together the people of France, and indeed people around the world, in mourning, resolution and protest.
But, as David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times piece last week, most of us are not Charlie Hebdo. The satirical publication is widely hated in religious and political circles of all stripes. And before the murders, so few French people read it that it was in serious financial difficulties.
The publication launches rather sophomoric attacks on just about everything that some segment of western society holds dear. If you were not offended by something in one issue, wait for the next one. A recent sketch featured the Holy Trinity in an explicitly sexual ménage a trois, while another made fun of gay marriage. Many of its graphic covers could not be displayed on the magazine shelves of American shops.
But Islam and Catholicism were not Charlie Hebdo’s primary target, even when they were the cartoons’ subject matter. Jonathan Turley pointed out in his Jan. 8 New York Times essay that the French government, in recent years, has passed legislation that restricts the free speech of French citizens. Charlie Hebdo worked to push back against these new laws.
The new restrictions on speech gained ground in France after the worldwide protests (and deaths, both planned and accidental) over the Muhammad cartoons in 2006. France and other European nations passed a variety of laws restricting anti-religious speech, in part, out of a concern for public safety.
But since then, actress Bridget Bardot has been sentenced for criticizing gays and Muslims in a letter to the French president, while fashion designer John Galliano was convicted and fined for making anti-Semitic remarks in a café. The “speech police” have gone beyond public speech to monitoring semi-private and private speech here; whether or not you agree with these speakers’ views, this is an insidious development.
This situation reminds us of a truth that America’s founding fathers recognized: Namely, freedom of religion is linked to freedom of speech, even though speech can be for or against particular religions or religion in general. Our Constitution’s First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The free exercise of speech and religion go hand in hand.
Of course, even in America, freedoms are not absolute. The rights of a single individual must be balanced against the rights of every other individual, as well as against the rights of various groups, including religious and ethnic groups, educational institutions, governments and so on. We usually refer to this opposition as the individual vs. society. The question is, where do you set the fulcrum to ensure the correct balance? This is the ongoing debate.
In western countries, where the Enlightenment has freed us, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, for government rule “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we put the fulcrum quite close to the individual side of the bar. To move the balance toward the society end of the scale, as France has done by protecting religious groups from criticism, not only removes freedom of speech about these groups, but freedom of speech within the nation as a whole.
If one group can be protected from criticism, then other groups can be protected (e.g., businesses, politicians, government). It becomes only a matter of legislative whim. The ability to deprive people of their freedom of speech thus strikes at the very heart of democracy and the French value of Liberté.
By its extreme satirization of religions, Charlie Hebdo worked to create a safe place for free speech, where average French citizens could discuss and debate without fear of arrest or accusation. It aimed to re-establish the fulcrum of free speech way over on the side favoring individual rights.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

The Great Moral Debate

The biggest ethical debates in American society have been issues where there is not an obvious right or wrong, where one side is not definitely good and the other side obviously wicked.

Indeed, the most difficult moral struggles our society has faced over recent decades are ones where Christian churches have been prominent on both sides. This was certainly true for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women's rights movement of the 1970s. For both of these, churches were on the forefront of both sides of the debate. Why was this? How can Christians who all follow the teachings of Jesus Christ disagree so passionately over the practice of those teachings?

At the risk of oversimplifying these difficult ethical issues, I want to suggest that they are actually part of a larger moral debate that has been going on since the start of Christianity and will probably continue until its end (and perhaps beyond). I refer to the debate between moral principles and moral answers.

What do I mean by this? In the gospels, Jesus presents most of his ethical teachings as principles. Usually, they are given in the form of short, wise sayings, such as "love your neighbor" or "judge not, and you will not be judged." Other times they are given as parables, such as when the young man to whom Jesus said "love your neighbor," responded by saying, "who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told him the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A moral answer comes from the application of a moral principle to a particular circumstance. For example, an acquaintance angers me. Should I hit him? The application of the moral principle "love your neighbor" gives the moral answer that I should not. In this particular situation, the answer is "do not hit!"

So, what is the “Great Moral Debate?” Over the years, generations and centuries, Christians have taught both moral principles and moral answers. Moral answers serve well for guiding behavior when the answer is already known (I know I'm not supposed to hit others). But, guiding behavior by moral answers, requires learning lots of circumstances and the appropriate moral answer. What happens when one encounters a circumstance for which there is not a learned answer?

Moral principles, by contrast, are more flexible, and one principle might cover a number of situations (including unexpected new ones). Loving my neighbor, for example, also indicates that I should help people in trouble, as well as refrain from hitting them.

But, the problem with moral principles is that they come without clear instructions. There is no clear-cut delineation of circumstances in which to apply them, for instance. When the young man asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was expecting a clear definition. Instead, Jesus answered by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus thus increased the possible definitions of "neighbor" rather than limiting them.

So, how does the distinction between moral principles and moral answers address our opening question of why serious Christians take opposing sides on ethical issues? The difference comes from whether the Christians respond to an issue with a learned answer or with the application of a principle. To the question of whether women should take a speaking role in worship services, for example, the apostle Paul gave the moral answer that women should keep silent in church.

Today, many Christian denominations have looked at the issue of women’s roles again and applied the moral principle of equality -- of everyone being equal in the eyes of God. In those denominations, women have become ministers, priests and, in some, even bishops. Both sides gave a Christian response to the issues, but one side gave a moral answer while the other applied a moral principle. The Anglican Church in England, for example, just appointed its first female bishop in December.


In the newest moral dilemma in America, gay marriage, different Christian denominations are again on different sides. So, watch for the “Great Moral Debate” behind the scenes, the one between moral principles and moral answers.

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Why did Joseph live in Galilee? (column for 12/27/2014)


When Caesar Augustus decided to conduct a census of the Roman Empire, he did not send interviewers door-to-door to count each village’s residents, as is the practice in the USA’s census taking. Instead he required each man to return “to his own city.” In Luke’s gospel, chapter two, this accounts for why Joseph leaves his northern home in Galilee and undertakes a week-long journey with his wife-to-be to the town of Bethlehem, which is in southern Judea.

But why is Joseph in Galilee in the first place?  If his ties to Judea are so strong that he must return there for the census, what could have motivated him to ever leave it? Although we cannot give a definite answer, there is a sequence of historical events that may indicate why Joseph, a descendant of David’s royal house, a house identified with Bethlehem of Judea, lived in Galilee. In short, the answer is that a century or less earlier, Joseph’s ancestors took part in a mass migration of Judeans to settle in Galilee.

The story actually begins in 732-722 BC, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel, which included the regions of Galilee and Samaria. The book of Second Kings relates in chapter 17 how the inhabitants were carried off to Assyria in exile. A few years later, residents of other regions of the empire were brought to Samaria and settled there. 

Galilee’s situation after the conquest has long been unclear. Was it treated like Samaria, which 2 Kings specifically mentions, or was it treated differently?

Archaeologist Zvi Gal has recently discovered that Galilee was emptied of population by the Assyrian conquest and essentially remained desolate until the beginning of the first century BC.  His on-the-ground examinations of the occupation history of 80 different Galilean sites showed a six-century break in habitation. Other archaeological investigations confirm this conclusion.

So where did the Galileans of Jesus’ day come from? 

The ancient historian Josephus indicates that in 104-103 BC, the Maccabean king of Judea, Aristobolus, took control of Galilee on his way further north to conquer the Itureans who lived west of Mt. Hermon. His successor, Alexander Janneaus, sent thousands of Judeans north to settle Galilee and farm its rich agricultural land during his 25-year reign. Not only did this give Judeans access to an increased amount of agricultural products, but it also solved an apparent crisis of over-population in Judea.

Archaeological evidence also makes it clear that these new inhabitants were from Judea, for the excavated finds from the first centuries BC and AD follow the same characteristics as those of Judea. In particular, Galilean finds reveal the same concern for ritual purity with regard to the Jerusalem Temple typical of Judea. The finds characteristic of Judea and Galilee that differ from the surrounding regions include: immersion pools for purification baths, stone drinking vessels which protect from impurity, the practice of ossuary burial, and an absence of pig bones in the waste heaps.

If Joseph’s family came to Galilee by this scenario, then it is quite possible that it was his grandfather who migrated from Judea to Galilee in the early decades of the first century BC. Or, it could have been his great-grandfather. In addition, the same scenario may apply to Mary, but her engagement to Joseph caused the gospels to record only his family lineage, and leave hers out.

The implications of this repopulation of Galilee during the first century BC are quite significant, for it indicates that the people called Galileans had lived in that area for less than a century at the time of Jesus’ birth; they did not represent a centuries-old population of that area. Their identity was still primarily Judean and had not yet been transformed into a Galilean distinctiveness.


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White Christmas (column for 12/10/2014)

OK, admit it. You like the Christmas song, “White Christmas.” Or at least you did until you heard it too many times as muzak.  Well, maybe I am overdoing it. But even if
only half of us enjoy the song, that fact illustrates the piece’s popularity and success. In fact, this song may be the best-liked song in the USA, and not just for Christmas. It has been recorded more times, and those recordings have sold more copies, than any other song.

The popularity of “White Christmas” is more than just a interesting tidbit to be remembered for the Christmas edition of the Jeopardy quiz show. It reveals how a large part of America has thought about Christmas for over half a century.

Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1942 for the film “Holiday Inn,” starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; it won Berlin an Oscar. In 1954 a second film along the same theme was released with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. To help promote the film, they named it after its featured song, “White Christmas.”

The 1950s were a pivotal time in twentieth-century America. Young people returned from WWII, got married, and started families. Families required places to live, which led to a boom in new houses and new neighborhoods. And these families were religious and required places to worship near them. In response, more churches (and synagogues) were built in America during the 1950s than in any other 10-year period of our history. People attended the new churches in droves and for those who could not, the new technology of television devoted Sunday morning to religious programming.

In this context, it may come as a surprise that “White Christmas” was such a popular song. It had no religious content. It did not mention the gospels’ Christmas story, nor even refer to worship, a church, or anything that could be construed specifically Christian. Instead, the words recall the glistening of snow, the sound of sleigh bells, and writing Christmas cards. The last two lines even sound like a greeting card, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”

Nor does the film “White Christmas” fill in the religious elements lacking in the song. The film emphasizes the importance of seeking and holding on to relationships after WWII, in particular, finding marriage partners. The two male leads, both song-and-dance men, are ex-soldiers and still single. By the movie’s end, they have found women who love them and who the movie implies they will marry. The film telegraphs the message that Christmas is a time for families, and the holiday’s special character helps create them.

The film neither emphasizes nor even mentions the religious aspect of Christmas. The closest the film comes are references to bells, once referring to sleigh bells and the other time to “merry bells,” rather than to church bells. The show’s other songs avoid mentioning the word “Christmas,” singing about “Snow” and “Happy Holiday.”

So how should we interpret the popularity of the secular song “White Christmas” with the high level of American religiosity in the 1950s?  The answer is simple: American society was comfortable acknowledging and even celebrating all aspects of the Christmas holiday. To talk about family, snow and Christmas cards at one moment did not mean that a person did not talk about Jesus, Mary and the shepherds at another. To say “Happy Holiday” in one breath did not mean that a person did not say “Merry Christmas” in another.


The explicitly religious character of the holiday did not block out elements that lacked such links. America’s heightened religiosity of the 1950s was inclusive and multifaceted; it allowed for a wide variety of religious and non-religious expression and did not find it threatening.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let’s Reschedule Thanksgiving!


With more than five feet of snow in Buffalo, N.Y., and temperatures having fallen into negative territory across most of the northern states, winter has arrived, no matter what date the calendar labels as the season’s official start. Forgotten are August’s grain harvest and September’s apple picking. We are bundled up against the winter wind, shoveling our walks and winterizing our vehicles.

So, why are we only now celebrating Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is supposed to be a harvest festival. If it commemorates the first harvest of the Pilgrims after they landed in Massachusetts Bay in 1622, then the last Thursday in November is the wrong date. While the exact date of the Pilgrims’ feast is unknown, the two contemporary records of the event make clear it took place in thanks for the harvest gathering just completed.
Since Massachusetts is quite far north in the United States, then the harvest would have been completed by early September. If we include the pumpkin harvest, which ripens latest, the date could have been late September, perhaps the first week of October. None of these possibilities gets close to the start of November, let alone the end.
The real problem with Thanksgiving is that the date was set before our modern, school-based calendar and it really ruins the fall schedule. Coming three months into the four-month fall semester, it places a three-day holiday just one month before an even larger Christmas break. And because it is so long, it prevents a decent fall break halfway through the fall semester, when it would do the students some good.
At the time the date for Thanksgiving was established, school was the last thing on anyone’s mind. There was no national requirement for universal education, even at the primary level. By 1900, only two-thirds of the states required or funded public education. Now that the school calendar shapes the year’s rhythm, we should align Thanksgiving with it.
As a teacher, I find that Thanksgiving prevents a strong push with a solid final unit. If I start before Thanksgiving, then the big break occurs and students forget half of what they learned. If I start afterward, then there is not enough time.
And pity the poor music teachers trying to get the kids ready for the Christmas concerts. Just a week or two from the big event, they disappear from rehearsals for half a week.
And there is no real reason Thanksgiving has to take place in late November. It does not commemorate any specific religious event, like Christmas or Easter. One can “give thanks” anytime. To the extent that one gives thanks for a harvest (the Pilgrims’ or our own), it is appropriate any time from late August to October.
Why is Thanksgiving celebrated when it is? For the early decades of our nation’s history, Thanksgiving was a state celebration, with different states celebrating at different times. In the 1820s, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the influential “Godbey’s Lady’s Book,” began an annual campaign to establish a national holiday.
Her promotion gradually gained a following until, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln decreed a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Lincoln saw this as a way of celebrating the importance of national unity during the Civil War.
Yet, Lincoln established the holiday for only one year. He and his presidential successors inaugurated a tradition of proclaiming the holiday each year afterward. It was not until Congress voted during 1941 to establish a permanent holiday, at the instigation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that we have Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it.
So, the presidential link to Thanksgiving lies in the emphasis on national unity during war. Thanksgiving is important, but their emphasis is not thanksgiving for the harvest, but for the nation and for the sacrifice soldiers were making for it. Again, this is an important reason to be thankful, but not one that requires any specific date.
So, let’s move Thanksgiving to the middle of October. That way, harvest will be over and the crops stored away. It will be late enough to eat pumpkin pie, but not so late that winter will be upon us. The festival will take place in the middle of the fall, so it will fit nicely into the school calendar and provide students with a much needed break, helping them concentrate better the rest of the semester.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Climate Change Prediction and Biblical Prophecy


The world’s two largest energy-producing countries and greenhouse gas emitters signed a deal this week to reduce carbon emissions. President Barack Obama agreed to cut U.S. carbon emissions about a quarter by 2025 and China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to increase to 20 percent the share of his country’s production of power without the use of fossil fuels by 2030.
This is significant, especially given recent climate reports. This month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the worldwide mean temperature will increase by more than 3 degrees by 2100. The Pentagon recently issued its “2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” laying out changes to military strategy needed to address effects of climate change. These include rising global temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and increasing frequency or intensity of extreme weather.
Despite the high-level science and the policy changes, a survey taken by Yale University in 2013 indicated only two-thirds of Americans think climate change is happening and only a half think it will affect them.
And American political culture contains a large segment of climate-change deniers, a belief promoted by the media and politicians. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s negative response to the American-Chinese agreement is case-in-point.
Why is this? Because climate change is about predicting the future, and that is always an uncertain process. Since the future has not happened, it is imaginary and cannot be proven. While scientists and policy makers can talk about past and present trends, the extension of those trends into the future is a tricky and inexact process.
But, perhaps more importantly, climate change just happens to be the wrong kind of process for effective predictive warnings.
A look at Old Testament prophecy in its historical context indicates the problem: prophets talk about current circumstances. They ask for near-term action. Haggai and Zechariah reveal that God wants the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, and within 5 years, the governor and high priest build it. Jonah goes to Nineveh, after he escapes from the whale, and prophesies that God will destroy the city unless its inhabitants repent. They do and God relents.
In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah prophesies to the allied kings of Israel and Judah they will lose the impending battle if they fight. They ignore him, charge into battle, and are defeated.
So, effective biblical prophecy speaks about the short-term and seeks to bring about a particular action. Climate change prediction does neither of those things.
On the one hand, climate change predictions look too far into the future. Citing temperature rise in 2100, three generations away, does not inspire an immediate response. It is too far away to get worried about it. Even 2025 and 2030 are beyond many people’s “worry horizon.”
On the other hand, when climate change discusses the short-term, it is too late to do anything about it. The Pentagon’s report focuses on how to handle the effects of climate change already taking place. Its tone is “this is happening, deal with it.”
When NASA tells us that nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been since 2000, it has already happened. And will reducing carbon emissions now do anything to prevent temperature rise in the next four or five years? No, the carbon that will cause that rise already is in the air.
So, climate change predictions are either too far into the future to inspire action or they are too near-term to affect the outcome. The processes by which human emissions are transformed into climate change simply take too long.
Does this mean that we should do nothing? Of course not. The Chinese-American agreement is important and will set the stage for further agreements at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
This column simply aims to lay out the PR problem facing policy makers who wish to lessen the coming impact of climate change. Perhaps they should take a page from the biblical prophets’ playbook. They should promote actions people can take now that will have an impact within the next few years, rather than in the next few decades or centuries.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Gay Marriage, the Evangelical Response and Freedom of Religion

This month Wyoming became one of the 32 states that now permit gay marriage. Since the decision, Wyoming’s mood has been upbeat. Newspapers have featured smiling pictures of couples about to tie the knot, while family, friends and neighbors have been happily congratulating them. These scenes are being repeated across the many states where gay marriage has recently been accepted.
The nation’s churches have had a variety of responses. The Episcopal Church reaffirmed its approval for priests to celebrate the unions of gay couples. The Presbyterians and Methodists, despite years of debate, are still fence-sitting; they have made some gay-friendly decisions, but have not been completely welcoming. The Catholic hierarchy remains opposed, even though polls consistently show Catholic parishioners as the most welcoming of gay couples.
The most strident voices against gay marriage continue to come from evangelicals and Baptists, especially those over the age of 30.  Gay marriage is a “rejection of God’s law,” said the Rev. Albert Mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president. He was speaking to 1,000 evangelical pastors who gathered this week at the conference titled, “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” in Nashville to reinforce the message that homosexual relationships are sinful.
Yet, even there, the focus is changing. Most of the ministers attending live in states where gay marriage is now legal. While the meeting helped them reaffirm their beliefs, many of the sessions were focused on helping them negotiate the new social and legal landscape.
More important, there was increasing recognition that the fight against gay marriage had been lost. Ministers and evangelical Christians in general must turn to living and working with the gays and gay couples around them. Rosaria Butterfield emphasized that Christians needed to “repent of anti-gay rhetoric” and include gays among their friends.
This will be easier said than done, since the rejectionist character of evangelical positions in recent years has prevented many of these pastors from getting to know the gay people around them. Indeed, several dozen members of Christian gay advocacy groups attended the conference, working one on one to help these pastors rethink their approach toward their homosexual acquaintances. Given that Christianity teaches its members should love their neighbors as themselves, this is rather sad. Evangelicals have failed to follow the most basic of Christian tenets.
The changes being encouraged are surprisingly elementary. Not only are the conference organizers handing out pamphlets with titles like “Loving my (LGBT) Neighbor,” but other speakers are teaching that parents should not reject their gay children. (Christians have to be told to treat their children with love?)
In a recent op-ed piece in the Christian Post, Rob Schwarzwalder argues that evangelicals should treat their gay neighbors like their straight neighbors in all the little ways. They should help with yard work, visit them in the hospital, let their children play together, and so on. Even so, he says, evangelicals should be clear there is no middle ground. Gay marriages are not biblically approved.
And that very position shows the way forward for evangelicals in America’s new social and legal reality. Only Christians can enter into biblically approved marriages. No marriage of non-Christians receives gospel sanction. So, by definition, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews lack biblically correct marriages. Marriages performed by the justice of the peace at the courthouse lack biblical sanction.
Yet, evangelicals and other Christians accept the validity of such partnerships. When viewed from this perspective, gay marriages are just another non-biblical union. Yes, they are new. Yes, there has been a difficult social and legal struggle over them. But in the end, gay marriages simply stem from one of the many different types of religious beliefs, or non-religious beliefs, that the USA has welcomed from the beginning.
Americans are rightfully proud of our nation’s emphasis on religious liberty. The accessibility of gay marriage is simply one more example of the government not interfering in the religious practices of its citizens.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The USA Needs a New Policy for the Middle East

Writing in the Oct. 3 Washington Post, Andrew Bacevich points out that United States soldiers have been fighting in the “Greater Middle East” almost continuously since 1980. By bombing the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), we make Syria the 14th Middle East country in which we have fought in 34 years.
Is it helping? Are we making the Middle East a safer place? No. Despite our goal of social and political stability, wherever the U.S. military has gone, volatility and insecurity have followed.
The problem is not our fault. We intervened in places where groups of people with long-standing hatred for each other used their political or military power to oppress each other. We helped eliminate oppressors such as Saddam Hussein or Col. Gaddafi, but when we left, new power struggles erupted and instability continued.
The anti-ISIS bombing campaign seems headed in the same direction. The Turkish attacks on Kurdish fighters, our allies, is symptomatic of the inability of these different parties to work together. And, this new struggle, has clear potential to lead to U.S. ground combat once again.
It is time to change the USA’s approach before more of our soldiers die? But to what? A truly new strategy requires us to reconceive the situation from the ground up.
Bacevich describes the problem in geographical terms, the “Greater Middle East.” But a better way to characterize this region is the “Muslim heartland.” With the exception of the former Yugoslavia, the United States has been fighting in the territory to which Islam spread during its first century. The region’s inhabitants see the situation in religious terms and so should we.
Islam apparently is undergoing a “reformation,” a period similar to the Protestant breakaway from Catholicism that began in the 16th century. And just as the Christian Reformation caused great volatility in Europe, so too, this Islamic Reformation stokes ongoing instability in the Muslim world.
The Protestant Reformation often conjures up thoughts of theologians: Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. We forget their new theologies brought on more than 120 years of fighting across Europe, starting in 1524.
The Thirty Years’ War ravaged Germany, Central Europe and Sweden. The Eighty Years’ War caused great suffering in the Netherlands, Belgium and coastal Germany. It took the Peace of Westphalia to end them. The English and Scottish civil wars likewise stemmed from Protestant/Catholic enmity.
And don’t forget the Anabaptist leaders who took over towns and turned them into radical Protestant theocracies. John of Leiden, for example, captured Munster in 1533, leading it as prophet and king until Catholic forces defeated him in 1535. His religious government included extensive polygamy.
Today, Islam is in the midst of its own theological reformation. Historically, Islamic law and religion has been governed by centuries-old schools of interpretation. Mosques have been led by mullahs who belonged to one of these schools and educated their followers in its traditions.
Modern Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and ISIS promote alternative theological approaches. They reject the schools’ traditional interpretations and claim to restore authentic Islam, even Muhammad’s original practices. In this, they sound surprisingly similar to the Protestant rejection of Catholic tradition. Their use of violence to promote their views also parallels the European Reformation.
If Al-Qaeda’s tactics have been fragmented and local in approach, like the Anabaptists’, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy in Egypt and the Islamic State’s approach in Syria and Iraq is much more like the nationalist approaches that emerged in Martin Luther’s alliance with the German barons and King Henry’s removal of England from the Catholic Church.
What are the policy implications? If the Islamic world is experiencing a reformation similar to that of European Christianity, there is nothing outsiders can do to stem the frictions. U.S. military involvement is like refereeing a boxing match. As soon as we step away, the combatants start punching each other again.
So, we should get out of the way. The United States and western countries should leave the Middle East. Rather than interfere with its internal religious struggles, non-Muslim nations should simply work to contain those struggles within that region. The West has done containment before, during the Cold War, so we know how to do it.
Does that leave civilians to suffer the difficulties of a war zone? Yes, it does, as it did during the Cold War. But that suffering will take place whether the West is involved or not. And if our soldiers are there, they will contribute to the suffering. So, let’s get them out of the way so the Muslim groups can work out their differences as they choose. After all, the outcome of an Islamic Reformation can only be determined by its believers, not by outsiders. What they see as “Christian interference” won’t help.
Note: This essay draws from Andrew J. Bacevish’s essay, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still loose the bigger war,” Washington Post, Oct. 3, 2014.

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