Kindly LET GO of your "ISM"...
Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast Kelly McEvers’ interview with Maajid Nawaz. According to McEvers, Maajid Nawaz is “a British citizen of Pakistani descent who himself joined an Islamist group when he was a teenager. He recruited for the group, spent four years in prison in Egypt, and then later renounced the group. Nawaz wrote a book about the experience and is the co-founder of Quilliam. That's a British think tank that focuses on countering extremist beliefs.”In the interview, Nawaz described his journey into “radicalized Islam” and described what he perceives as some factors that lead men and women like himself down that particular religious path. He describes how extremists groups take advantage of youthful feelings of frustration, anger, injustice which they exploit, concretize, and use as a bridge to radicalized ideology. What attracted my attention most in the interview was Nawaz’s description of the difference between the religion of Islam and what he says is the distorted practice he calls “Islam-ism”… Here is an excerpt of the interview:
NAWAZ: “So the grievances - you know, you'd expect somebody who's a teenager to be quite angry at the various injustices of the world, but you wouldn't expect someone in their 20s to continue using those grievances as an excuse for the most unjustifiable acts. And that's the bridge. The bridge there is that what the ideology provides. It fossilizes an anger that someone once felt, and then, you know, it becomes the justification for all sorts of atrocities that are then committed by the ideologue.MCEVERS: “Yeah, it's that final step from the ideas to the acts.
NAWAZ: “Indeed, it is, yeah. And actually, the ideology, what I call the Islamist ideology - the desire to impose any version of Islam over society anywhere - that's Islamism as opposed to Islam, which is a religion.” (A full transcript of the interview can be found at NPR.org.)I want to observe that this phenomenon of “fossilized” feelings of injustice being used to support religious ideology isn’t exclusive to Islam…indeed it is an endemic problem of all major religious traditions, Christianity and Judaism included.
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus observes the frustrations of an occupied people, oppressed not only by the Empire of Rome, but also by the religious authorities of his time. We read of Jesus speaking out publicly against this authority to offer a message of religious/spiritual liberation. It was, after all, his subversive spiritual message which led directly to his arrest and execution for religious heresy and political sedition. Rather than fixating on ideology and strict observance of revealed law, Jesus offered a simple spiritual practice of forgiveness and love of one’s neighbor.Centuries earlier, Gautama Buddha delivered a similar message of spiritual liberation after observing the suffering of people in his community and the inability of the religious ideologues of his day and time to address this suffering. Looking deeply at the nature of reality and the processes of the human mind and heart, Gautama Buddha recognized that clinging to anything: existence, material wealth, religious ideology, only leads to suffering for self and others. In response, he offered a practice of “letting go” of certainties and ideology for the sake of practicing compassion and loving kindness.
In more recent times, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the fossilization of frustration and anger by extremist groups in post-war Germany. This fossilization of fear, anger, and xenophobia created a religious and political ideology in Germany which led to the radicalization of his country’s government and state-controlled church; the result of which ended in the horrendous extermination of 6 million human beings. In his personal struggles to make sense of what was happening, of how the “Christian” citizens of Germany could remain silent (and in many instances complicit) in genocide, Bonhoeffer began to conceptualize a “religion-less” Christianity; a Christianity in which the basic virtues Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount could really be lived out and God’s reign of peace, love, and compassion could be made manifest. Bonhoeffer’s invitation to practice a “religion-less Christianity” through a “new form of monasticism” is, I think, his contribution for guarding against the trap of fossilized fear and anger, and radicalized religious and political ideology.Which brings us back to our present period of extreme political and religious ideology and the violence it generates. One only need turn on the radio, television, or internet and see the effects of fossilized anger and radicalized, religious ideology; not only Islamic radicalization, but Christian radicalization, too. Western Christians may like to hide behind a veil of self-righteousness and modern “civilization” and point out that Christians aren’t the ones beheading innocents; but historically and culturally, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all have blood on their hands form centuries of violence perpetuated in the name of their faiths. It should be pointed out that throughout history, scripture has been used by religious groups to justify slavery, war, genocide, child abuse, sexual exploitation, oppression, and other injustices. The vitriol and hate shouted out by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church (and other harshly fundamentalist “Christians”) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL) is not only identical, but arises from the same seed of suffering in each human heart.
I should stop at this point and offer clarification that not ALL Christians are xenophobic fundamentalists; not all Muslims are radical extremists, not all Jews are militant Zionists. And groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIL do not speak for nor represent the totality of the faith traditions from which they grow. But that is part of the point I wish to make. What sets these violent and dangerous groups apart is their perversion of faith and embrace of hate-filled radicalization. These groups fossilize their sense of injustice, hatred and anger into a particular xenophobic, hateful, angry, radicalized ideology. The “problem” isn’t Christianity, Judaism, or Islam per se. The problem is the distortion and perversion of compassion-based faith into an ideological excuse for hatred, anger, violence, oppression, rape, slaughter, genocide. The fierce attachment to religious ideology perverts the practice religious faith into a distorted practice of religious-ism. The problem is NOT Christianity, it is that fearful, angry people calling themselves “Christian” are actually practicing Christian-ism. The problem is NOT Islam, it is that fearful, angry people who call themselves “Muslim” are practicing Islam-ism. The problem is that true justice has not been actualized, negative feelings have not been healed, and pain has been fossilized into radicalized ideology to which people become fiercely attached. In doing so, faith is twisted and distorted, and so what was once supposed to be the solution to injustice then becomes the cause of only more injustice and suffering for everyone.As a Christian priest, one solution I hope to inspire people to return to is Bohoeffer’s idea of a “religion-less” Christianity. In so doing, I hope we can finally release our institutional death-grip on Christian dogma and ideology, stop practicing Christian-ism, and start practicing the compassionate expression of faith that Jesus inspired us to live out.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was organizing his Finkenwalde seminary in 1935, living in prayerful community with participants in the underground seminary, he began to develop his ideas of what came to be called a “new monasticism”…"The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this." ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In a religionless Christianity, I Bonhoeffer is calling for a genuine expression and practice of spiritual faith as taught by Jesus of Nazareth. What Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is spiritual practice in in simplest and truest form. In this teaching, Jesus is pointing beyond the fossilized injustice and ideology of the established religious authorities of his time and ours, and inviting everyday people (including people like you and me) to let go of attachment to dogmatic religion-ism, and live more fully into a practice of faith and compassion. In his time, Jesus invited people to let go of their Judaism, and simply be a compassionate, Godly people. In a religionless Christianity, Bonhoeffer is inviting us to do the same. Bonhoeffer is inviting us to let go of Christian-ism and practice being a compassionate, Godly people. In our current times, theologians like Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr are (thankfully!) leading us in the same direction.My own belief is that if circumstances been different, had Bonhoeffer not been arrested and executed, had he been able to continue his work and exploration of religion-less Christianity, had he been fortunate (as we are) to live in a world of communication and connectivity, had he (like the beloved Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton) been able to encounter Buddhist monastic practice and its teachings of non-attachment, Bonhoeffer may have appreciated an integration of his “religionless Christianity” and Zen Buddhist practices of non-attachment and compassion, a practice I call “Mindful Christianity”.
To learn more about Mindful Christianity, visit New Seeds Priory at: www.newseedspriory.org