It was a cold January afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of the Noor Islamic Center; the temperature gauge in my car was hovering at around 29-30 degrees. The moment I stepped outside, it felt a lot worse than that thanks to a bitterly frigid wind, otherwise known as the dreaded “wind chill,” which is always one of the unknown variables in Ohio’s winter weather. If I can count on anything, I can count on the good old “wind chill” to render my dashboard temperature gauge useless.
Pulling the hood of my coat over my head, I passed by a veritable sea of cars; the Mosque was rapidly filling up as it was almost time for Friday Prayers. Standing in the middle of the parking lot, I caught sight of Fr. Stephen Smith, an Episcopal priest and one of the leaders of the interfaith group called SAIL, of which I am also a member. He was surrounded by members of various Christian denominations as well as members of the local Jewish and Hindu communities. To a casual observer, it might have looked like we were at the wrong address.
But the moment I approached Fr. Stephen and the rest of the group, I overheard him telling a story that reinforced why we were all gathered there that day. He said he had been driving along in his car when he pulled up behind another vehicle that had a bumper sticker prominently displaying the words, “Guns Don’t Kill People, People with Gods Kill People.”
It was that kind of anti-religious sentiment that is becoming all too common in our society that brought this small group of Christians, Jews, and Hindus to the parking lot of the largest Mosque in Central Ohio. Just a few days prior, someone had threatened to blow it up. In the wake of the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, an enraged individual called them, promising to destroy the Mosque, at a time when the faithful gather for prayers and when the Center has hundreds of children there for their classes. You can read more on the story from our local newspaper here. Another Mosque in Cincinnati was also threatened.
Perhaps the caller would have shared the sentiment with the words on that bumper sticker. It seems many people do these days. Religious people are increasingly portrayed as enemies of progress, as threats to civil society, as whackos and fundamentalists devoid of reason, and as the source of all the conflicts around the world today. Many of the New Atheists and secularists would have us believe that the world would be better off without religion. Shortly after the Taliban massacre in Pakistan, Richard Dawkins tweeted “Very few faith-heads are as evil as Taliban or IS. Yet what else but faith is CAPABLE of making people do such evil?” Does he have a point?
The Encyclopedia of World Religions states that violence and religion are “two realms that seem intricately related. Most religions share a history of bloody conflicts and holy wars, myths and epics that are filled with horrendous battles, and important symbols of violence such as the executioner’s cross in Christianity.” And yet, the same Encyclopedia also states that many religions hold up nonviolence as an ideal; so which is it? Should we say that religions such as Islam and Christianity are violent or nonviolent?
The answer, I think, is not easy to accept for people of faith such as myself. Religion is ambivalent. We want to say that our belief systems are all peaceful, but aside from a few rare exceptions, if we take a long and hard look at ourselves, we know that this is not the case. Our belief systems have in them the capacity to wound or to heal, to build up or to tear down, and our sacred scriptures can be used to promote peace or violence. Thus, it could be said that all religion hangs in a delicate balance like carefully weighted scales.
But if religion is a part of our sickness, then it must also be a part of our cure. People like Richard Dawkins would have us throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, saying our world would be better off without religion, and yet it is religion that arguably offers us the most sound diagnosis for this illness. You see, the problem is not simply that religion is ambivalent; rather, human beings themselves are ambivalent. The tragedies and conflicts that we see all around the world are a part of human nature, and religion would have us take ownership of that. At the extreme ends of the naturalist worldview, one might look at the brokenness and the suffering of the human condition and conclude that it is the lot of our existence; it simply is and all we can do is accept it. By contrast, religion teaches us that there is a reason for all of this. While we may differ on the finer points of our theologies, the world’s religions almost universally state that something is wrong with the human condition. We are out of sorts with ourselves; we are not operating as we should. Richard Dawkins mistakes a symptom for the illness. The cure, then, must be found in the way that we tip the scales.
In some parts of the world, there is indeed violence and war perpetrated in the name of religion; but in other parts of the world, away from the eyes of the media, and below the cacophony of the voices of those who would criticize people of faith, there are movements toward unity, fellowship, and peace. When the Muslims of our local community were threatened, it was their Christian, Jewish and Hindu neighbors that mobilized and rallied alongside them in a powerful display of solidarity.
Our small gathering of people left the cold and stepped inside the Mosque just as the Call to Prayer began to ring out over the loudspeakers. Everyone fell silent at that moment, as I think that haunting sound reminded us, at least in part, of why we were there. Though we may read different holy books, though we may call God by different names, there is a deep sense of wonder and reverence when we actually experience the beautiful ways in which our various traditions approach the sacred, like the colors coming together in a kaleidoscope. Perhaps it is this kind of appreciation that can lead us towards a true kinship of faiths.
On a day that someone had threatened to bring destruction and harm to our Muslim brothers and sisters, tipping the scales towards violence, his actions ultimately had the reverse effect. He brought us together. If religion can be said to be ambivalent, one cold Friday in January proved otherwise; tipping the scales decisively in favor of peace. It is my constant prayer and hope that other faith communities will do the same.
Are our religions peaceful? I know that they can be if we seek to understand religions other than our own and if we work together.
- Cavan Sieczkowski, “Richard Dawkins Says ‘Religions Are NOT Equally Violent’ After Charlie Hebdo Attack,” The Huffington Post, January 1, 2015, accessed January 27, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/07/richard-dawkins-religion-charlie-hebdo_n_6430724.html
- Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1999), 1133.
Nemo Attribution via http://pixabay.com/en/scales-justice-weighing-tilted-307248/