Keeping God Hostage. By The Rev. Canon Patrick P. Augustine, Rector, Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse, Wisconsin

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Is religion like a loaded gun in today’s Middle East? "War of Religions" was the term I heard on the first day Israel attacked the headquarters of Hizab Allah [often called Hezbollah] in Southern Lebanon. This mutual hatred between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been perpetuated for centuries in this region. One wonders if there is anything in common among the three religions in the Middle East.
For an answer, it is important to remember that these faiths are first cousins, tied to each other through Abraham, however often they have acted as a dysfunctional family.
Interactions among Abraham`s fractious offspring create many of the most dangerous flashpoints on the planet. Each faction justifies deplorable actions to serve the cause of holy God, by whatever name they worship him.
In Islam when a child is born the Imam recites Shahadah (witness) in his/her ear: “God is greater. I testify that there is no other god than God. I testify that Muhammad is God’s messenger.” In the Jewish faith, children have been taught the Ten Commandments since Moses` time. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” A Christian child is also nurtured with Jesus’ teaching: “The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The primary grammar of common belief in God in the Abrahamic faith community is to adore and worship Him as revealed in the Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’an as omnipotent,
omniscient and omnipresent. All too often, this is done with lack of respect and love for one`s neighbors.
Why Islam is associated with violence? God’s vision of Himself in the Qur’an is also explicit. So while God sees Himself Omnipotent and Omnipresent, He also emphasizes justice and compassion. He describes Himself as the God of the universes â€" note the use of the plural. For us here on earth God makes it clear that for Him there are no artificial divisions within human society based on tribe or color. Geographically, too, there is neither East nor West for Him (Surah 2: Verse 115). He is everywhere and belongs to everyone. God made people into different tribes and nations speaking different languages and living in different cultures: All these are signs of God’s universal compassion and we must learn to appreciate each other (Surah 5: verse 48, Surah 30: /verse 22, and Surah 49: Verse 13). He even sent messengers like: Abraham who are common to several religions â€" in this case Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Above all, God declared: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2: Verse 256).[1]
While I was growing up in Pakistan, I often heard the Imam, during the Friday prayers, calling on the Islamic Ummah for the destruction of the state of Israel. I saw walls covered with graffiti such as: “Death to Jews,” etc. Then and now, Muslim militants continue to kill themselves and Jewish innocents of all ages with suicide bombs. In Islam suicide is forbidden. doc"O ye who believe!...do not] kill yourselves, for truly Allah has been to you Most Merciful. If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire..." (Qur`an 4:29-30).
As a persecuted people, the Jews themselves are not without sin. I have personally witnessed the sufferings of Palestinians caused by Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories. Christian history, too, is marred by violence and uncharitable acts towards Muslims and Jews. In 1990s, Serbian Christians stood trial for atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. Many others have gone unpunished over the centuries. As a believer in God I am ashamed of such crimes committed against humanity in the name of Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father.
Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, one can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed. When religion becomes evil, these corruptions are always present.[1] When religion becomes evil, even God is held hostage.
There is no doubt that in our human history, religion has been the most powerful and pervasive force. In many instances it has inspired the human family to act as decent, compassionate and kind human beings. As God spoke to Prophet Micah: "O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). The opposite of this is when humans with twisted minds corrupt the message of God with selfish, sinister goals. Micah’s message of justice, love and humility is ignored daily by the radical Jewish settlers in the occupied areas of Palestine. Arabs have been driven out of their homeland. Israel now has 78 percent of the land, and the Palestinians` former 50 percent has been reduced to 22 percent of discontinuous parcels by tens of thousands of Israeli settlers living in and around the occupied area. Israel continues to use excessive military force in occupied Palestinian territories and now in Lebanon.
Hammas and Hizab Allah, one Sunni and the other Shi’ite, share a common mission to destroy and push Israel into the sea. By popular vote, Hammas won election last January and formed a government. The U.S. and E.U. immediately boycotted political and financial support of the Palestinian government, although it is the first democratic government of Palestine. The boycott pushed the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya to look for help from Iran and Syria. Last June Haniya, with his counterpart in the government, President Mahmoud Abbas hammered out an agreement to recognize Israel if it would withdraw to its 1967 borders. Nothing calms in this volatile land. June 25th
Hammas militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit. This incident turned up the heat in the conflict as Israel went on the offensive and bombed bridges, sent in the army to arrest Hammas cabinet members and bombed the Islamic University. In retaliation, Hammas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, launched rockets from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israel bombed a Gaza power station and cut off the electricity to the hospital and civilian homes. The excessive use of military power makes civilians suffer and further infuses the minds of ordinary Palestinians with greater hatred for the Israeli government. Israel has built hundreds of checkpoints on the entry points to Palestines. These humiliate the Palestinians and make their lives miserable. In 2004 Israel started building a wall known as the Wall of Hatred around their cities and settlements which further isolated Palestinian communities. Israel’s heavy-handed tactics have not brought them any closer to peaceful existence with their neighbors, but rather have made their Palestinian neighbors more hostile.
Hizab Allah has existed as a political movement in Lebanon since the early 1970s. Hizab Allah has created a network of schools and health clinics which it controls via the Shi’i clergy, following the example of schools run by Christians in Lebanon. Through these charitable acts Hizab Allah has won the hearts of poor Muslims in Lebanon. It has also provided them with a cadre of young people to join the army of God to attack Israel or supply terror in the western world. Iran alone supplies $100,000,000 in cash to support Hizab Allah. Governments of such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria provide aid to their cause. In the `90s, Hizab Allah`s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to drive Israel out of Southern Lebanon. After relentless pressure on Israel with guerrilla attacks, the organization achieved its goals and now enjoys heroic status throughout the Muslim world. With continuing support from friendly Arab regimes and other Muslims around the world, Hammas and Hizab Allah are allies determined to free Al Quds (Jerusalem). This dangerous alliance has hundreds of thousands of human missiles willing to go on suicide missions, bearing poisonous payloads of hatred and revenge. Nasrallah once warned Israel,“You wanted an open war, and we are ready for an open war.” Now bombs rain in Beirut and Haifa, wreaking devastation for hundreds of thousands in the name of the very God who weeps to see such destruction.
Over 500,000 people have been displaced in a week and the death toll of civilians on both sides is growing: Some 260 Lebanese, 30 Israeli and 110 Palestinians are dead. Israel, with superior weapons, has viciously targeted suspected centers of terror in Southern Lebanon. Hizab Allah with unsophisticated Katyusha and other rockets mercilessly attacked Israeli towns of Haifa and Nazareth.. It is a very dangerous war which has a potential to draw many nations into the conflict. Is there anybody paying any attention to the crisis in the Middle East? The G8 leaders, UNO and Arab League are watching on the sidelines, simply issuing statements to the press. Are there any senior leaders of these three faiths coming forward with common sense statement to appeal both parties to stop blood shedding of God’s children?
The question the world needs to pose before the dysfunctional family of Abraham is: “What do we mean when we say God?” Do not Elohim, Allah or God, whom we know and experience through the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an share these attributes: All powerful, All Merciful, All Seeing, The Most Exalted, The Holy, The Just, The Guardian of Peace, The Resurrector, The Light, The Truth and The Way? In the Exodus event in the Bible, God is revealed by acting on behalf of a weak, defenseless people. This is the God of Power and of Strength, able to destroy the enslaving power of the mighty Pharaoh. After Yahweh liberated the people of Israel and brought them to the Promised Land, God gave them the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him;
For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall not ill-treat any widow or fatherless child. If you
Do, be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me; my anger
Will be roused and I will kill you with the sword. (Exodus 22:21-24)

Jews, Christians and Muslims are all guilty of not loving each other. The three of them often questioned “Am I my brother’s keeper?” How would the world look if we could recognize that we are brothers and sisters of three faith communities. What would such a consensus in conscience bring about? Would we still spend billions of dollars every year to build ingenious instruments of death to destroy God’s children and pollute the environment while thousands of poor people suffer in Gaza, and Southern Lebanon?

Looking at the war-torn situation in the Middle East, Sudan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan and India, one can easily throw in the towel in despair. Nevertheless, as a Christian I was reminded last Sunday in the words of our baptismal service that I am called to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. The lack of respect for the dignity our fellow human beings has deeply wounded humanity and God’s children wanders around in a desperate search for peace and love.
Peacemaking is the work of love, and “in love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love” (1 Jn. 4:18). As followers of Jesus Christ, peacemaking is our obligation. It requires total dedication to work as an instrument for peace. Where there is hatred, I must sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union. Can I do it alone? No. As they say, no man is an island. We need each other. Jews, Christians and Muslims as children of Abraham need to come together.
World powers have not played a fair part in solving the problems of the children of Abraham. Why can we not come together and take care of it ourselves? I call on Jews and Muslims to join me to work for peace. The challenge today is to seek a unity that celebrates and respects diversity. We must marshal positive energy as religious people with faith in our God of peace and mercy; not a god of war. The dysfunctional family of Abraham needs to be reconciled and healed. When we surrender our wills under the will of God, there can be many options for those who take seriously the call to be peacemakers. Let God be God and not to be kept hostage by zealotry and hatred. May His blessings-- not missiles-- rain upon all God’s children.

____________________________
[1] Charles Kimball, When religion Becomes Evil, Harper, San Francisco, 2002,
p.37.
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[1] Akbar S. Ahmed, Islam Under Siege, Polity Press, 2003, p.3.

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