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A Plea to Christian, Muslim and Jewish Friends

Israeli assault on Gaza. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS’) assault on everybody.
The U.S. assault on Iraq, still vivid in everyone’s memory. Self-proclaimed Muslims attacking the twin towers in New York City.

Self-proclaimed Jews burning alive a young Palestinian teenager. Self-proclaimed Christians promoting the apocalyptic heresy of Christian Zionism to justify the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

Spurts of Hindu violence against Muslims in India and Buddhist violence in Myanmar.

These are just examples from recent memory. The rest of history is no less littered with bodies of women, children and men in the name of God and religion.

Although I’m talking here about the horrors committed by religious zealots (particularly those priding themselves in belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religions), atheists and agnostics are not off the hook either.

What of the disastrous areligious experiences of Nazism, Stalinism and other secularist and nationalist fiascos of the 20th century as well as the ongoing horrors and brutality of the Communist North Korean regime?

What’s wrong with the human race?

The Bible calls it “human fallenness” – this natural human inclination toward evil that each individual needs to conquer for themselves by taming the darkness in their own soul.

What I will say from here on will sound “preachy” to some. But as much as I try, I am incapable of finding any intelligent “humanistic” narrative to make sense of the despair that I feel toward the current situation of my region and of the world.

For in fact, a fundamental teaching of the Bible is that, as humans, we don’t possess in us the required capacity to conquer this darkness in our soul.

It is not our natural human inclination, and we have the facts on the ground, as well as an entire history, to prove it.

Our humanity is not inclined toward good. The human race is not on a victorious ascent to greatness.

Clearly, we are altogether descending an irresistible spiral toward doom and self-destruction.

The problem is that our common understanding of religion does not seem to cut it either, even for those best intentioned among us.

I have many well-meaning Christian and Muslim friends for whom I have deep respect and love.

I even have a few Jewish friends around the world, and I would have many more if the 65-year-old Israeli-Arab conflict had not made them nearly obsolete everywhere in the region outside Israel.

Each of us continues to claim that our religions are the solution to the human predicament.

We all denounce our religious zealots as “un-Christian,” “un-Islamic” and “un-Jewish.”

When we sit together, we highlight the loftiest teachings of our founders and their books and brush the more “embarrassing” stuff under the carpet.

But the skeletons of our religions keep springing back at us like a jack-in-the-box through the trails of cadavers that our religious fanatics leave behind them.

I want to say to all my well-meaning religious friends, it is time to change strategy.

I call us to more honesty. I know it is disturbing, but let’s face it: Those of our co-religionists who stack proof-texts from our religious Scriptures to support their fanaticism are not quoting from Machiavelli or Nietzsche.

Whatever we think of their hermeneutic (method of interpretation), they are finding in those same Scriptures that we read all the inspiration they need to justify their violence and hatred.

They are also finding models to emulate from within their religious tradition, which means that their zealotry is not an isolated modern phenomenon.

We will become far more credible to each other, to the youth in our religious communities, and to the rest of the world, if we start to acknowledge that this diversity exists in our traditions, rather than simply brushing certain difficult passages that everyone knows about under the carpet.

I call us to greater courage. After acknowledging the existence of this diversity in our Scriptures and traditions, we need to adopt a robust self-critical approach. As religious people, we far too easily shift the blame on others.

Some of my “friends” on Facebook are constantly crying “foul” against others: the “Great Satan” is America, the Arab World, Israel, Muslims, Christians, Jews. I seldom see religious people being as critical of self as of others.

But if all of us accuse “others” of being at blame for all the mess we are in, if we don’t stop on the conspiracy theories (even when some have kernels of truth in them), we are simply sinking deeper and deeper into religious self-righteousness and denial.

If there is any hope to overcome religious fanaticism, it’s going to take far more than the strategy of denial.

We need to start grabbing these tough and often embarrassing scriptural passages by the horns and wrestling with them. Simply emphasizing the beautiful does not make the ugly disappear.

I call us to more love. Are we willing to consider loving our worst enemy? Loving our enemy does not mean condoning evil systems.

As Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed, “When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

King’s insight into Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is matchless. His sermon, titled “Loving Your Enemies,” is worth reading, listening to and even memorizing in its entirety.

“If you hate your enemies,” King affirms, “you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

King continues, “That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

I am not calling for more “religiosity;” God knows how I hate religiosity! I am not calling for secularism either; that, too, miserably fails our deeper spiritual longings.

What I am calling for is more “Christlikeness,” of the kind that loves one’s “enemy” to the point of laying down one’s life for them.

Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) has often been viewed as “impractical” and, at best, as a high moral standard by which we can measure human behavior but which we can never achieve.

His staggering teaching about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is proclaimed from our pulpits but generally considered unrealistic.

When it comes to practice, our ethics become thoroughly situational, and we take great pains to uphold the necessity of balancing grace and love with justice and retribution.

But even that highest fathomable human goal is not working anymore. It is not working in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not bringing long-term reconciliation between communities in long-term conflict anywhere.

Jesus’ most unnatural (to our human nature, that is) and seemingly most impractical teaching about loving our enemies in the final analysis is the only starting point that can begin to bring a solution to our self-defeating world.

It is immensely paradoxical, yet fully demonstrated in practice through his own life and death on the cross.

How ironic that Jesus’ death on the cross has been such a point of contention between the three “Abrahamic religions.”

The early Christian accusation against Jews of having “killed our Lord” has justified unimaginable hatred, violence and killing against Jews when the cross precisely should have been our greatest model of love and self-sacrifice.

Muslims continue to deny Jesus’ crucifixion and death based on a Quranic verse, which, in my respectful opinion, they misinterpret in solemn repetition of their Quranic commentary traditions.

Jesus was not a helpless victim of religious violence and zealotry. As he put it himself, “No one takes (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

The apostle Paul had already recognized that the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It will likely continue to be so.

Yet, my hope is that at least a growing core of men, women, children and youth who seek to be pleasing to God, will be willing to embrace the true and profound implications of the cross.

May they be willing to lay their lives down to redeem not just their friends, but also, more important, their enemies.

If at least those of us who claim to love God were willing to do this, perhaps we would start a movement of peace to conquer our bleeding world.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.