Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" - It's Ludicrous!

Faith is not a reasonable thing. It will never and should never be synonymous with “fact.” Attempts to “prove” religious beliefs always fail, resulting only in transforming them into the most hideous of religious features: dogmatic fundamentalism. Over the past few decades Christian apologetics has gained considerable attention and authority. It is now common belief among Evangelicals that Christianity has a “one-up” on all other faiths (and non-faiths) because it is the most logically and historically sound. It is not only reasonable to be a Christian, it is only reasonable to be a Christian.

    Unfortunately this seemingly iron-clad defense is nothing more than a house of cards.  The very arguments which allegedly “prove” Christianity to be a head above the rest can just as easily “prove” Islam to be the only reasonable religion. Muslims are generally considered by argumentative apologists to be violent, anti-Western cave-men who would most assuredly convert to Christianity if they only knew the historical and logical proof of its singular authenticity. This gross over-exaggeration and misconception necessitates a deconstruction of the “air-tight” defense popularized by non-experts who have contributed in creating an arrogant and ignorant Christian culture.

    Most popular in Evangelical Christianity is the “Liar, Lunatic, Lord,” defense which originated with the great atheist-turned-Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis, who wanted to refute the belief that Jesus was just a good man or a prophet. Perhaps its errors will become more palpable when applied to the prophet Muhammad. Like Jesus, Muhammad also claimed to know the only way to God when he said, “those who believe and do good, and believe in that which has been revealed to Muhammad — and it is the Truth from their Lord — He will remove their evil from them and improve their condition. According to Lewis such an absolute assertion is either a lie, a delusion, or the truth. Thus Muhammad must be one of the following: a liar, a lunatic or the seal of the prophets of God. 

    Muhammad could not have been a liar. He was a deeply spiritual man prone to regular periods of reflection and solitude. He faced numerous set-backs in his life: doubt, despair, defeat – all too humiliating to endure for the sake of a lie. His call to less materialistic, more God honoring lifestyle was a change many in his community found distasteful. Much like the story of Abraham, Muhammad lived in a polytheistic culture, but claimed that only one God existed and deserved complete devotion and obedience. Though his message became increasingly unpopular, Muhammad became increasingly vocal. As a result he was forced to leave his tribe – all that was familiar. That his own people would reject him and reject the one true God was deeply depressing to Muhammad. However, this sadness did not keep the prophet from living out the life of submission to God. He prayed daily, gave to the poor, sought justice for the oppressed, and accepted without judgment the members of the lower class – aliens and slaves.  These practices – lowly and unpopular - would not have been taken up by a deceitful man interested only in wealth, fame and power.  Muhammad’s endurance and commitment stand as testimony to the fact that he certainly believed what he was saying was truth, therefore He could not have been a liar.

    Perhaps Muhammad was crazy. If he believed he was indeed a prophet of God with a special revelation but this was not true, then he was a delusional ego-manic. A careful look at Muhammad’s life will show that this is also not an option. When Muhammad was forced to leave his home in Mecca because of his unpopular claims about being the prophet of the one true God, he traveled to the city of Medina – much less cosmopolitan than his previous residence. Medina had long been an area of conflict due to feuds between tribes over territory rights. Muhammad stepped in as an arbitrator and successfully facilitated peace among the Arab tribes. This unification made Medina a powerful community. Outside forces began to raid commercial caravans creating a need for a military leader who could defend the city and its people. Again the people turned to Muhammad, who was able yet again to be effective as a leader. Gaining power and respect did not cause the prophet to give up his religious beliefs. In fact, he incorporated these into the laws and treaties he helped create. His leadership was not characterized by paranoid self-important decisions. His actions were for the good of the community he helped to establish. Such could not be said of a delusional ego-manic. Therefore Muhammad could not have been a lunatic. According to the reasoning of C. S. Lewis, this leaves only one option for Muhammad. He was not a liar, or a lunatic, so he must be the prophet of God he claimed to be.    

   Based on the general arguments provided by Christian Apologists, Muhammad was indeed a prophet of God – the seal of the prophets. He possessed the knowledge of how to please God as described in the holy book, the Qur’an. According to the logic of the “Liar, Lunatic, Lord” defense, it is not only reasonable to be a Muslim, it is only reasonable to be a Muslim.

    The point of this exercise is not to destroy the Christian faith. Instead it is an attempt to open the eyes of the arrogant and ignorant Christians who claim to have indisputable proof that they alone are right. Such proof does not exist – not for Muhammad and not for Christ – or any other religious leader. Faith cannot be proven nor should it; to prove faith is to ruin it. The current attempts to do so have only succeeded in creating elitist attitudes. Christian Apologetics have become a weapon in the hands of many untrained or half-trained theologians – sometimes used in defense and sometimes used in a “loving” offense. Either way it is a weapon and such a thing only creates more fear, arrogance, division, hate and death. And such a weapon ultimately ends in self-destruction; as Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Will You Do With Our Suffering?

Women are suffering in Afghanistan. The NY Times reports that many young Afghani girls are dressed up as young boys for “economic need, social pressure to have sons, and in some cases, a superstition that doing so can lead to the birth of a real boy.” In many Islamic nations, women are not allowed to leave their home without being accompanied by a male relative. If no such relative exists, women are forced to transform their daughters into sons so they can simply buy food for their family. Nina Burleigh, recently wrote in the Huffington Post, about the terrorism against Afghani school girls. “It appears the Taliban, taking a page out of the Nazi playbook, has been pumping stuff like Zyklon B, the notorious Holocaust gas, into girls' schools, to further their goal of keeping their females illiterate.” The claims of these young women were disregarded for two years chalked up to nothing more than female hysteria.

Women are suffering in Africa. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her book Infidel, recounts her personal experience of undergoing female circumcision. It is a common practice in Somalia in which the clitoris and sometimes other parts of the vagina are cut off and then sown shut in order to ensure young women remain virgins until their husbands cut them open on their wedding night.  The obsession with preserving virginity is so extreme that male family members perform “honor killings” against less chaste women. According to Hirsi Ali these horrors occur in Somalia, Ethiopia, and all over the world.

Women are suffering in the third world. Dr. Paul Farmer, in his book Pathologies of Power, recalls the stories of young impoverished Haitian women who have little choice to ward off advances from military officials. These advances are always reciprocated either out of fear or desire to escape poverty. Farmer wonders how the traditional understanding of “consensual sex” can apply to such a situation.

Women are suffering in Europe, Asia, and America. Five years ago, CBS went undercover to buy a young Romanian girl out of the sex slave trade. They paid almost $2,000 to free her. The slave trade has only grown in number and depravity. In Indonesia, young girls are forced into sex slavery. If they try to escape or refuse to perform, they are gang raped or tortured. A popular tactic is to stuff hot chilies into the girl’s vaginal cavity and leave her strung up for days. Many are sown shut at the close of every work day so that they can be sold again as a “virgin.”  Sex slavery has permeated every part of the world including the U.S.  In the Office of Children and Family Services 2007 Prevalence Study, it was found that more than 2,000 young girls are victimized by commercial sexual exploitation in New York alone.

 What is the total number of injustices that must occur against women in order for anger to finally turn into action? There is little doubt that if men were subjected to the same oppressive tortures, action would be instantaneous. If men were valued as less than women and forced to dress and act as the other sex in order to provide for their family, perhaps outrage would be more widespread. If men were forbidden education and threatened for expressing independence, a civil rights revolution would likely follow. If men had their genitals mutilated and were killed for not remaining abstinent, surely then reform would be imminent. If men were pressured to sleep with women in power in order to ensure their survival, certainly then both liberals and conservatives would put aside their differences to enact change. If men were manipulated and forced into sexual slavery, if they endured acid burns and sexual degradation perchance their cries would be heard and their sufferings end.

Neglecting the duty of fighting inequality and injustice will not prohibit a revolution but it will certainly create a great divide between those who fought and those who watched. Consider the Civil Rights Movement. Though equal rights were finally awarded – as indeed they should have - equal respect has never been fully cultivated Though exceptions certainly exist, overall the evils of segregation and suspicion remain entwined in the fabric of our culture (and other cultures with similar oppressive histories). Thus the Civil Rights Movement was only half of a triumph. The blame does not rest on the White Citizens’ Council or the Klu Klux Klan but rather on the sympathetic who remained silent and drug their feet when the opposite was required. Had they indignantly demanded equality along with their black brothers and sisters, true unity would now be a reality.

 The same is true for the women’s rights movement; for one day, either with or without help, we women will free ourselves. We will help our sisters name their suffering. We will empower one another to reclaim our right to life. We will endure and we will overcome. But we will not forget those who stood silently by and watched us do it on our own.

It is the duty of all humankind to fight tirelessly against inequality and injustice, yet many who are unaffected by these evils remain unmoved. Wishing life was better for those who experience oppression is not enough. Do not be silent! Contact your senator. Tell them you want the degradation of women to end both in the U.S. and around the world. Donate to a charity. Help buy freedom for one of the millions of women and young girls who are forced to work in the sex industry. Educate yourself about relevant legislation and campaigns.  But perhaps above all, do not ignore the cries of the oppressed. Listen to their stories, acknowledge their pain, and enact change on their behalf as if they were your own sister or mother or daughter.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don’t Be So Modest!

I remember settling down for what I thought would be a normal (boring) day in my afternoon class, The Nature of the Church, only to be unpleasantly surprised by a lecture on modesty. This was more than a lecture; it was an accusation addressed solely to women. I listened with growing rage as the professor – who looked deceptively wise because of his white hair and matching beard - listed the specific fashion trends he found offensive and immoral. He followed this list with instructions for what specific “worship movements” were inappropriate. I’m sure you don’t mean to be a distraction, but you should really think about where attention is being drawn when you’re jumping up and down during worship. He all but suggested we wear bed sheets and sit in the corner without making any sudden movements as they might be mistaken as sensual.

At the time, I did not know how to respond to his indictment, but now that I am several years older and wiser, I would like to offer a rebuttal. My rebuttal is not addressed to only this particular professor because this was certainly not the first time I had heard teachings on modesty; it was just the first time it made me mad. As a young girl my skirts were measured, my necklines tested, and the tightness of my clothes evaluated. When I became a young woman I was lectured on my spiritual duty to be modest. Men are sexual beings, I was told. They are visually stimulated and it’s very difficult for them to control themselves. Thus it is your responsibility to dress modestly in order to keep them from stumbling. Dressing immodestly was beyond distasteful; it forced men to think about sex. My body was dangerous; it had the power to steal a man’s thoughts from God! So of course I was more than willing to reject the many blacklisted articles of clothing and physical movements.

One of the main reasons why I was angered by this professor’s rant was he never addressed my male peers. He is not the only one who fails to address the other sex. Here is what is said to Christian men on the subject: Oh yeah and you guys dress modestly too. Don’t take off your shirt while you’re working out. Talk of spiritual duty or threat of constant inspections were absent from their instructions. In fact the one practical rule they were given was never enforced. If I decided to whore it up and run on the treadmill in my sports bra, I would be told immediately to go put on some real clothes and would later receive some measure of discipline.  On the other hand if a young man was caught lifting weights without a shirt, nothing was said. After all it was just the male body; there is nothing offensive about that, no sensuous curves or slender delicacy to take in. Only the female body is understood to produce evil, not the male body.  Thus both the standards and the measures taken to uphold them promote inequality.

Consider this: in no other cases of over-indulgence or addiction is it acceptable to blame anyone but the individual who cannot control themselves. Can an obese person blame food? Can an alcoholic blame liquor? Can a shopaholic blame vendors? Can a pedophile blame children? No, of course not! But when it comes to a man’s inability to control his sexual desires, women are to blame. Let me be clear. I am not angry at modesty. I am not even suggesting that Christian women should start revealing more skin.  Each woman should dress according to her level of comfort because the conservative teachings on modesty are discriminatory and thus invalid for two reasons.

First of all, singling out women in modest charges assumes only men have sexual desires. News flash: women are also sexual beings - even CHRISTIAN women! Just because they sometimes desire sex in different ways, does not mean they desire it less. They think sexual thoughts and dream sexual dreams. They too look admiringly and even lustfully at male bodies and use these images to imagine a sexual encounter. So, if Christianity is going to insist that it is a woman’s duty to keep the sexual desires of men in check, then it must also insist (with equal conviction) that it is a man’s duty to keep the sexual desires of women in check.  Let’s just be honest here: Good luck with that! Enjoy the pressures of trying to control someone else’s mind.

Lastly, modesty is completely subjective. There is no absolute standard even within one particular culture. So to require women to conform to the varying and often contradictory “modesty” definitions of all Christian males is maddening! Some men find the lower back sensual while others could care less about that area and are more interested in a woman’s neck or her legs or her breasts. The only way to make everyone happy is to dress in a burka, but even this is unsuccessful. In cultures where women keep their body completely covered in loose fabric, adultery and promiscuity still occur regularly. (In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes the occurrences of honor killings in Somalia, Ethiopia, Holland, and all over the world. Honor killings occur when a young Muslim woman is killed by the men in her family because she has brought shame on them by losing her virginity before marriage or committing adultery. Hirsi Ali also notes that a number of young women kill themselves because of related “sins.”) By contrast one might wonder why there are no reports of female Christian missionaries being sexually violated by the indigenous men of the Ecuadorian jungles. After all according to conservative American teachings, these men who see women walk around in almost nothing ought to be sex-crazed animals. So because the standards are impossibly illusive and even the most extreme measures are not good enough, all women should be free to dress as they feel comfortable without fearing an ill-reputation or scathing rebuke.

Women must be released from the impossible burden of keeping men from sin. The definition of modesty is ever-evasive and too often controlled by the men who are too weak or too lazy to take responsibility for themselves. There is nothing evil or shameful about the female body which would require it to be hidden in the manner often suggested.  Women who are criticized for not covering enough of their sensuous curves or are denied the identity of a sexual creature, may take solace in the fact that they are not alone but more importantly, that they are not the problem.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pressures of the Past and Present

Influence is tricky. It can be as strong as a rushing current and as subtle as white noise. It can occur in a moment or last for a lifetime. It varies in form: an experience, a song, a person, a letter, a generation. The fluid and deceptive nature of influence makes it difficult to detect. I myself was unable to identify it for the first two decades of my life!

Leading an impactful life has always been a personal goal. Yet such a goal is supremely subjective! What is required for a meaningful and lasting influence? This question was answered too simply and too quickly by the influencers in my life.  “Become a Christian minister!” they all said. Both gently and violently, I was pushed and pulled toward my ministerial future.  No one single event or person is to blame: books and alter calls, camp counselors, classmates and family members all played a role. Successes and obstacles occurred solely to testify to my destiny. Even surviving a horrible car wreck seemed to be a confirmation of my future fate. Surely my life had been spared that I might do great things for God in the church! Corporately they all willed me toward a lifetime of Christian service. They yearned for a spiritual leader, a prophet, and I was all too eager to fulfill their yearnings.

The upper echelons of religious hierarchy are deliciously prestigious, especially if one is successful and well-liked! As with all higher ranks, there are a considerable number of perks:  opinions become more respected, advice becomes more valued. Being a model to others can be addictive and no addiction is healthy – even one to setting a righteous example. When a person becomes a measuring stick, they are removed from the narratives in which they exist, in which they must exist in order to be meaningful. Such was my experience.

Happiness did not always elude me, but as my “righteousness” and “rightness” increased so also did my loneliness and discontent. Who invites a member of the priesthood to a movie or to an amusement park? Who wants a holy man to watch them live their daily life? Such people are held at arm’s length except for specific times of spirituality.  Such people have little choice but to invest themselves fully in spiritual matters and in time the religious courts becomes their ultimate reality. And in taking up permanent residence in the Holy of Holies, such people lose touch with the world they once longed to change. Depression sets in and resentment soon follows.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I took a year off from Christian leadership and from attending church at all. At first I was edgy and defensive but the longer I stayed away the more secure I felt in my decision. The weight of Sunday’s obligatory rituals eventually disappeared. “The Christian’s Weekly Duties” checklist which I imagined was always hanging somewhere in the sky above my head, finally evaporated. A gap remained – both literally and metaphorically – but it was my gap and I could fill it with whatever or whoever I wanted!  No more was I forced to submit myself to someone else’s idea of spiritually beneficial activities. Following this revelation, my bitterness and despair subsided and then came a moment of clarity: I did not have a “lot” in life! I could carve my own path! No one ever succumbs to influence without choosing to do so. I did not have to float comfortably along with the current; at any point in time I could have waded out of the river and stood on dry ground.  And that is precisely what I have decided to do!

This decision has been a long time coming, but it was only this past summer when I finally admitted it out loud. Since then I have been tempted to regret my past as a waste of time. But when I imagine life as a narrative, then the middle and the end of my story only makes sense with a beginning. A person without a past is a person without roots, without meaning. They are only part of a person. To hate my past would be to hate part of myself. The wise words of a friend come to mind, “If you don’t like something about yourself, either change it or learn to love it.”

I choose to change it. As I begin my 25th year of living, I am choosing to stop pursuing a “destiny” I do not desire and to not regret the time I spent traveling towards it.