How do we oppose what is evil without becoming its mirror image? That’s the question I’ve been pondering since Pope Francis said this to Congress:
We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology, or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom, and individual freedoms.
The pope’s call to be alert to different types of fundamentalism struck me as the message America needs to hear. We often forget that fundamentalism can appear in economic, political, or ideological garb. It can be as secular or political as it is religious, but it is within religion that we find deep resources for understanding and combatting fundamentalism in all its dizzying variety.
The Idolatry of Anti-idolatry
Girardian scholar and professor of Jewish studies at Purdue University, Sandor Goodhart, says that the Old Testament is troubled by a type of religious fundamentalism, what Goodhart calls “the idolatry of anti-idolatry.” The ancient Hebrew zeal to witness to the one true God, Goodhart explains, at times turned the truth of God into an idol. What does that mean? That the dynamic, creative, unknowable God can become hardened into an idea that we think we own and represent in all its fullness.
When we believe we are in possession of complete knowledge of God, then it endows our actions with unassailable goodness. Even actions that we condemn when performed by our opponents will appear good and noble to us when we do them. A wonderful illustration of this comes from 1 Kings 18 where we are told that Queen Jezebel, the Baal worshipper, has been “killing off the prophets of the Lord” (18:4). To demonstrate that the Lord, not Baal, is God, the prophet Elijah miraculously ignites a sacrificial fire that humiliates Baal’s prophets. Elijah then “seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there” (18:40).
I’m not sure we are meant to applaud Elijah’s murderous rampage. I think the biblical text invites us to see the similarities between Elijah and Jezebel, despite their insistence on how different they are from one another. They are both so strongly in the grip of religious fundamentalism that they condemn each other as murderers while celebrating murder as justified by their god. Nothing can dissuade them from their belief in their own goodness, not even the blood of their victims. This is what James Alison is referring to when he says that “our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.” When we cling to our sense of ourselves as good, despite evidence to the contrary, we have turned our goodness into a sacred idol.
The Elijah Trap
But isn’t killing bad people good? Nothing could possibly be more good and righteous than defeating the worship of Baal, which took the form of routine child sacrifice (Jeremiah 19:5). If so, then the response “Thanks be to God!” after reading 1 Kings 18 would be more than justified. And yet I hope the thought of thanking God for the murders committed by Elijah makes you every bit as uncomfortable as thanking God for Jezebel’s murders.
Of course we no longer have to combat Baal worshippers. Yet we are at war with an enemy whose evil we do not question. So here’s the question I think the biblical writers want us to ask ourselves: Should we “thank God” for the murder by drone or bombing campaigns, for example, of suicide bombers or religious terrorists? After all, did they not celebrate the victims of the 9/11 attacks? Do they not call for the destruction of the Great Satan, as they call us? But if we celebrate and thank God (or whatever name we give to ‘goodness’) when we kill them, have we become like Elijah, unassailable agents for what is good and right and who fail to recognize the Jezebel within?
Unwavering belief in our own goodness has infected our politics as well. Political discourse has deteriorated to such an extent that we treat the opposition party as if they are modern-day Baal worshippers. The political battlefield has become no different than a real one: no compromise, no surrender. Only the defeat and annihilation of the enemy will satisfy our thirst for justice.
Have we become the very thing we oppose? Pope Francis wants us to consider that question because just after his comments on fundamentalism he added this:
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
Sadly, polarization is our new normal. At home and abroad, we radiate the “hatred and violence of tyrants” in the name of our own brand of goodness. The pope is right to call us to reject the Elijah trap of dividing the world into good and evil. In such a world we celebrate our own violence, condemn the violence of our enemies, and guarantee that we are a stubborn part of the problem.
The Moses Solution
Peace. Nonviolence. Freedom. How can we work for our cause without imitating the thing we are against? Pope Francis began his address to Congress with an image that may help. Here’s what he told our representatives:
Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.
That’s the key, isn’t it? Pope Francis wants our representatives “to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Every human face, he said. Not just American faces. Not just the faces of documented immigrants. Not just rich faces. Not just white faces. Not just Christian faces. Pope Francis wants us to see the image of God in every face, black and white, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, terrorist and terrorized. Even the face of our enemies.
There is nothing more paradoxical than the use of violence in the name of peace, yet that is the very thing America is doing. When no one, not even the self-proclaimed champions of goodness, will relinquish their right to violence, the quest for global peace is doomed from the start. But renouncing our right to be violent is a scary proposition. It most likely will demand that we drop our defenses, rather than prop them up. Or maybe it means that we begin to see what makes for peace and security in an entirely new way. But dropping our guard may be exactly what is required to make us, and the world, a safer place. We won’t know, though, until we are brave enough to try.