It’s admirable to be well-versed in religious books and to be passionate about the Almighty. But does God reside in a heart selective about mercy and love? Is He present in a religious debacle where such virtues are absent?
A friend recently asked if I were going to write about the Kentucky Fried Chicken fiasco. Apart from the incident being over-sensationalised and having been elevated in stature – bizarrely, if I might add – to a near-national crisis of sorts, I think if I were to even put ink to a story about it, it’d be a satire in Pantone black.
Moreover, there are other pressing concerns I need to eliminate from my system, namely, the deportation of the Saudi Arabian blogger and journalist, Hamza Kashgari who apparently insulted the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) on Twitter but who has since deleted the offending tweets and apologised.
Okay, I’m not lawyer and I’m certainly no expert in the Laws of Malaysia. So I’ll not talk about the legal aspect of his detention and extradition. Instead, I’d like to approach this topic floating in outer space with my eyes on the religious world, my mind on religious teachings and my heart on spiritual wisdom – something I’m also trying to pursue in my life as a believer.
I’ll vehemently emphasise now, upfront, that this piece isn’t a criticism of religion. If you read it as such, then you prove the point I make further into this article: that some of the holiest believers around (whichever their religion may be) are also some of the most misdirected human beings around. The same applies to those who imagine that this article decries a specific religion and are eager to invoke curses upon me. Lastly, this piece doesn’t harbour agendas to proselytise on behalf of the Vatican and hasn’t been programmed to emit subliminal flashes to create instant Catholic converts. If you somehow think otherwise, my advice for you is to cease reading this instant.
I grew up in a freethinking environment. My parents aren’t religious. I discovered God through my classmate, Rebecca. We were 10. One day, at recess time, she told me to follow her to the staircase leading up to our school hall. I did. There, I learnt that she led a small bible worship group of 4 students where attendees would sing praise and worship songs daily and read a short passage from the Bible. It was Rebecca who taught me how to pray.
Many incidents in my growing up years predisposed me to Christianity – Catholicism to be specific. Non-believers would classify the events leading up to my conversion in 2005 as coincidence. Going through what I did, I’d like to opine that they were divine interventions. But that’s just me.
In the years where I was immersed in RCIA (Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults) – a one year prep course for those intending to be baptised – and highly active in church work at my parish, I met with some of the most devout Catholics in my life. What I noticed about some of these Catholics was the intense focus on rituals and traditions, on the externals of worship. For example, a few would passionately condemn books like the Da Vinci Code, claiming blasphemy and a distortion of the truth according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They’d urge us to avoid the book and also discourage children (if you had kids or taught Sunday school) to pick it up.
While I respected the elders, I did think about this issue at length and concluded that I should read the book. It wasn’t for wont of rebelling. It was for practical reasons. I thought that if I read the book and did some research on the suppositions it made, and a student one day came up to me and asked, “Is it true that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married?” I’d be better able to give him or her an enlightened answer. Sure enough, during Parents-Teachers Day 6 months later, a mother told me that her son had picked up the book from his school library and she didn’t know what to say to him as she hadn’t read it. My answer? Use this as an opportunity to bond with your son. Read the book yourself. Then read about the history about the Bible – the Church and Secular World versions – and how it came to be the Bible we know today. Then use your faith to decide what your conclusion is.
I’ve also met many Protestants who aren’t only devout but also very passionate about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Sometimes what starts out to be a lovely conversation about the common ground quickly morphs into a comparison of the deviations and which ‘proof’ was stronger. I’ve stood for 1 hour before listening to a Protestant try to convert me out of Catholicism by using Mother Mary as a punching bag, all the while citing passages from the Bible that apparently ‘disprove’ the necessity for Christians to pay homage to her.
I’m all for deepening my knowledge of my faith through the Book of God and I’m all for different points of view. But if the debate’s going to involve two people (or more) pulling out opposing doctrinal interpretations of Biblical passages with the mission to one-up the other, then I’m all for smiling, thanking and then switching off – simply because the point about religion is lost.
The point? That it’s first and foremost about Love. With love, comes respect and with respect, humility. If we can’t be humble, we shouldn’t preach and we shouldn’t serve. Otherwise, we’d only be serving our ego. And so we come to the core of this article: sometimes, religious people give religion a bad name.
In the Gospels, Jesus actually called the religious leaders and scribes a bunch of hypocrites. And he was right to be so forward about it. “You shut the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matthew 23:13).” he said. He also said that, “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers (Matthew 23: 3-4).”
When Jesus said this, he was actually referring to how some of us (clerics especially) like to think we’re all that just because we have been given authority. How we, given the power to lead others to goodness, make it difficult for them to do so by vomiting out all these do’s and don’ts that aren’t really all that matters. By expecting more of others than we do of ourselves.
Jesus also said, “It’s not what enters the mouth that makes a person unclean but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person (Matthew 15:11).” So what you ‘consume’ can’t make us unclean because “…everything that enters the mouth goes into the stomach. Then it goes out of your body. But the things that come out of your mouth come from the heart. Those are the things that make you unclean. Evil thoughts come out of the heart. So do murder, adultery, and other sexual sins. And so do stealing, false witness, and telling lies about others (Matthew 15:16-19).”
Therefore, it’s indeed strange and difficult to understand why there’s always a flurry of objections when we have visiting musicians from abroad, as if ‘consuming’ music by gays or sassy pop stars will morally incapacitate us.
Of course, the concern that impressionable young minds may be easily corrupted by immorality is very real because we do live in a very open and connected world and it’s difficult to be there for the young ones 24/7. But I’ve always believed that removing a person from negative influences isn’t the best way to deal with it. We should equip them with knowledge and then let them go with some supervision when required. After all it’s when we can confront our weaknesses that we have the opportunity to overcome them. Basically, we become better people once we’ve triumphed over these weaknesses. Not once we’ve successfully banned a concert, a form of dance or literature.
Moreover, enough has been said about how we should not infantilise believers. We must guide, and then we must also trust that it ultimately becomes a personal choice. We’re the shepherds. The messengers. The prophets. But we’re not God. When we do play God, we become self-serving. And we certainly become blasphemous ourselves.
So in the case of Kashgari, I feel that while we must consider the socio-cultural, geopolitical and religious aspects surrounding the plight of the young man, while we must respect that different rules apply to different schools (of thought – like Wahhabism), and while we can’t profess to have possession of all the facts pertaining to the situation, I, from my standpoint in outer space, cannot help but view the whole affair as an oversight in our role as practising preachers of Love. Something that binds all members of the faith community and not any specific religion per se.
This isn’t about protesting the penalties awaiting a blasphemer in Saudi Arabia – the beheading or whatever is written in Saudi law. This isn’t about the immense outrage stemming from a tweet that insultingly treats a prophet as a person. This is what follows right after: the quick judging by many, the call for the death penalty by some quarters, and the absence of a stop-wait-evaluate system of deciding an action even by our own authorities who predictably chose a ‘diplomatic’ response in the end. Because while the anger and shock are understandable (especially if I put myself in the shoes of the conservative Saudi Arabian Muslim), any religion that preaches peace and love contradicts itself when its believers promote otherwise, even if they promote it with good intentions.
The great Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) does not need defending. Not because he’s dead but because if he’s as merciful and compassionate as the Quran says, he’d not be perturbed by the tweet. And if the faithful want to defend him – and they most certainly have the right to – surely there’s no need to ask for the death of a brother? Surely, we humble fellow believers, would recognise that – being imperfect ourselves and in need of second (and more) chances – we can channel the same grace to a peer? Surely, we can step back, take note of Kashgari’s age as well as his surprise and panic over the controversy he caused and conclude that it was an honest mistake in judgment? Surely, if love pervades our faith, we’d decide on mercy and not sacrifice (sacrifice in this case being Kashgari)?
As for the Christian community, surely we can look beyond the canvas of ‘Christianity’ and find our voice to petition and pray for mercy for a fellow brother?
I struggle with the case of Kashgari. I don’t know him but I feel terribly sad because we’re looking at a tragedy, a human tragedy. (It’s difficult to involve divinity in this because I don’t know a God Who’s as small in stature as His believers and I don’t know a God Who holds grudges even after one of His own has apologised). Firstly, we’re seeing the interpretation of religious law lacking in spiritual discernment. Secondly, we as a faith community at large have failed to speak up on behalf of the young man because the “Muslims are Muslims, the Christians are Christians”. So tonight, I‘ll pray that the Almighty takes over the hearts of those who want Kashgari punished with death. And I’ll pray that His wisdom, mercy and love overpower the rest of us so that we may be better ministers of, and accomplices to justice.
“Let us be true to our world and devoted to our work, and may love, not law, control man’s dealings with man.” – Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar
(Featured image accompanying article on the main page courtesy of Joe Doe, source: bit.ly/y3wkmw)