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ISIS and the Pope

August 7, 2016

Religion divides. On the side of good are those who share your beliefs and rituals, the ones you were taught as a child, that your parents were taught as children, that welcomed your birth, that celebrated your marriage, and that gave you comfort in the face of family and friends lost. On the side of wrong are those who believe strangely and who behave strangely and who have little respect for your sacred values.

It is natural that divide leads to violence. “They” are on the wrong side of your god(s). Political leaders enlist your god(s) to sanctify fights over power, land, or wealth. More, religious leaders find justification for violence in doctrine.

The sister religions of Islam and Christianity have especially violent histories, teaching that the travails of this life count for naught, that eternal destiny is all that is important, and that right belief is necessary to that. That has led to religious war of another order, where the combatants hope not just to enlist their gods to their side, but think they are fighting because their god ordained it.

When Pope Francis proclaims that the violence done by ISIS has nothing to do with religion, he isn’t just engaging in the silly notion that true religion doesn’t do such things. He is whitewashing his own Church’s history. “If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence.”

Indeed, let’s speak of Catholic violence. And not the violence of “this man who kills his girlfriend, another who kills his mother-in-law,” but of the violence directly ordered by Popes past. There were crusades to force Catholicism on the pagan peoples of northern Europe. And not just against pagans; Pope Gregory IX called for war against the Orthodox states of Novgorod and Pskov. The Albigensian Crusade targeted a region of France whose population practiced a non-Catholic variety of Christianity. The crusade burned its leaders alive, emptied its towns, decimated its population, and forced the region into Catholicism. Later Popes sanctioned the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the New World, so long as the native people also were forcibly converted. Which they were. And that doesn’t touch on the inquisitions. Or the Thirty Years war. The history of how the Church established and defended the Catholic domain is steeped in blood and fire and steel. Each of the Popes ordering that violence were just as much leader of the Church as Francis. They believed the same catechism, they worshiped Jesus, and they thought they were spreading truth and salvation. They urged war and torture for that purpose.

It is quite understandable why Francis doesn’t want to speak about Catholic violence. There is a real sense in which ISIS is merely trying to follow in the Church’s footsteps. ISIS wants to establish a region where everyone bows to its religious sect, to secure that sect as orthodox through harsh punishment and torture of any who go astray, and to extend its domain through religious war. Both religions are infamous for offering eternal redemption to the soldiers who fall in holy struggle. Here is Pope Urban II promising that to those who pick up arms in the first Crusade:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

Well, the Church succeeded in spreading its dominion over Europe and much of the Americas. Then lost its political power. Most Catholics today happily live in secular nations, are appalled at the idea of holy war, and likely would find themselves in trouble with the Church if some wizard transported them to a nation past where the Church actually held political power. Even a modern one, such as Francoist Spain. They live in the fortuitous circumstance where they are Catholic and free, where their religion is passed peacefully from generation to generation, and each individual may decide how to live it. Not so, with Islam. There still are Islamic states of various kinds, and warring Muslim sects. ISIS is particularly extreme. Most of its violence targets other Muslims. Most of those fighting ISIS are Muslims of a different sort.

Two errors are common in thinking about that violence. The first error is the one Pope Francis urges, the pretense that the violence has nothing to do with the religion. That is nonsense. Anyone who stayed awake in world history should know it is nonsense. Anyone who knows how religion works knows it is nonsense. At some level, Pope Francis knows it is nonsense. He is practicing intentional ignorance.

The second error comes from the right wing in the west, many of whom want to view Islam is distinctive in its tendency to violence, and obdurate in its practices. There is no reason to think Islam is particularly distinctive in those regards. Islam seems as variegated and volatile as Christianity. Americans are more familiar with Christianity. In its present forms. They are ignorant of the varieties of Islam. They are ignorant of the history of both religions. People generally don’t see much beyond the here and now. Even large changes in religion can go unobserved by its own adherents, when it happens over a few decades. Thus, many Americans see Islamic terrorists on the news, and think that sums up the religion. And think their religion is better. In fact, all that is better is that they happen to live where the modern, secular world has separated church and state, neutering the political aspirations of church. They are better by virtue of being raised in a modern, secular state. American Muslims also are better, holding political views that fall within the spectrum of those held by American Christians.

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