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Authoritarian impulse tarnishes Abrahamic creeds


Jonathan Glover, an English moral philosopher (his book, Humanity: a Moral History of the 20th Century, has just been published) thinks communities that resist committing atrocities or falling prey to dictatorships “nurture the benign rebel in their children.”

He continues: “If you look at the people who sheltered Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. They tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, brought up to have sympathy for other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.”

Those of us who claim an affiliation with one of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, should be made uneasy by what Glover has to say. One doesn’t have to be especially perspicacious to observe that all three religions of the Book have a propensity for the authoritarian posture; youthful rebellion is discouraged, and dogmatism, under the rubric of orthodoxy or fundamentalism, forecloses the possibility of sympathetic discussion with folk who think differently.

John Cornwall’s recent book Hitler’s Pope is a reminder of how compatible Roman Catholicism and fascism were. (Sadly, Catholic reviews of the book have been reluctant to acknowledge this fact.) Fascism, which took root in the anti-Semitic soil of Catholic, Christian Europe, bore more than a passing resemblance to the prevailing anti-modernist Vatican ideology: It, too, was authoritarian, patriarchal and absolutist. So, in no way was it a stretch for a Roman pontiff to accommodate a führer, a duce or a caudillo -- or for German, Italian and Spanish Catholics to give assent to the degenerate, reactionary politics that overtook their countries.

Islam’s record for violence this century, particularly during the second half, has been considerable. The monstrous Taliban in Afghanistan is making life for women intolerable. In the Sudan, Arab Muslims, in their effort to dominate the largely non-Islamic South, have terrorized the region and in some areas reinvented slavery. Saudi Arabia publicly beheads malefactors, and Iran issues fatwas. All this suggests a religion incapable of peace on anything but its own harsh terms.

In 1996, I spent the summer in Birmingham, England, where I was born. The city has become a model of multiculturalism -- mosques and synagogues dot the landscape. However, while I was traveling on a main road, I noticed a prominent mosque was flying a banner that proclaimed there was only one God -- Allah. At first I dismissed this as mere bad taste, but after passing it several times a week, the banner began to appear more menacing.

It betokened a gratuitous, militant declaration of religious intransigence perhaps deliberately designed to provoke the non-Muslim population. Inside the mosque it’s OK for Muslims to insist on Allah’s uniqueness, just as the pope is free inside St. Peter’s to regard Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity. But these are politically incendiary claims when made in the public square where they can only inflame and incite.

The original Abrahamic religion, Judaism, seemed to have had an exemplary track record this century, up until the creation of the state of Israel. Then it showed itself to be no better than Christianity or Islam at encouraging the virtues of magnanimity and inclusivity in its adherents.

The idea of chosen-ness, so central to Judaism, has become overtly problematic. The notion that God played favorites from the beginning is guaranteed to create tension, particularly when it inevitably gives rise to the colonial or settler mentality. The corollary of chosen-ness is otherness, which is what we ascribe to people before we dehumanize them. It was no accident that the Afrikaners in South Africa appropriated the Hebraic idea of chosen-ness to distinguish the Volk from the African population. Thus was apartheid born.

I am agnostic at best when it comes to any expectation that Abrahamic religion is going to get its act together anytime soon. My spouse is more optimistic and tries to cheer us up with reminders of the prophetic, justice-seeking golden thread present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

But until we confront what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his book Terrors and Experts calls “the whole project of wanting authorities,” it is hard to see how a prophetic vitality can be recovered.

Serendipity, however, should not be ruled out. After the rigid, authoritarian Pius XII died, the papal mantle passed to John XXIII, who had also been a Vatican career diplomat. The crucial difference was that communism did not frighten Pope John (as it had Pius XII). Pope John knew there were ways of dealing with it other than accommodating fascism. Although an old man, John XXIII was determined to have a council that would purge the church of its fear of the world and give it confidence to encounter secularism in all its manifestations. The relatively short but transformative period of the Second Vatican Council began to liberate Catholics from the need for authorities. Should the opportunity come again, Catholics won’t be starting from scratch.

Ann Pettifer is an alumna of Notre Dame and writes from South Bend, Ind.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000