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(Un)Holy Trinity

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to strike back at the Western European nations where offensive cartoons about Muhammad were published, he said newspapers in Muslim countries should publish offensive cartoons about the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad's proposal was baffling.

What's the connection? How does insulting Jews equate with the publication of the anti-Muhammad cartoons?

Irrational, messianic elements
A quick review of the relationship between the three main Abrahamic faiths shows the historic currents from which Ahmadinejad's comment flows.

All three Bible-based faiths have irrational, messianic elements that are affecting the situation on the ground in the Middle East. Jewish fundamentalists are occupying the settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are supporting--and perhaps driving--the Bush administration's war in Iraq. The suicide bombers mandated by Muslim fundamentalists are inflaming public opinion around the globe.

It is generally assumed that the individuals who make up these extremist movements have little in common. But all three types of fundamentalists are fixated on what they see as their lineage as God's select, the sacred veracity of the Bible, and the impending Day of Judgment. All three are following the same basic script. Extremist Jews believe they are God's chosen and will win the Final Battle. Extremist Christians and Muslims each believe they in their own the birthright and are sure they will prevail.

They can't all be right, of course. And the continued presence of each faith is a living contradiction to the others. If the Jews are right, then why doesn't God annihilate the Christians and Muslims? Or, if the Christians are right, why doesn't God eliminate the Jews and Muslims? To try and reify the Bible and their interpretation thereof, each extremist tries to eliminate the others, making temporary alliances to vindicate their position.

Taking turns
This is an historic pattern, perhaps because the borders have always been porous among these groups. The earliest Christians were Jews. It took hundreds of years before the Christians were distinct from their erstwhile brethren--and hundreds more before the Christians were the majority in the Roman Empire and the Jews a minority. Both faiths underwent great self-definition in the process.

The Jews emerged as an elite, legalistic minority within the Biblical world. Christians self-defined as a catholic, mystical faith based on individual conscience. Islam came along in the seventh century, only after Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

Islam roared out of the desert and quickly took root among some of the wealthiest, most cultured Christian peoples who lived under the Roman/Byzantine yoke--the Egyptians, Syrians and North Africans.Islam was born to challenge the hypocrisy of Imperial Christianity as a political and societal order, amplifying and correcting the basic truth that God is one, the divine is unitary and infinite. Islam perceives itself as the new, improved version of the Abrahamic faith. That identity made sense as long as the rim of the Mediterranean was the wealthiest and most powerful region in the world. Muslims could be magnanimous as long as global politics and economics supported their expansive, triumphant self-concept.

Keeping it kosher
Examples of the intimate dynamic between Judaism, Islam and Christianity can be seen in the approaches each faith takes towards issues of bloodline, dietary restrictions and ritual. These differences apply to conceptual barriers between the three faiths, as in lineage and conversion rules, and the decision to circumcise males or not (Jews at birth, Christians not at all, Muslims at adolescence).

Islam saw itself as promulgating a practical set of rules that avoided the endless disputations of Talmudic rabbis or the anything-goes anarchy of Christianity. In those days, the Muslim point of view was validated by the prosperity of their reign. Their courts featured the brightest Christian, Jewish and Muslim intellects, debating philosophical points and expanding scientific knowledge on their ancient Greek and Roman base.

Christians at that time vaingloriously labeled their putative efforts to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel as 'crusades.' Along the way, the so-called crusaders massacred Jews who lived in European towns and villages. At the time, Muslims considered these crusades to be pirate raids carried out by insane barbarians.

That power dynamic was turned on its head, however, as Europeans accumulated power over the rest of the globe and disseminated Christianity to the Americas, Australia, Africa and other points through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Now it is Christian Europeans who are magnanimous to Jews and Muslims, and can indulge tolerance and promote science just as the caliphs and the Ottomans did in their day.

Now it is Muslims who strike at soft spots in the 'civilized world.' And they are now the ones targeting Jews for their alleged allegiance with the enemy occupier of the Holy Land. Now they are the ones who rage against a usurpation of what they see as the divine order of things.

A single faith?
Current conditions challenge the moderate, modern adherents to the three faiths to collect the positive aspects common to their beliefs. Jews continue to meditate on the singularity of the divine (God is one). Christians continue to find inspiration in the anti-authoritarianism of the Jesus story. Muslims continue to demand morality in government. The radicals of all three faiths may well blast each other to bits, taking as many of us along as they can. If anyone survives this confrontation, what will be left behind could be a single, syncretic faith.

Let's face it, the Bible was written by men, not God. Jesus wasn't the messiah and there won't be a messiah. Trying to force people to live according to a set of cultural practices that were popular in the desert thousands of years ago just doesn't work. Whether the radicals terminate the dialectic process or not, the historians of the future may have trouble determining the difference between what remains from the wreckage of three takes on Biblical truth.


Posted on March 6, 2006

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