Monday, May 9, 2011

Sectarian Violence

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I John 4:7-8

The headline was “Sectarian Violence.” And the dateline was Cairo.

I assumed it would be a story about Muslims attacking each other. But this time the violence is between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Two churches have been burned down and at least twelve people have been killed. The official body count is perfectly divided: six Muslims and six Christians.

Many Christians and some Muslims blame the confrontation on Salafi Muslims. The Salafis are Muslim traditionalists who are often apolitical, but also sometimes radical. In recent months it has been common to use “Salafi” as a generic label for Muslim extremists.

On the other side of the conflict, the Coptic Orthodox church traces its roots to New Testament times as one of the earliest organized churches. They comprise about ten percent of the Egyptian population.

One of the most troubling historical facts for those of us who identify ourselves as religious people is the persistence of sectarian violence. There are feuds and hatreds that last for centuries.

The violence in Cairo does not appear to be organized. Like many so-called religious conflicts, the real issues may be more economic than religious. In this case it may be more about one group of underemployed young men fighting with another group of underemployed young men, than about any larger political issues, and the religious allegiances are little more than convenient labels.

But we should not take great comfort in that observation. If religious affiliation is not the root cause, it is still a flashpoint. In discussing the Doctrine of Original Sin, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that even the sublimest truth can be corrupted and misused. In fact, we can know that it will be corrupted. One can argue about whether religions should make claims of absolute truth. But if we do make those claims, then we must be careful about how we make them. If the absolute claims of religious truth are not understood in the context of love and tolerance, they can (and will) lead to violence.

The Bible is right. If we do not love one another, then we cannot love God.

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