The moment Pope Francis boards a plane in the presence of journalists, many of us wait with baited breath to see what controversy will follow. He did not disappoint yesterday when he said:
“I do not like to speak of Islamic violence because everyday when I look through the papers, I see violence here in Italy,” the Pope told reporters.
“And they are baptised Catholics. There are violent Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I also have to speak of Catholic violence,”
As might be expected, this has caused some controversy, with some objecting to his mentioning Catholic violence in the same terms as Islamic violence, and others calling him delusional for not stressing that violence is in the nature of Islam – citing its history as proof of this. This is to miss his point entirely, and I am beginning to wonder whether there is not an odd symbiosis between the Pope’s press conferences and his critics, with the latter finding in his words, whatever they are, a reason to criticise him?
The Pope is not denying that there is violence carried out in the name of Islam, but he is reminding us of something many atheists will point out on such occasions – that is that our own Christian history is not wanting in expressions of violence carried our in the name of Christ. It is easier for the knee to jerk than it is to face the discomfort this fact creates in us. It has been, unfortunately, a common enough feature of religions that their leaders have used, or encouraged others to use force on their behalf, to enforce control over their followers. Our fallen nature leads us all too easily to talk more about God’s anger than his love, and it is unfortunate that the reaction to that has, as reactions will, gone too far in the other direction; but some corrective was necessary. Christians no longer fall under Byron’s scornful words of having ‘burnt each other quite persuaded / that all the Apostles would have done as they did.’ But the Pope knows we did, and he disarms the atheist charge up front by saying so. A religion founded on the need for repentance, should not find it so difficult to admit guilt and to repent.
Pope Francis is saying much the same thing about Islam. It, too, has a violent past. Christians have tended to feel that violence as directed at them, as it has been, and still is in many places, but it has equally been directed at other Muslims and non-believers of all types. There is a common enough trope which has it that Muslims who live in the West are just waiting until they are in a majority before insisting on Sharia Law. It is easy enough to see where this came from – after all the whole of what we now call the Middle East was, at one time, Christian. But before it was that, it was not Christian, and right as we are to refer to the sufferings and persecution of the Copts in Egypt at the hands of Islam, it might do us good to recall that before that, they were persecuted by the Imperial forces for their rejection of Chalcedon in 451; others might point out that the Egyptian Christians persecuted non-Christians when they had the upper hand. St John was, as ever, quite right – in such discussion we are, none of us, without sin. The Pope acknowledges the beam in our own eye – he does not say there is no mote in the eye of others.
If we insist on mining the past so that we can use it to portray a religion as it is now, then we fall into the trap of those Muslims who pretend that the modern West is made up of ‘crusaders’ determined to reverse the defeats of the Middle Ages; the method is the same – they did it then, so they will do it now, they have not changed. The need to scapegoat and stigmatise the outside is a common enough one, found in all cultures. But the Pope, in his comments, refuses to go with it. He recognises what many others recognise, which is that violence is not the preserve of any one religion; indeed, pace some atheist opinion, it is not even the preserve of the religious. To adapt a phrase, man is born to violence as the spark flies upwards.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not advocates of violence. Do some extremists mine their own history to insist on a version of their faith truer, as they see it, to its founding values? Yes they do. But that is no reason to believe them, or to give them credence. It is a reason to oppose them, but we do that, as the Pope recognises, more effectively, if we isolate them from the mainstream of the Islamic world. I am not, as it happens, persuaded of the Holy Father’s materialist explanation of the war in which we find ourselves, as I think there is a religious element in it, but in as far as he is drawing our attention to the fact that, whatever the extremists want, it is not a Holy War, he is doing us a service. As he says:
“I think that in nearly all religions there is a always a small fundamentalist group,” he said, adding “We have them”
He is also doing us a service when he points out the devotion shown in our society to the ‘god’, money. Too often we resemble the man in yesterday’s Gospel who stored up his great wealth without regard to the needs of others.
The moving finger writes and moves on, and I see now that some of his obscurer remarks about ‘another Peter’ going to the next World Youth Day in 2019, have set another set of hares running. It is probably a good job he is not always on a plane going somewhere.