REVIEW: When Religion Become Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

When Religion Become Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

By Charles Kimball

John Wiley & Sons: San Francisco, 2011

Reviewed by Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. (JCC of Harrison, New York)

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.

—Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It (1976)

Abraham went up from Beer-Sheva to Mount Moriah

three days

in his mind binding and unbinding his son

three days slaughtering and weeping

still bound and unbound are we

those weeping and butchering?

—Haviva Pedaya, “A Man Goes”, Blood’s Ink (2009)

Can what is bound be unbound? When it comes to religion and politics after thousands of years, the jury is still out. What this opening poem by the mystical poet, Haviva Pedaya touches upon is the very point that holds Kimball’s thesis—namely, that religion is bound in an explosive mixture with politics. For example, as a mystical poet who grew up in a Judeo-Iraqi family circle, Haviva was immersed in mysticism by her grandfather, the renowned, Rabbi Yehudah Ftayya, and never once in that transmission process of her spiritual life did she ever encounter an infringement from the world of politics. Yet when she first discovered the writings of the first chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook and its politicization of the Greater Israel through the Gush Emunim, she was perplexed at this explosive mixture binding mysticism with the geo-politics of the Land of Israel. So the lament of poet continues to be one of “binding and unbinding” their children, their readers, their students and spectators. Haviva sees the inextricable cycle of “slaughtering and weeping” and dares to ask her mother land: “still bound and unbound are we/those weeping and butchering?” If this kind of nuance and complexity is possible from one small corner of the Middle East, then surely there must be more nuance we are missing from our globalized world and its diverse religions.

As always, there is good news and bad news. Bestsellers are more often made from bad news than good news (unless it is the New Testament), so many scholars of religion choose to preach and teach the bad news. Following his bestselling When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball’s daunting task in his latest installment, When Religion Becomes Lethal, is made clear in the subtitle just how dangerous a venture this will be in investigating The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Most competent scholars of comparative religion will have an easy time of sharing the bad news, with the rise in fundamentalisms and orthodoxies. In this sense, sociologists of religion like Peter Berger and their early prophesies of a full-fledged age of “disenchantment” with religion have swung full circle to a “re-enchantment” from which the post-9/11 world is still reeling. Kimball’s opening chapter, “Christmas with the Ayotollah” sets the stage for unbinding the volatile mixture of politics and religion through a fascinating travelogue of shuttle diplomacy during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 when 66 hostages were seized as student militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Kimball packs 20 years of experience about this explosive mixture in 400 days. This experience teaches Kimball to be “sympathetic to the ambiguity surrounding the multiple, converging issues and the shifting religious-political landscape” (p. 10) urging us all to take a step back to see the bigger picture at many junctures.

From this dramatic beginning, Kimball then turns back to the etiology of the conundrum—the Hebrew Bible. In the second chapter, “God Gave Us This Land”, Kimball dissects out the scriptural layers of religion and the land from the Abrahamic narratives in Genesis to the Dynastic Rules of Israel in I Samuel to the Prophets like Amos and Jeremiah. That “flexible interplay between religions and politics” so present during the reign of King Saul and the fall of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time seems to be lost by the Maccabean Revolt (168-164 BCE). From that sketch of biblical Israel, Kimball fast forwards to the rise of Zionism with Herzl and the founding of the modern state of Israel. While Kimball is judicious enough to treat Zionism on its own in the third chapter, “Israel: Deadly Conflict in Zion”, it is hard to understand why someone “sympathetic to the ambiguity surrounding the multiple, converging issues and the shifting religious-political landscape” would gloss over the early Eastern European messianic emigrations to Israel from 1777 onwards. This would have made for a fascinating prelude to Kimball’s chapter on Zionism, to show how Judaism struggled with the dangerous mixture of religion and politics before Zionism (namely before Hertzberg, Rabin and Weitzman, 57), and moreover to reinforce the nuance that Judaism has a legacy of continuing those holy struggles both in Israel and the Diaspora within the religious community.

Addressing the role of religion and politics would seem a central task when dealing with Christianity, and Kimball outlines the issues well here in the fourth chapter, “Render Unto Ceasar”. Kimball is forthcoming in admitting that although religion and politics in Christianity are always intertwined and often lethal, there remains no template for (re)structuring that dynamic relationship. Most interestingly, Kimball advocates for a kind of scriptural reasoning after Peter Ochs et al, insofar as the Gospels should be read through lenses of historical context and rationality. Kimball does not however go far enough in suggesting that part of the yet to be achieved project of the Church after Vatican II is to recover other gospels from recent findings in the Nag Hamadi library and elsewhere that allow the religious teachings of Jesus to shine to the foreground while allowing the anti-Semitic politics to fade in to the background. From here Kimball shifts to his fifth chapter,
“America: One Nation Under God,” in a solid history of religion (read Christianity) in America. It would be interesting to see Kimball engage Shaul Magid’s recent work, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society. Given Magid’s contention that Zionism and the Holocaust, two anchors of contemporary American Jewish identity, will no longer be centers of identity formation for future generations of American Jews, the emerging post-ethnic trend would challenge many of Kimball’s steadfast categories and surely elicit a richer and even more nuanced conversation.

Kimball’s most insightful contribution in this study is his scathing critique of American policy makers, pundits and politicians regarding Islam. In the sixth through eighth chapters, Kimball is able to more fully develop a nuanced history of religion as well as the rise in its explosive mixture of politics in Islam by pinpointing the shift from the social structure of tribal society in 7th century Mecca to the framework of the ummah, a community bound by religious commitment rather than tribal loyalty in the first Islamic State of Medina. While the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be understood without this historical perspective, it is surprising in his global coverage of Islam that Kimball makes no mention of the groundbreaking teachings of contemporary Muslim religious activists and thinkers like Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, readily available in translations by Emory professor of law, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im like The Second Message of Islam. As readers looking for some good news, it is a shame that Taha’s nuanced historical reading back into the layers of Islam’s two main devotional messages is missed here.

At long last, the good news; otherwise this would be an apocalyptic study of American religion. In Kimball’s tenth and final chapter, entitled, “Hope for the perilous journey ahead,” he manages to dispel the opiate belief that any hope for a “healthier future is not simply wishful thinking” rather he clearly confesses that “[a]s a person of faith, I am also a person of hope.” (p. 178) Kimball is a master teacher, so for him one of the main roads forward must be through education. Overcoming religious illiteracy is key here, guiding the reader to resources at almost every American’s fingertips but always flying under the radar, like PBS’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly and NPR’s Speaking of Faith, or even Diana Eck’s “Pluralism Project” at Harvard University. Moreover, one must be committed to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue. Kimball here covers a wide swath of interfaith organizations from all Abrahamic perspectives, as well as more recent trans-denominational organizations like the Network of Spiritual Progressives that brings together Rabbi Michael Lerner, Sister Joan Chittister and Cornel West.

As a scholar of religion, however, Kimball must go further than simply cheerleading for more education and interreligious dialogue. He is rightly concerned with more meta-questions of the paradigms of encounter and engagement themselves. Namely, are there 21st century paradigms for redressing this explosive binding of religion and politics? While it is important to remain vigilant “to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land”, Kimball is quick to warn of the dangers of “anti-fundamentalism” that may also be lurking around that corner. Kimball is tireless in pointing out that as American citizens it is our democratic responsibility to “substantially raise the level of informed discourse among policy makers and other citizens who think of Islam in monolithic terms, or who believe that everything can be defined by a clash-of-civilizations theory, or who think it doesn’t matter if decision makers don’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq” (p. 191). Kimball is advocating that all citizens should be “holding elected officials, religious leaders and political pundits accountable” as a most “important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society” (p. 191). Moreover, he contends that “in the 21st century, it should be obvious to everyone that we are inextricably bound together” so that “what happens to the world economically, ecologically, and militarily is of central concern to us all” (p. 192). Assuring us that alternative pathways forward for “people of faith and goodwill” exist and must be ceaselessly pursued is indeed hopeful. What remains unclear is how such an important paradigm of interconnectedness can penetrate the fundamentalist mind-set and its persuasive pedagogy to the contrary. Can we imagine a world where humans will evolve beyond the nihilistic Armageddon that Kimball tracks so accurately, especially in the ninth chapter, “A Road to Disaster: The Fallacy of Fundamentalism”? To what degree will scriptural reasoning prevail and to what degree will scriptures have to evolve? Kimball spends equal time dissecting the malignancy of Jewish Fundamentalists like Kahane’s Kach, the Gush Emunim, Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir and Ami Popper, as well as the Cocksure Christians like the KKK, Aryan Nations and Pastors John Hagee, Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston, and finally Militant Muslims. Mind you, Kimball’s parsing of radical Islam, whereby Al-Qaeda is a different typology of terrorism than Hizbullah and Hamas is apologetic at best and offensive at worst.

There is an intriguing subtext to this book that comes through in the acknowledgements and dedication: “In loving memory of grandfather/Julius George Skelskie Kimball.” The author offers a brief word about his Jewish grandfather and Presbyterian grandmother as models of “how religious diversity and religious commitment can illuminate and enrich our experiences as human beings as well as children of God who share life in our community as well as on an increasingly fragile planet” (p. viii). Moreover, Kimball is a doctor of theology, presidential professor and director of religious studies at University of Oklahoma and an ordained Baptist minister. Kimball then is uniquely positioned to address these growing divides between the intertwined Abrahamic religions. In dedicating this book to his own personal lineage as his “journey of a lifetime”— both Jewish and Christian— Kimball is signaling that this is more than a work of scholarship, but a reflection of navigating that liminal space between Judaism and Christianity or Judeo-Christian culture of America. His nuanced reading of Islam is all the more laudatory considering the pathway of his personal journey.

To circle back to the conundrum of this explosive mixture that needs to be unbound, clearly American writer, Norman MacLean was on to something. The American family and its elevation of sports to the status of religion leads to perhaps more than merely that familiar situation where there never seems to be a “clear line between religion and fly fishing” rather suggesting as does Kimball that outside the house of worship and in the divine stream of creation it is “obvious to everyone that we are inextricably bound together.” What I take away from Kimball’s popular scholarly study is that same challenge posed by the Israeli mystical poet in the opening conversation—namely, do we dare as the children of Abraham to reach the place where “the divine can once again be seen” (Moriah) and then dare to engage in the necessary unbinding of our children from the endless cycle of violence because “still bound and unbound are we?”

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