I believe Jesus taught a gospel of love. But if you happen to have been Jewish for the last 2,000 years and on the receiving end of that "love," it certainly hasn't felt very good. That's not ancient history. The Holocaust happened in the last century. It wasn't done in the name of Christianity, but it was done against Jews by a predominantly Christian country. And it was the culmination of a long history of assault on Jews by Christians.
You say all religious groups and sects have the potential to turn evil, but that Christian and Muslims have a much longer track record. Why?
It may be linked to monotheism. I think that's worth really thinking about, because there is a sense in which monotheism and the missionary impulse-common to both faiths--are linked to absolutist claims. I readily admit this is a difficult area to talk about because I'm an ordained Baptist minister and a practicing Christian, and I believe there is one God. But I also believe that even if I possess some "absolute truth" in the sense of a connection with God, and we have to be humble in appropriating what we understand to be absolute truth. I think the problem comes when you lose that humility and think you know the mind of God and that you're carrying this forward oblivious to history.
If monotheism is the issue, why hasn't Judaism become as evil, as often, as Christianity and Islam?
The missionary impulse of Christianity and Islam is part of it--Jews haven't been historically evangelical. And power. When you combine religious conviction with a kind of certainty with political or military power, then you have a much more powerful combination. And Jews haven't been in positions of power until fairly recently. And the excesses that you primarily see have been excesses from Jewish settlers and extremists in the context of Israel-people who have power.
How does "evil religion" relate now to Iraq?
I'll start with my hope, which is that within Islam and Christianity you have teachings about loving God and your neighbor, and living cooperatively with your neighbor. There's a long history of Christians and Muslims living together in Iraq through good times and bad. And they have an opportunity to find new ways of living together with a government that isn't Islamic or Christian.
So you're concerned about evangelical Christian groups doing relief work there?
I'm very concerned about that. This is an extremely dangerous situation. We have groups clearly identified as hostile to Islam coming into a situation where there is already suspicion about the real motives in this war, people who already believe it's between Christianity and Islam.
What incendiary actions might Muslims take?
There are a lot of things. When you have the head of Alazhar University in Cairo calling for a holy war, that's pretty incendiary. There are dangers in all the traditions, but there are many Muslim voices being anything but helpful right now.
Is there some concern they could persecute Christians in Iraq?
No question, and we've seen this in the past. In the former Yugoslavia you had Christians and Muslims living together for a long period of time, and then something went terribly wrong and people were raping and murdering one another.
So you would liken the situation in Iraq as potentially like Bosnia?
It has the potential. Although since the numbers aren't close to equal--the Christian population is very small--Christians could be in a very precarious position. We've seen this in Lebanon, where Christians and Muslims, who were roughly divided, started lining up against each other and taking hostages and developing militias along religious lines.
There are extremists in the Muslim world, no question. There are many millions of Muslims who aren't looking to blow up anything, but they're angry and frustrated and living in situations of oppression, human rights violations, and economic exploitation. A good deal of their anger is focused internally but also at the United States. My concern is if you start lighting matches in a room full of dynamite, you run the risk of driving hundreds of thousands of people into the arms of Osama bin Laden.
Many of the events in the world right now--September 11, terrorism, the war with Iraq, even the Catholic clergy sex scandal--have religion as a major component. Is there any way that religion can play a good role?
Actually, religion is our best hope, and what we have to do is look to the heart of religious traditions to find the guidelines we need to cut through all this. In every major religious tradition you find a teaching that parallels Jesus' teaching to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. That has direct implications for the way you relate to the rest of God's creation. You can't say "I love God" and fly an airplane into a building.