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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Christianity versus the New Atheist, part 3

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A continuation from part #2.

It has been argued that conservative Christians are paranoid, thinking that atheists and progressives are sneaking up on us or out to get us.  But we are only paranoid if we are wrong.  Sometimes we need to check our backs.

MISS ATHEIST

I think most Christians, Jews and Muslims don’t want to kill each other over religion. The problem is that their holy books say that their god wants this to happen. Happily, most theists don’t obey their religions to the degree that they once did, realizing that such xenophobia and violence isn’t how they want to live.

FATHER JOE

Where in the New Testament does Jesus or a Christian shepherd demand the murder of anyone over religion? Jesus speaks about loving our enemies and forgiving our persecutors. Indeed, this was one of the elements of Christian belief that made pagan Rome wary of the new faith. Today the Jews seek to defend themselves and the state of Israel. Is that so wrong?  The crusades have been over for centuries and the Catholic Church is often a lone voice crying out for peace. You simplify matters to the point of error.

MISS ATHEIST

It is certainly true that all religions have had their extremists and Christianity still has them. From their words and actions, Christians have yet to prove that they can tolerate and live in a non-Christian world. For example, it is secular law that keeps Christians from forcing their religion on others and keeps them from attacking others here in the US (usually, we’ve had enough murders by Christians against others).

FATHER JOE

You have matters quite backwards. The problem is that an increasingly non-Christian west is less and less hospitable to Christianity and to Catholicism in particular. There has been widespread dissent and calumny in reaction to Pope Francis’ severe critique of rampant greed that promotes commercialism and materialism over the rights of immigrants and the poor. The late Pope John Paul pleaded for peace and begged the west against attacking Iraq and yet we went ahead and are still struggling with the deadly consequences. Our society prizes license and caprice against both natural law and divine positive law. Lost is the sense of order implanted in creation. Under the banner of choice, millions of unborn children are murdered in the womb and advocates would silence the Church. Most atheists dismiss the rights of unborn children for the right of selfish mothers to kill their babies. Is this the toleration you want? Catholics in the U.S., going back to the Edict of Toleration in Maryland, have sought to live in peace with their neighbors. But there are some issues that go beyond sectarian doctrines and reflect basic truths about what it means to be human. Unfortunately, even these matters are being questioned and denied. Is pornography bad and harmful to society? Is marriage an institution solely between a man and woman? If not is marriage still a viable social institution? Is gender interchangeable? Is the matter of homosexual activity entirely morally neutral? How far does the state go to force people of faith to accept the values of a narcissistic secular humanism and modern hedonism? Many call themselves Christians but as the old saying goes, some can “talk the talk, but do they walk the walk?” Just being baptized does not make a person a perfect Christian. People are people, regardless of what they believe. Notice that I say “what they believe” and do not add “those who believe in nothing.” Atheism can be broken down into its own various forms of belief, even if it avoids overall existential questions and focuses upon isolated experiments with lab rats and lenses with increasingly powerful magnification.

MISS ATHEIST

I do not see where the world has become less tolerant of Christians. I suppose you may construe less tolerant as not blindly accepting what Christians claim and holding Christians accountable. If Christians are to be believed, they are a major world religion, with billions of adherents. I do think that there is intolerance and most of it comes from Christians often claiming that their fellow believers aren’t “true” Christians. I am sure you have run into anti-Catholicism, where Christians of other sects are quite sure that Roman Catholics are Satanists, sun worshippers, polytheists, etc. Each sect defines Christianity differently. I have no problem with Christians. You just can’t claim it’s your right to force your beliefs on me and to create laws based on them.

FATHER JOE

If you do not see how the world has become less tolerant of Christians than you are blinded by bigotry. Here are some recent news headlines showing the escalation in tension:

Syrian Christian leader tells West: ‘Stop arming terror groups who are massacring our people’

Christian pastors on trial in Sudan moved to high security prison

Two Chinese house church Christians given jail sentences, accused of cult involvement

Religious Freedom in China: ‘alarming increase in systematic, ongoing abuses’

Imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini’s 35th birthday wish is for revival in America

Christians in the Middle East at risk of extinction, party leaders warned

India: Hindu nationalist politician calls for sterilization of Christians and Muslims to control numbers

Tackling religious persecution is a moral necessity

Report highlights harassment against Christians in Nigeria

China: pastor on trial after protesting removal of church crosses

Pakistan church bombing protests escalate, 10 more Christians killed

India: Elderly nun asks God to forgive those who raped her

Iran: Persecution of Christians as bad as ever, despite President’s promises

Our Christian beliefs are under attack from influential and militant atheists

The USCCB addresses the issue of threats to religious liberty on its website:

http://usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/current-threats-to-religious-liberty.cfm

You speak as if there is a vast demarcation between religious rights and natural rights. The difference is that we would respect nature as stewards while certain atheists would manipulate or curse nature as masters. Of course, Christians are not uniform in their opinions. Catholicism would seek to make distinctions between those things that belong to variable or subjective human whim and those that are objectively true for all. But when one rejects a divine agent behind nature, would atheists then not treat nature as something entirely subject to their charge?

MISS ATHEIST

Secular humanists do not all wish to strip the Roman Catholic Church of its voice, and it does seem that you think that the only true Christianity is your “Church.” What I, as a secular humanist, and an atheist want is to also have a voice in the public forum, something of which theists are very afraid. You may make your claims but they are now countered, the RCC no longer is unopposed when it tries to claim that it is the only arbiter of morality.

FATHER JOE

While we recognize our common baptism, Catholicism views itself as the true Church instituted by Christ. It is in that sense that Catholicism does view itself as having a privileged place in the Christian landscape. Historically it was the Catholic Church that discerned a new economy of images and gave the emphasis to the Eighth Day or Sunday (the Lord’s Day) over the Hebrew Sabbath. Because of the incarnation and resurrection, the emphasis changed because in Christ, God has a human face. Our re-creation in Christ takes precedence over our creation in Genesis. It is this Church that assembled the canon of the Bible. It is this Church that claims a magisterium protected by the power of the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals. If you have read the documents of Vatican II then you would know that the last half-century has seen an intensified interest in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Going back to Pope John XXIII, the Church has appealed not only to Scripture but to natural law in speaking about peace. This effort was to acknowledge those who are not believers but who want to be co-workers in making this a better world. The Church does not claim to be the only source of truth when speaking about morality. However, she does speak loudly when she sees violations of human dignity and the right to life. The Church has no issue with coming to the table with atheists. However, there are certain non-believers who would take away our chair. You cannot compare Catholicism either to radical Islam or to fundamentalist Protestantism. We see the world very differently.

MISS ATHEIST

Where are a “million Christians” you speak about as exiled and on the run? Are they in the Middle East? It seems that that number is an exaggeration, but it could be true.

FATHER JOE

It is true and your hesitation to admit it shows how hardened your heart is regarding believers and injustice. If there were a million atheists on the run for their lives, I would be just as upset and involved with efforts to protect them and to care for their families. This is the sentiment of the active Christians I know and with whom I associate. Our thoughts are not only about heaven but about the struggles of people here on earth. Catholicism takes seriously the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humanity. Similarly the Catholic Church expends millions for food, water and health supplies for the hurting around the world, even Moslems who have little love in their hearts for Christians.

Christians are being attacked in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The plight of Chaldean Christians, both Catholic and Coptic, is described in  BREITBART NEWS.  We read, “Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, over 1 million Christians have been exiled from Iraq, leaving only around 300,000 left in the country.”

MISS ATHEIST

Thousands have had their heads chopped off? Where?

FATHER JOE

Where have you been? I still remember the sadness of a Holy Cross priest-friend who had to identify the bodies of four seminarians on summer assignment in Africa. They found them beheaded in the jungle. Chopping heads seems the violence of choice used by ISIS against Christian men. Do we have to post the grisly pictures for people like you?

Google it and you will find plenty of photos and videos.  An article in USA TODAY quoted the murderous terrorists as chanting:  “We will conquer Rome with Allah’s permission!”

Not all religions are the same. The development of Catholic doctrine has been in the direction of dialogue, cooperation and peace. While we would not want to fault all Moslems, it must be admitted that this radicalization is worldwide and frightening. While others are also their victims, they see their efforts as part of a war against what they call THE NATION OF THE CROSS. Catholics are marked with the Arabic “N” marking them just as the Nazis marked the Jews for elimination. The “N” stands for “Nazarene” after Jesus from Nazareth.

MISS ATHEIST

There may indeed be as many as you say and what is sad is that so many Christians claim that they are “in exile” in their own country and are threatened here in the US, when that is anything but the truth, devaluing real persecution. It’s always curious when people make such claims when there are thousands of Christian media outlets, pages upon pages of churches in the yellow pages, billboards on highways, etc.

FATHER JOE

What you are now arguing is how much persecution is tolerable and okay. Sorry, it is all wrong. When an Oregon baker is fined $135,000 for refusing to bake a wedding cake for lesbians, loses her business and then is placed under a gag order not to talk about the issue— then yes, Christians are being persecuted here at home. Religious liberty and freedom of speech are precious to American democracy and yet in practice, they are increasing threatened. The lesbian couple could have easily gotten their cake elsewhere. But they wanted to destroy these people who believed and thought differently than they did. The courts helped them to perform this task.  This is just one case, but similar instances of oppression are happening across our society. Toleration of differences is one thing— but now Christians are told that they must compromise their values, or else.

MISS ATHEIST

It is not a radical Islam that insists on conversion and death; that is just Islam, though most Muslims ignore those parts. Judaism and Christianity also insist on conversion and death. The OT is full of the Judeo-Christian god commanding just that. Jesus himself says that people who do not accept him as their king should be brought before him and killed (Luke 19). And of course, there is Revelation which is all about the killing of anyone who doesn’t accept this god. Happily, most Jews and Christians ignore those parts.

FATHER JOE

There is nothing in Luke 19 about killing people who reject Jesus as king. You misread a parable which emphasizes using the gifts given us for the sake of the kingdom. A failure to use these gifts will bring shame and death. Everything that Christ offers brings life and hope. The third servant in the parable allowed his fear to get the better of him. We cannot be passive in the faith, but always about spreading the Good News with our words and witness. The story of the servants is a bit different in Matthew. While it employs allegory, it may have been based upon a real event, the succession of Archelaus after the death of his father, Herod the Great. Archelaus went to Rome and stood before Caesar asking to receive the title “king.” A Jewish delegation opposed him. Albeit without the title, he is made the leader of Judea and Samaria. Luke makes it clear that Jesus is not on his way to establish a new military kingdom in Jerusalem. He is not seeking earthly kingly power. First he must go away and return from a distant country (his Parousia); only then will there be judgment. The verses to which you refer are Luke 19:26-27: “I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me.” This is not an order to kill anyone who does not acknowledge Jesus as king. It is a reference to the judgment of souls that comes either at death or at the consummation of the world. The acceptance of Christ brings life. Rejection of God’s mercy brings eternal death or hell. It is something brought upon us in the light of divine justice.

Revelation is apocalyptic language and much of it about the persecution of the Church by pagan Rome. While there is a reference to an End Times confrontation, I am unaware of any New Testament teaching about forced conversions. The final confrontation is with powers and principalities. The battle is not merely physical but spiritual. Historically, not everyone who is Christian has respected the rights of others. Often nations and leaders used religion for their own purposes. But the Church is composed of sinners and this is to be expected.

Ultimately faith is a gift and should not come through coercion or violence. Parents have an obligation to share their faith with their children but we have to respect the decisions they will make as adults. Even if there should be disagreements about religion, it should be no barrier to love and mutual concern.

The difficult sections of the Old Testament say more about the primitive people called than any blood lust from God. The Hebrews fought over things like land. They never had a strong insistence upon evangelization or conversion. They judged their own harshly, especially in regard to sins against the marriage bed and idolatry. However, in this they were little different from many other ancient people. Revelation comes through the prism of a people and their culture. It cannot be read as if it is dictated word for word from heaven.

Islam and the Koran speak about forced conversions and Holy War. When Pope Benedict XVI urged that this concept be rejected (while visiting Turkey) there were cries for chopping off his head. Hopefully this only reflects the militant arm of Islam and not the majority. But I cannot speak for them. As a priest, I can only speak directly about the claims of Catholicism. When it comes to other faiths, it is my trust that there can be peaceful toleration and efforts at real collaboration toward a better and more peaceful world.

I can appreciate the scandal in how Christians sometimes behave. G. K. Chesterton lamented that this cannot be interpreted as a failure of the faith, just the weakness of believers. He is observed, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

See part #4 that continues this topic.