Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Saturday, February 7, 2015

But a white man did it too!

Dear Hannah,

Every time I've seen an article about ISIS lighting a man on fire, I'm reminded about how adorable our modern popes have gotten.  It's almost enough to make you want to pat Papa Francesco on his head. Nearly everyone in the West is well familiar with the Catholic church -- at least, with their burning people alive during the time when they had the most power (which also happens to be the time when they abused their power the most).  The funny thing is that we're reminded of it now, when people who aren't even Catholics are burning people who aren't really heretics; in other words, we bring it up at a time when it isn't really helpful.  Just like we bring up the time when white people used to torch black people before Americans wised up and began persecuting our own murderers.  A smart person might almost be led to believe these experiences would make us more likely to condemn the psychotics; but others, unfortunately, find it more enlightening to relate to them.  It almost makes you wonder whether, if somebody from another race or religion tries to rape any of our girlfriends, we'll end up hearing about great-grandpa Gideon throwing a sack over a mountain woman's head and forcing her to marry him (although I think this was called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Gideon might argue that he was only behaving like Plutarch's account of Romulus).

The purpose of bringing "our" own historical atrocities up is fairly obvious: someone out there wants to let us know that despite our religious and racial differences, we're all capable of being good -- that if Catholics were bad yesterday, they're certainly better today.  The implication is that Muslims have the same potential for good and evil, and that in a few hundred years, maybe ISIS won't be raping Yazidi girls and beheading Japanese tourists, and Saudi Arabians will stop being medieval.  It's a very nice picture, this future world, in which everyone will get along when we magically decide to stop being horrible.  The problem is, too many people conveniently forget that those few hundred years of white and Catholic pacification were a few hundred years of liberalization -- by force.

It was war for us until the Pope cried "uncle," not a slow dance into enlightenment.  The Catholics weren't the only villains, though: the Anglicans were murderers too -- and they'd throw you in jail just for preaching a sermon without their permission.  The Calvinists were brutal to Papists, who had been brutal to Calvinists; the Puritans burned "witches" and fought with Quakers -- who didn't want to fight with anybody.  French Catholics chopped their Huguenot neighbors to death in their sleep, which seems an awful lot like something Boko Haram would do, and not something fit for a follower of Christ.  There was no waltz into modernity: it took a lot of hard words and a lot of spilt blood.

To say the Christian religion was partly responsible for its own pacification would be fair; to say it was entirely responsible is ridiculous.  Arians and Trinitarians were murdering each other nearly from the very beginning.  If you're happy that you can't be burned at the stake for being an atheist, you should thank a reformer, but you should also thank a classical liberal -- a humanist philosopher; maybe even an economist for defending your private property.  You can certainly thank the Greeks and the Romans like Plutarch and Livy and Cicero, for all their talk in all their old books about the spirit of honor and liberty.  But one organization we never thank is the Catholic church itself; and I think the reason is obvious.  We would rather thank Martin Luther and Voltaire.  You never praise a jailbird because he doesn't rob.  You should never praise a tyrant for being deposed.  It seems only reasonable, in the case of the modern Islam, that we should also never praise a tyrant while he's still tyrannizing.

It's true that wherever there are ideologies and religions, there will always be fanatics -- but especially true in religion.  It's easy to mistake our own bigotry for zeal, even when the bigotry is accidentally unorthodox; and it's easy to paint all our opponents as the enemies of God Himself over even the smallest of issues.  The key isn't to say that every religion has a potential for good and for bad; we shouldn't praise a religion for what it might be some distant day.  The key is to find and support the people of these religions who hold our traditional Anglo-American values about liberty and tolerance, and support them, praise them, defend them until they're able to stand on their own against the fanatics.

Islam will have to change from within.  If no Muslims with a manly and enlightened love of liberty exist, then we should stop praising Muslims -- and especially stop likening them to ourselves when we were menaces.  If Islam is incapable of producing its own John Locke, who bases the idea of liberalism upon the Qur'an itself (like Locke did with the Bible); and if Islam is incapable of producing a Martin Luther, who makes an impassioned case for local government based on the life of The Prophet (like Luther did with Jesus); and if Islam is incapable of producing Thomas Paines, men who don't even believe in Islam, but find the Hadiths an invaluable weapon in the struggle against all manners of tyranny (like Paine did in Common Sense), then I would say the time to liken ourselves to Islamists hasn't yet arrived.  It may arrive someday.  It may arrive today.  It may never arrive at all.  But we should keep watch over our mouths until we begin to really have hope that it is arriving -- and that it is on our very doorstep.

Your father,

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