Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bush Doesn't Know Jesus, Kristof Does

Nicholas Kristof has imagined what would happen if President George Bush were to meet Saint Peter at the pearly gates of Heaven. The dialogue is destined to make the rounds of both secular and religious liberals. They will laugh at it and append remarks to their e-mails, such as:


"So true!"

Some particularly droll wag will remark, "as if George Bush would even get to heaven!" Delicious!

I guess I'd be considered on the left, politically. I certainly oppose just about everything there is to oppose about George Bush. And yet, my reaction to Mr. Kristof's mischievous, impertinent fiction is, in essence, "And who the fuck are you?"

After all, if arrogance is one of Bush's failings, along with his religious certitude, then what the hell is the point of Kristof asserting that HE knows what the arrayed forces of heaven (not just Jesus, but all of heaven) REALLY want George Bush to spend his time doing? (UPDATE: In fact, in his latest column, Kristof asserts this knowledge again, juxtaposing Bill O'Reilly with "authentic" religious conservatives. Why exactly does Kristof get to designate religious authenticity?)

Kristof is making the exact same argument that Bush is making: Each suggests they represent the "real" Christianity. Bush has done this not just with his own religion, but with others, as well. He has told us what "real" Islam is and is not.

The reality is, neither Bush nor Kristof get to define Christianity or Islam. Who does? Christians and Muslims. Is Christianity a religion of violence? Yes. Is Islam a religion of peace? Yes. Is Christianity a religion of peace? Yes. Is Islam a religion of violence? Yes.

Is Kristof right, that Christianity is "supposed" to be all about lepers and prostitutes? Or is Bush right, that Christianity is about knowing something in your heart that you call Jesus? Yes. And yes. And both are wrong when they deny the "reality" of anyone else's Christianity or Islam or other religion.

The reality is that most successful religions succeed by NOT being any one thing. Most successful religions -- like most successful species -- succeed by dint of adaptations and mutations that allow them to evolve. Christianity has been violent when violence best propagated it. Christianity has been peaceful when peace best propagated it. And it can do both at once. This is not an accident of Christianity or Islam, this is the one, essential feature of both.

C.S. Lewis wrote in "Mere Christianity" that "Christian" was not a synomym for "a good person." A "Christian," he wrote, was merely someone who believed that Jesus is humanity's savior. The Bible, and the Koran, were written, edited and, most importantly, interpreted throughout history in ways that allowed them to survive in hostile environments and allowed them to spread in nurturing ones. The entire idea of the "Rapture" didn't even arise until 1800 years after the Bible was written -- how's that for an unclear text?

Bush is right when he says Islam is a religion of peace. Osama bin Laden is right when he argues that Islam endorses slicing box-cutters across the throats of flight attendants and sending airplanes loaded with aviation fuel stabbing into occupied buildings at 300 miles an hour. That's Islam. So is opposition to it.

The problem is not that one Islam is winning or losing. The problem is not that America is embracing the "right" or "wrong" Christianity. The problem is with everyone who thinks they know which.

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