Fundamentalism, identity and the Word of God

avec12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:12-14)

Dear Brethren,

I must say I am always astonished by the way the Gospel gives us messages able to fit any occasion even 2000 years after it has been written.

I confess these verses, the ones of Matthew chapter 10,  are constantly coming to my mind in these days in relation to very different elements and in particular to two big problems of nowadays society: identity and fundamentalism.

I’d like to start briefly commenting the incredible period we are living, a period filled with violence, hatred, death due to the recrudescence of the self-defined Islamic terrorism (self-defined as I hope we all know that the real  Islam is very far from the Wahabi fundamentalism inspiring the deviated, desperate minds and souls of a minority of the Muslim believers).

When the carnage at the offices of “Charlie Hebdo” took place I, as many others, didn’t  hesitate to publish the “Je suis Charlie” banner on my page as a sign of solidarity with the victims of an inhuman, vile and also politically absolutely stupid attempt to apply the most extreme censorship of the most extreme and ignorant interpretation of the Shari’a to the freedom of press. I absolutely don’t regret it as I deeply believe we must all stand up for our rights against any attempt of imposition of ideas with fear and violence, with menaces and terror. Jesus Himself asks to us not to be afraid when He says: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” and, sometimes, also a symbol like a banner could be a way to “stand firm” .

However, a few hours later something  made me feel a little dizzy about that banner I had published. That something was the claim, coming from many parts, that the dead of “Charlie Hebdo” were “heroes of the Western civilization”, “martyrs of freedom”, “models for the whole world” (I am quoting randomly from different international newspapers), that the Muslim groups changing the banner in “Je suis AVEC Charlie Hebdo” were, in a way, siding the attack or, at least, not condemning it enough and that, as The Guardian published in an editorial, “satire has to shock. Being shocking is going to involve offending someone. If there is a right to free speech, implicit within it there has to be a right to offend“.

As often I am probably going upstream and I will surely be blamed by many for saying this but I deeply feel I must say it: I totally don’t agree with these ideas. To me Charlie Hebdo was and remains total rubbish, its drawings were and are in majority vulgar and just insulting and its cartoonists were not heroes, models or martyrs but just victims of the madness of the most misleading interpretation of a religion possible! That’s the way it is for me and I won’t lie.

Which doesn’t mean, in any way (I want to be absolutely clear about this), I can even distantly agree with the ones thinking that “they deserved it” or “they brought it on themselves”! They didn’t: nobody deserves to die or brings a murder on himself for a drawing and this is very clearly stated in the verses I am commenting, where the Master affirms: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. He doesn’t say: “burn their homes, kill them, destroy their towns” but simply “shake the dust off your feet” and leave them. And I suppose He says this for many reasons: as Jesus always condemns the use of violence, as any murder is the destruction of the whole universe according to that Jewish culture the Master never refused, as He speaks about mercy and love for everybody and, possibly, as mentioned, as violence is always the most stupid and counterproductive way to act. An example of this last point? Well, why not a couple as they are clearly in front of us? What about, in example, that big slice of the public opinion which, in France as well as in other countries, was front-line in blaming Israel for its political behavior and now is revising its positions  in the light of the victims of the blindest anti-Semitic rage? Or, what about the new public judgment about a magazine like “Charlie Hebdo” which, in the past, had been condemned even in courts for its lack of any refrain and was practically close to fail for the constant loss of readers?

With all the due respect for the victims, I won’t join my voice to the chorus of hypocrisy of the ones now suddenly changing their mind after the carnage! I repeat: to me Charlie Hebdo was and remains rubbish, exactly like some other newspapers and magazines from all over Europe incapable to understand the perhaps subtle but anyway existing border between satire and insult.

So, which is this subtle border? To me (and, as far as I can see, also according to many of the most important religious leaders of the planet) it stands in the defense and untouchability of anyone’s deep identity.

I try to explain. Can satire touch anybody’s actions if they are wrong, ridiculous, blame deserving? Of course it can! Actually it must! To denounce mistakes and to put in the pillory anyone deserving it, with no exceptions and no obsequiousness for any power is the real role of satire. But actions are one thing and identity is something totally different. Identity, personal identity is the root of our being and it is formed by many different basic elements, many of which not even depending on the single’s will: your ethnicity, your nationality, your family, your religious values… To offend these elements means to hit the radical core bases of a human being and, therefore, to offend him/her in his/her entirety. And there are no exceptions: it is surprising how so many tend to adopt different systems of judgment and blame anybody mocking ethnicity as racist (Dieudonné’s case is quite exemplar in this sense) but consider anybody mocking religion as an intelligent secularist and free thinker. Actually I don’t think there is any difference: exactly as much a racist satire is anyway a disgusting act of racism, a blasphemic satire is a disgusting act of blasphemy. Period.

Identity matters, my brethren: identity is what shapes us as human beings and to respect any identity, in any occasion, in any situation, with no exceptions, means to respect the supreme creation of God.

I suppose there is something very important, a very deep teaching also for the Christian Unitarians in this idea. Because, you know, to respect anyone’s identity means, as first thing, to respect our own identity and to defend it.

I think in some occasions there are very deep misunderstandings about the meaning of being “liberal Christians”: to adopt a liberal view of a religion means to distinguish between a private sphere and a public sphere, not to try to impose your idea, not to blame or attack anyone for religious ideas different from yours. In no way it means to renounce to your idea, to your belief, to the claiming of the message you perceive as true in the name of a misunderstood generic, undifferentiated love for everyone (but for yourself, evidently) reducing Christianity to the lowest level of banality or in the name of a relativistic or nihilistic cowardy  masked as a sort of “mental openness” allowing anything to be said and done without objection, even “in our name”.

Identity matters and the Master Himself expresses this concept very clearly. What should you do if they don’t accept the message you take with you?  We read that you must “shake the dust off your feet” and we said that it means not to use any violence, coercion, intimidation to impose what you believe in. We must, anyway, understand that “to shake dust from your feet” is not, in the biblical culture, a neutral act, an act meaning: “ok, do what you want as it’s anyway the same”.  Dust is symbolic of a number of things in Scripture. Man was created from the dust (Genesis 2:7) and to dust he will return upon death (Genesis 3:19). The Serpent in Eden was punished by being sentenced to a dust diet (Genesis 3:14). People would often cover themselves in dust as a sign of mourning or repentance (e.g., Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:2; 15:32; Job 2:12; Nehemiah 9:1). Dust was also associated with poverty (Psalms 113:7). Indeed, God calls Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, to “shake off your dust” and to “rise up”. In this case of Matthew 10, as one can, in example, read in “Robertson’s Word Studies”, “shake off the dust (ektinaxate ton koniorton)” is a rather violent gesture of disfavor. In the Middle East travellers would often arrive with their feet caked in dust and hence foot washing was quite traditional. The Jews made this a theological and sacred issue though. Jewish customs and traditional teaching believed that any land outside of Israel was defiling, or at least its dirt was. This presumably caused some questions of conscience and consternation for those Diaspora Jews living outside of first century Palestine. Jews were to “shake off” any dust or dirt from outside lands when returning to Israel, or even off any imported fruit and food. The dust of a gentile land was equivalent to the defiling brought about by coming into contact with a corpse.

According to the philologist Edersheim, the very dust of a heathen country was considered unclean, and it defiled by contact. It was regarded like a grave, or like the putrescence of death. If a spot of heathen dust had touched an offering, it had at once to be burnt. More than that, if by mischance any heathen dust had been brought into Palestine, it did not and could not mingle with that of “the land” but remained to the end what it had been, unclean, defiled, and defiling everything to which it adhered. This, I suppose, casts light upon the meaning conveyed by the symbolical directions of our Master to His disciples in the moment He sent them forth to mark out the boundary lines of the true Israel, “the kingdom of heaven” that was at hand: they were not only to leave a city or household not receiving them, but it was to be considered and treated as if it were heathen. Even considering the fact that the Master was often quite extreme in His words and that surely we don’t need to take the passage literally excluding any “non-Christian” from our lives, it is quite clear that, given the prevalent attitudes to gentile grit and grime one could think that Jesus was suggesting to his disciples that if their Jewish hearers rejected the gospel then they should treat them as gentiles, shaking them off, and move on to more fruitful ground.  There is no neutrality in this, no indifferentism, no relativism.

There is identity, on the other hand, identity, the identity of a message to spread and witness with no imposition but also with no fear, the identity of a faith we have, we are proud of, we live and we must peacefully defend against anything: against the violence of any fundamentalism as well as against the more subtle (but, in the end, not less pernicious) violence of any blasphemic, vulgar insult to the elements shaping our souls, of any relativism diluting our beliefs.

Adonai echad, amen.

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