I was still in middle school when George W. Bush won the presidential elections of 2000. I had a committed history teacher, a chubby lady by the name of Mrs. Bechtel who was passionate about democracy and the EU. One day after the Supreme Court’s decision to make Mr. Bush president, she rushed into the classroom and released an angry tirade against him. She got all worked up in her fury until she prophesied wars, finally shouting “Ich hasse diesen Kerl – I hate this guy!” at us. Her thickly painted eyes seemed to radiate lethal laser beams which would have turned Bush – had he been in the room – into powder. (In hindsight I remember that she even had the looks of a Gipsy fortuneteller.) My friends and I were puzzled. So far, the German media had characterized Bush as no one more than a clueless cowboy. We didn’t see any particular danger.
This all changed after September 11. It was my first week in highschool when I saw the towers fall on tv. I was 17. The next day at school there was a somber atmosphere. Shock and fear had penetrated teachers and students alike as if it had been their own country under attack. With a concerned expression, my new history teacher called for a minute of silence. Afterwards we all walked to the big American military base nearby. Candles were lit – signs of solidarity repeated across the country.
After the silence came the bloodshed. US soldiers invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and is still fighting potential enemies across the globe as part of their world war on terror, a war that has created a world of fear itself. I wonder if German kids would still walk up to the gates of that military base and express solidarity.
In Germany, something unusual happened after 9/11: Its thoroughly secularized society turned its attention to religion. Public discourse suddenly foamed over with debates on Islam and Christianity, fueled by Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, an unfortunate theory publicised in Germany under the even more unfortunate translation “Fight of Cultures”. Ever since I could remember, religion was hardly ever thematised in the German media. Most Germans nowadays are so detached from it that they got completely jumped by the religious implications of America’s War on Terror. “Why are there so many crazy Christians in the US? And why do they support the Republican Party?” – “Why are all these Muslims so angry? Are they all terrorists? ”
At school I had to face similar questions. And as most of my classmates had little sympathy for religion I as a Christian became close friends with three Muslim girls from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. For us, the years after 9/11 meant a time of confusion and friction. Especially Ethics lessons became collision ground for us and atheist students. Sometimes my strongly devout Iraqi friend would get agitated and even praise suicide bombers as heros. Saddam Hussein was the reason her family had to flee from Iraq, but she was terrified to see her home country threatened by another war. She and my Iranian friend would express their resentment towards Israel as well as the white “Christian” invaders oppressing Muslim nations.
The latter hit me personally. As a Christian I felt the same urge to defend my religion. Yes, there had been countless genocides and massacres in the name of Christ in all countries, and Muslims had suffered a lot under Western powers. But I wanted to let them know that these things were completely against the heart of Jesus’ teachings. I told them that the Bushes and Cheneys and Powells were not real Christians, just politicians with Christian masks. Because how could “real” Christians be holding high positions in the arms industry and wage horrible wars for profit? How could true followers of Jesus revive a crusader rhethoric and deceive the world?
Then, one day I found this article in a weekly magazine. It showed daily work at the White House. On one of the photos was President Bush and his staff assembling for morning prayers. The article explained how carefully the president observed this prayer time, and all the other religious activities together with his top leaders. It mentioned Bush’s dramatic change from an alcohol-addict to a pious “born-again” Methodist, now attracting the votes of the Christian right.
I was startled. The article challenged my notion of religious club membership. I wrestled with it but had no choice but to accept the thought that these people were just as serious about their Christian faith as myself, and – even though they were throwing bombs on Afghan children – believed in the same god as I. Their motivation for war was not only money and vengeance, but the belief that having tanks roll through the streets of Kabul would spread the God’s justice.
Moreover, accepting George W. Bush as a fellow brother in Christ made me rethink my relation to the blood-soaked history of Christianity. I realized I could not just conveniently separate myself from crusades, witch hunts and the Inquisition, saying that Christian atrocities had nothing to do with me. I am one part of a long chain. Even if I am innocent of the Church’s brutalities, I bear – along with the Christian label – the responsibility of learning from its past.
Reflecting on this post 9/11 situation led me to another painful realization: How much the faith I had grown up with was actually the ultra-conservative, right-wing American version of Christianity. The US-influenced Baptist church of my childhood accepted it as the nly right one. Literature from screwball fanatics such as Tim LaHaye, Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson sat on our bookshelves at home. I had no idea that this Christianity rooted in the fornication of religion and American nationalism – the kind of force that supported President Bush and his henchmen.
I could see this stream of fundamentalist subculture flow more and more into the independent churches in Europe – by worship music, films and all sorts of spiritual merchandizing. (Japanese churches also becoming increasingly influenced by this.) Towards the end of my highschool days I had become extremely dissatisfied with all of this. It was just the right time to go to Asian Rural Institute and to seriously reflect on my faith.
More than ten years have passed since 9/11. As for German society, the issues that this conflict has stirred up continue to boil. Immigration policy, racism, freedom of religion, the type of society Germany wants to become. Many young migrant men, for example, rediscover their identity in Islam. Some of them fall into the hands of rhethorical arsonists such as German-born Salafist Pierre Vogel. On the other hand are disturbed Europeans reacting with paroles that conjure memories of 1933. Those are not crazy neo-nazis, but ordinary middle-class citizens, steaming against multiculturalism. And politicians jump on this populist train running on xenophobia. It was only last year when a young Norwegian named Anders Breivik places a car bomb in the government quarter of Oslo and later shoots dozens of young people who were attending a youth camp on a small island. Together, he kills 77 people, and injures almost 100. The shock wave of this home-grown terrorist attack rattled Europe and pundits declaring Breivik a mentally disturbed loner were quickly to hand. However, this explanation is too convenient. Breivik thought himself as a kind of 21st century crusader, who saves European Christian culture from Marxists and Muslims. He was active in internet forums, were hatred against Muslims and immigrants run rampant.
It makes me angry that the very faith that teaches me about the Reign of God, a kingdom of forgiveness, in which people reach out to those in need, is being taken over by people who abuse it as an instrument of hatred. How can we people of different religions live together? How can we create a more peaceful and tolerant world?
The night Jesus was arrested, so we are told in the Gospel according to Matthew, his followers panicked. One of them – Peter – thought he could protect Jesus, his beloved master with a weapon, by his own force. But Jesus stopped his violence. “Put back your sword. I don’t need your protection.” For me, this means that you cannot defend Christianity by force.
Jesus’ tought compassion and justice. His spirit is not with the powerful who let soldiers crush everything in their way, but with those who are being crushed. He is with those who have lost their families by cruise missiles. He is with those who are being tortured in the name of whatever they come up with as an excuse to dehumanize others. Jesus says “I am your brother, because I suffered the same thing.”
How can we live together? As a religious person, I’ve got responsibility. I will refuse to let my spirituality be infected by fear. I stand with Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion”, published in 2008.
We therefore call upon all men and women
~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion
~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate
~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures
~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity
~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings” even those regarded as enemies.
The Reign of God is not brought by the works of mass-murdering criminals like Anders Breivik, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush. It is made real by people who heal the broken, who strengthen the weak. It is supported by dialogue between religions. It is spread through works for social justice.
I firmly believe that my work at ARI, the work for sustainable rural development, is part of God’s Reign. No matter what religion you have or not have, when you serve the marginalized, that is where divine salvation takes place. ARI proves on a small scale that coexistence with different religions can be possible. I am convinced that it is possible on a global level as well.