Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #083. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print June 24, 2014

"Sectarian division of country looms." "Insurgents boast of executions." "Leader disavows encouraging doctrinal conflict." "Victors impose strict religious law." "Refugees flee persecution."

Stories with headlines like these have filled the news recently. Iraq is in turmoil, with Sunni and Shia Muslims at war. The battle — which already involves Syria and potentially could engulf much of the Middle East and beyond — is about many things, including the right to claim authentic succession to the religious movement started by Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. What is true Islam?

It is all too easy to forget that such headlines would have told many Christian stories. What is true Christianity? Who has the right to claim authentic succession to the religious movement started by Jesus?

Western Christian Crusaders sacked the Eastern Christian capital, Constantinople, in 1204 (fueled in part by memories of a massacre of Latin Christians by Orthodox inhabitants of the city 22 years before).

John Calvin imposed strict religious rule on Geneva; in practical terms, the regulations were a cousin of Sharia law.

The Catholic Church is known for the iniquity of the Inquisition, but Protestants were quite capable of harassing, outlawing, and even killing dissenters too.

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought a sort of end to the wars of religion and redrew boundaries within which a ruler's religion would determine that of the state — not unlike what many observers today think will happen to Iraq and Syria.

And the story comes closer to home. Salem witch trials. Expulsion of Mormons. My wife has memories of a cross-burning on the lawn of Catholic relatives in a predominantly Protestant part of North Dakota. Catholics forbidden to attend relatives' weddings in Protestant churches.

There is an oft-repeated comment, attributed to an unidentified United States senator expressing frustration at the recurrent breakdowns in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: "Why can't those Arabs and Jews just sit down, and like good Christians settle their differences!" Whether anybody actually said it or not, I suspect there are lots of people who think "acting like good Christians" is the way to peace.

Ours is an era when Western pope and Eastern patriarch embrace. Christians gather for common worship and prayer, even though their ancestors, maybe not too long ago, would have respectively thought the other headed straight for hell. In Minnesota, we have, as an effective voice for public policy, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, officially sponsored by Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant organizations.

Christians getting along with other Christians, and even with adherents of other religions, seems "natural," the "way things are." But this state of affairs — "like good Christians settling their differences" — is not a given. It is an accomplishment, won by the hard work of many people over several generations in what is called the ecumenical movement.

Some reconciliations require a very long time. In 2004, the 800th anniversary of the sack of Constantinople, Pope St. John Paul II asked, "How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?" And in that same year, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I responded, "The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred."

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting the 95 Theses, just three years away, will probably provoke more celebrations of reconciliation than revivals of controversy (though there will undoubtedly be some of the latter). Even terminology is important. The first volume of a book of readings in church history that was current when I was a student was titled "From Pentecost to the Protestant Revolt"; a subsequent edition altered "Revolt" to "Reformation."

My point: There is plenty of reason to be apprehensive about the consequences of the current conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. I hope that the followers of Prophet Muhammad will soon develop their own ecumenical movement.

But there is no excuse for Christian triumphalism or gloating. Much of our story isn't pretty. "Settling our differences like good Christians" is something we too often haven't been good at. We've had to learn it, and the gains aren't guaranteed. We must keep working at it.