Since Sept. 11, priests, mullahs, rabbis and ministers in the United States have officiated at ceremonies of grief. What no priest, mullah, rabbi or minister confesses is how religion has brought us to this terrible moment.
Instead, it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair (albeit within a war psalm) who rehearsed a commonplace about the history of religion: Men have, through centuries, blasphemed the name of God to justify human atrocity. Blair recalled that Christianity's Crusades against Islam amounted to little more than rape and pillage. In Washington, President Bush has been careful to distinguish Islam from crimes committed in the name of Islam. His tact is commendable and shrewd. European diplomats have repeated Bush's assurance that the West is not engaged in a religious war, is not at war with Islam.
The face of Osama bin Laden floats up from his cyber-cave to incite Muslims to war with the West, describing America as a "Jewish-Christian alliance." In Pakistan, in Indonesia, crowds of men cheer the prospect of jihad against the satanic West.
I am interested that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are alike religions of the desert. They are brother-faiths, more like one another than any one of them is like an Eastern religion. The religions of the desert are monotheistic, paternalistic. They are male in popular imagination and in tradition. All three religions of the desert are revealed religions. God is an activist God; God works in history; God instructs men how God wishes to be worshiped and God makes covenants with men. In the case of Judaism and Islam, the covenant is cut upon the male organ. Christianity may be a feminine sprig of Judaism, but Christianity definitely found its he-man in St. Paul.
At their best, these three theologies instruct humans not to despair in their lives, in their histories, for "I am with you always." Rescue workers at the site of the World Trade Center spontaneously erect a cross of tortured steel over the rubble, seeking to hallow a field Of desolation. I do not gainsay such an impulse; my own impulse would be the same. Nor would I pause to question the symbol. The urgent thing is the reminder that God lives in relationship to men and women.
But at their worst, the desert religions have taken innocent lives in the name of God. Christian anti-Semitism gave rise to the Holocaust. Jewish settlers in the West Bank today enforce an eschatological claim on the land. Muslims justify murder by calling it jihad.
I was driving a friend of mine, a woman of 80 -- Jewish -- to a funeral two weeks ago. In response to nothing I had said (perhaps it was that we were on our way to a funeral) my friend announced her conviction that the world would, in her opinion, be better off without religion. "I mean all of them," she said. An angry gesture of her hand, still a strong hand, wiped them all away. As we drove on in silence, it occurred to me that I interpreted what my friend had said as something about men, though she had not said men. She had said "religion." I think that if theology can inure us to the suffering of others it is bad theology. But perhaps partisan theologians would call mine a gelded theology, for it leaves out righteousness.
In latter days, fundamentalist Jerry Falwell sounded very much like an anti-American imam when he described the terrorist attack on America as representing God's abandonment, which he attributed to the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union, to gays, to pro-abortionists and some others. Before he was overwhelmed by a reflux of patriotism, Falwell was seconded by his rival, Pat Robertson. And, for a moment, amidst all the sorrow, Americans glimpsed a likeness that unites Jewish settlers in the West Bank to bearded mobs in Yemen to Christian fundamentalists in Virginia. They are united in their certainty of God's plan and their own situation within God's plan -- a righteous confraternity of hormonal clarity that accounts for much of the history of misery on our planet. …