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On clergy who step from pulpits into headlines

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — Let me welcome Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida to join Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of SHAS, and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the promoter of Cordoba House to the Pantheon of religious leaders whose commotions have ranged beyond local and national borders.

There is no requirement that members of this Pantheon be judged for their wisdom, or even their knowledge of the religious traditions they claim to lead. Enough that they have done something to produce headlines in many countries.
God forbid that I would hint that such distinguished persons do not understand the nature of the religions they claim to lead. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are comprehensive in the ideas apparent in their writings and customs. Love, hate, fanaticism, tolerance, moderation, and lots in between appear in these monotheisms. Jones, Ovadia, and Rauf have provoked sharp criticism from those who share their faith, but distant themselves from what they are promoting.

Jones’ call to burn the Koran reminds me of a personal experience. In 1965 I was teaching at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and signed on to a research project investigating how local governments were dealing with rapid development around Cape Canaveral (or maybe by then it was Cape Kennedy). On several Sunday mornings I made the long drive across central Florida in order to begin interviews on Monday. Looking for something to hear on the car radio I happened on sermons that shocked me for the virulence of their anti-Catholicism. I had read of the Pope being called the devil and whore of Rome, and of his plans to rule the world, but had never heard those things spoken by living preachers. I felt that somewhere between Tallahassee and the Florida coast, perhaps near Gainesville, I had fallen off the edge of civilization.

I see these columns as my part in conversations, rather than one-way reports of truth as I see it.
Comments on the nuttiness of Israeli concerns with Summer Time and Yom Kippur brought me a note from a friend who once worked in the Kansas Governor’s Office, screening the mail from citizens. One letter came from a farmer intense about the damage done by Daylight Savings Time. By his reckoning, the extra hour of sunlight was destroying his crops.
Another friend who gets these notes, along with some of his students, are at the University of Florida. I’ll rely on them to report if they know of anyone joining the burning of Korans, and if there are still preachers burning up the airwaves with curses against Rome. Newspapers report that Jones’ church has only 50 members, but that he is receiving Korans from elsewhere for his pyre.

Jones has received more attention than the fire that destroyed a mosque being constructed near Nashville, Tennessee. Jones is a preacher explaining his intentions, rather than an anonymous arsonist.

We will see the downside of Jones’ crusade–as well as that mosque burning–in whatever is added to attacks against American troops, or by noisy parades and denunciations. Rabbi Ovadia’s call on the Almighty to destroy the Palestinians has brought something between ridicule and protest from Palestinians and others, including Israeli Jews. Rauf’s efforts to create an Islamic Center near Ground Zero has resulted in polls showing a majority of Americans opposed, as well as comments from Muslims divided between those who fear the repercussions, applause for his expressions of multiculturalism and moderation, and from those who admire what they see as his furthering the Muslim conquest of the United States.

Ranking Americans have condemned Jones in the strongest of terms. His feeble gesture may be enough to undue whatever Barack Obama was able to achieve by his Cairo speech and everything else he has done to distance his wars against Muslims from a conflict with Islam.

In these disputes along the borders between religion and politics, everyone can claim to be on the side of God and Justice. Jean Paul Sartre’s description of the God-shaped hole in the human heart alludes to the near universal phenomenon of belief, while leaving room for the hole to be shaped differently in each of us. The Pantheon is ecumenical. It offers a home for those who hate as well as those who love.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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