Today I signed a petition for the overturning of yet another death sentence which has been handed down to a Christian woman living in a Muslim country #saveAsiaBibi. The last one I signed concerned a woman in the Sudan. This time it is Pakistan.
There are probably many more such barbaric sentences being inflicted on women, and not only Christian women, which we never hear about. Added to these are the innumerable atrocities being perpetrated against women and girls by a criminal organisation which has somehow morphed into an ideological movement having nothing whatever to do with the religion it claims to stand for.
This has happened, in part, because the West and its allies did not heed the signs early enough. One of the reasons why those signs were not heeded lies in the fact that most people are unaware of the innate power of religious conviction and of its potency when that conviction is allowed to become detached from its primary source in God.
Conversely, secular ideologies which were originally rooted in a love for humanity, have also been twisted out of all recognition into a warped form of religion. From Marxism we get Cold War style Communism which lingers on in North Korea, displaying itself to the world as a form of 21st century emperor worship. North Korean communism is its own religion.
So too with Islamism whose religious totem is a black flag, exhorting a hate driven ‘worship’, the sign of a warped version of a good religion. Religion gets twisted out of shape when its worship spirals away from its true ‘centre’, so that ‘the centre cannot hold’ to borrow a line from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming .
The three Abrahamic religions find their true centre in God and in the fear of him, a fear which is felt as reverence, as love answering love. From this fear comes wisdom. Wisdom brings a certain kind of understanding about God, a deep sense of God ‘holding’ humanity and that humanity also ‘holds’ God for as long as it lives in the love of him. Love answering love is the essence of worship. It is also where the real power of religion lies, a power which changes us.
In a recent interview CNN’s Christiane Amanpour heard Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi businessman, say, quoting a verse from the Quran, that ‘God will not change you until you change yourself’. He also declared that the funding of Islamist extremists ‘has been stopped completely’. We hope, and we trust, that his remarks were made in good faith. They certainly reflect the real meaning of Islam, which is peace. They also resonate with the inherent truth which pertains to all three of the Abrahamic faiths, that God asks us to change, to be conformed to his love.
The Prince was speaking of a change which is about re-orientation of personal, ideological and national loyalties, as well as priorities. This kind of change requires a complete turning about to face the One God, the God of Abraham who is also the God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. So the Prince was really speaking for the majority of the world’s people. We all need to change in this way. We all, in our different religious contexts need to turn away from warped versions of our religions and face the one true God, as we come to him from one of a number of directions.
This change of orientation comes with what the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic faiths call ‘the fear of God’. The fear of God is closely associated with wisdom. Wisdom is a particular kind of understanding which pertains to how God wishes to deal with the world. His dealing with the world begins and ends with the making of peace, but peace can only come about when human beings are prepared to work with God’s purposes for the world, rather than against them. It can only come about when enough people want to see justice and righteousness prevail for all.
This is a difficult and often complex matter. For one thing, the justice and righteousness which comes with the fear of God also belongs within the contextualities, or ‘habitations’ which have been shaped within the history of cultures and nations, the histories of different peoples. But it is, nevertheless, the same justice, the same righteousness, which God desires for Muslims and Christians in Syria and Iraq, for Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.