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I watched two very powerful films last weekend as the world marked the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. One was about the bravery of two Port Authority employees who helped nearly 100 people on the 88th floor and the other was about people on United Flight 175 that crashed into the other tower.
It was a great use of media to personalize the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Their courage and caring for their fellow human beings inspired others to share selfless love for others and changed the course of how we react to horrendous situations. Their selfless love was transformative in the face of meaningless bigotry and sectarian violence. The name of God was invoked by the hijackers -- all religious extremists as the planes crashed into the buildings and ended nearly 3,000 lives.
The fearless love of Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz portrayed in the film “Heroes of the 88th Floor” remains an enduring legacy of the best of humanity in the face of evil. Their example helped me deal with some recent bad news. The week ended with the tragic loss of four American diplomats in Libya when the toxic cocktail of extremist religion and politics, Internet and media took its maddening toll.
Our hearts reach out to our friends in the State Department
I regularly visit the U.S. State Department and hope to be there again this coming week. It is full of brilliant and dedicated young men and women and seasoned internationalists who represent the interests of the USA and our intentions to build a more just and loving world. The risks many of these good people take on our behalf are often forgotten until someone like Ambassador Chris Stevens, a California native, is tragically martyred.
Susan E. Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said this about the Libyan deaths:
“The United States has lost four brave individuals who, in President Obama’s words, exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice and international partnership. In Ambassador Stevens, the Libyan people also lost a close friend — one who stood by them in their revolution and its aftermath, one who understood and shared in their aspirations, their culture and their traditions. I had the privilege of working closely with Ambassador Stevens. He was passionate about his work to bring about a better future in Libya, and he cared deeply for the Libyan people. He and the rest of his team risked their lives daily to support the Libyan people's democratic aspirations, including during the height of the revolution, when he represented the United States in Benghazi. Our hearts are heavy today.”
Our shadow side
I watched the 14-minute trailer of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” that is claimed to be the spark that ignited a wave of anti-American protests across the world. It was financed and made here in California by what appears to be a group of religiously motivated Christian and Jewish extremists determined to incite violence and tension between Islam and the rest of the world. It has succeeded.
The differences between the artful and human storytelling in the first two moves I watched and this one are indescribable. The film is trash. Sheer trash. It portrays Mohammed the Prophet as a gay pedophile whose bloodthirsty rise to power and conquest as the inspiration for modern day religious violence like 9/11. It is a dangerous weapon that is doing exactly what it was designed to do – to dehumanize and incite to violence.
I compare Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (aka Sam Becile- - the film’s creator) to Scott Lively and his war against gays. Livelyl’s book “The Pink Swastika” distorts history by claiming that gay people were responsible for the Holocaust and later the Rwandan genocide.
I can understand why Muslims around the world are angry that their religion has been so degraded by this piece of crap. More and more extremists abuse our Freedom of Expression without any consequences. The power and availability of the Internet only makes their weapons of deceit and deliberate misinformation more potent.
It is time the American people figure out a way that the essential protections of rights and views can be protected from the abuse that Nakoula and Lively are capitalizing upon.
Lively will soon face a U.S. court where he is accused of crimes against humanity because of what he unleashed upon Uganda’s LGBT and ally community by helping to create the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009. Nakoula, if he is responsible for this film, needs to be held accountable in an American court for his anti-Muslim propaganda. Both are involved in their own version American foreign policy and would have some support among some Americans, but surely in God’s name, under oath, they would be brought to justice for the deliberate lies they are portraying as truth. The other misuse these and other hate-mongers are using is appealing to Freedom of Religion by claiming religious conscience as their ultimate judge. Whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, we need to find a new tactic for dealing with this kind of spiritual terrorism that ends in violence.
So I am reflecting on this difficult week where symbol becomes an idol and idolatry becomes our God. The mystery we call God is replaced by a phony look-alike. All three religious traditions have struggled for generations to avoid the temptation to turn our holy books, prophets, history and sense of special relationship to God into God itself.
I am amazed in my lifetime to see the unholy alliance between the Vatican, evangelicals and Mormons to turn the nuclear family into an idol. The have taken religions that have struggled out of persecution and exclusion where the antidote is to build a community that is not limited by family or tribal ties, and distorted the very essence of its own founding. All three monotheistic religions struggle to integrate its common call for a peace-loving humanity while holding violent texts in their hands.
The Book of Revelation, for example, is one of the most violent holy texts ever written yet many Christians are blind to the log in their own eye, preferring to only see the violence in the Quran. Muslims do not understand what Freedom of Expression means for most Americans and all they can see is a film that was made by Americans to demean all they hold sacred.
There was a time in Christianity that God, Jesus and the church were all off-limits for criticism or caricature. The church condemned these “heretics” and infidels to the stake. So we all live in a big glass house and no one can through stones any more. Islam is just as concerned about how the Prophet can be turned into a holy idol as much as Christians have turned the Bible into their God. LGBT people know exactly what this terrorism looks like.
This is not an academic exercise
St. Paul’s Foundation is trying to figure out a way to help two young LGBT people who came to the World AIDS Conference and are now being hounded by their governments for asking for the same protections under their constitutions.
Scratch the surface and religious interpretation of the holy texts have now become law. And law is unchangeable? Until religious people deal more responsibly with idolatry and the violence within our own holy texts, we will only repeat the mistakes of the stories we read about in the same holy texts.
This is not a new story. The texts are also full of heroes like Frank, Pablo and Chris who teach us and illuminate our way out of the illusion of certainty and permanence. My religion warns me to break the images, including my images of God and all I hold important, to discover what they are trying to point me towards. Jesus has become such an obstacle for lots of people I know, not because people are evil and unbelievers, but they see through the idolatry that is practiced by many Christians.
The Bible is not the revelation, but only the conduit or the media to the Revelation we call God. Jesus shows us what God in the flesh looks like and it’s about love, inclusion and connection. Anything else is idolatry. There’s a lot of it about as we all just discovered this week and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. But then there is Frank, Pablo and Chris who showed us all a better way.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.