The New Sacred and Profane

When was the last time we stoned someone to death for any crime in this country?

The bible says that there are a number of crimes for which this is the requisite punishment.  Why don’t we do that?  Why don’t we stone gays as Leviticus tells us to?  Why don’t we kill adulterers?

Are we just bad Christians?

Well, that’s Old Testament stuff and we were told by Jesus that we no longer have to follow those laws any longer.


Why don’t Jews stone gays?  The Old Testament is a Jewish text.  When was the last time a Jew stoned someone to death in this country for being gay or being an adulterer?

So, are they all just bad Jews?

The bible prohibits women from wearing pants.  It prohibits women from cutting their hair short.  But short-haired women in pants are everywhere, Christian women, Jewish women.  Why aren’t they punished?

These are not gratuitous questions.

They are at the heart of understanding one of the largest problems facing this country today.  The inability of many Americans to understand how the culture of faith and secular culture must interact in order for a society to work is a more or less recent phenomenon.  We have lost the ability to have a rational dialogue on almost every subject these days, but this is one area where every citizen needs to be educated and to understand the interplay between secular action and religious belief and how it impacts the a world where ideas move at the speed of the internet.  To remain ignorant and to not understand invites hijacking by dangerous political influence.

So why don’t we stone people in the streets?  There are two main reasons.

Firstly, the living religion no longer demands it.  Religion is not a fixed commodity.  All religions change over time.  You can trace modern Christian sects back to the reformation and beyond that to the Church of Rome.  Every time another break with the previous church dogma was made, the religion changed.  The text of the Bible did not change, but the way in which the Bible was integrated into the living religion of that sect changed.  We conveniently forget the history of our religions.

Western religions are clergy based.  There is an organized church which ordains a clergy to inform the laity of that church’s beliefs.  There is a group of clergymen (or sometimes just one) who act as heads of the church and make decisions about what that church believes.  Because of that, most people within any one “faith” believe more or less the same thing.  But the Biblical text is unchanging.

Sometime just before the birth of Christ the Jewish Sanhedrin courts made the decision to ban capital punishment for all but a few crimes.  This effectively changed the way the living church of the time viewed the punishment for most of the crimes where the Bible calls for death by stoning or otherwise.  While the practice persisted for many years afterward because it had been absorbed into the culture, it eventually died out because it was no longer sanctioned by the “clergy.”

We don’t stone adulterers and gays today because the living church, the church down the street, the church which interprets the Biblical text, your pastor, does not demand it.  It used to.  It doesn’t now.  Religion evolves.  Texts cannot.  Unless we rewrite the Bible, it will always call for us to stone people in the streets.

The second reason we don’t stone people in the streets is because we are a nation of secular law.  We very deliberately created a division between religious belief and our system of jurisprudence.  While many of our laws are based on Judeo-Christian beliefs, the church has no part in writing or enforcing the laws of the United States, and, at least in theory, the Bible has no place in the creation and enforcement of those laws either.

This is a critical point.  If a church were to suddenly decide that they had been wrong all this time and that we should be stoning gays, they would be advocating breaking the laws of this country.  And if someone did stone someone to death, that person would be guilty of murder and no amount of religious belief would save them from punishment under the law.

We have a secular legal system.

Not every country does.  In a theocracy, religious law applies.  Religious law is almost always a text separate from the scripture itself, but incorporating ideas from the scripture as well as other influential texts.

This separation of church and state and how that should be interpreted has become a major issue in American society of late and is likely to continue to have a high profile as we face challenges created by the displacement of large numbers of Muslim from the Middle East and the growing Muslim population in the US.

Most people are woefully ignorant of their own religion and religion in general.  Studies have shown that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most practitioners. [1] But ignorance of religion in general doesn’t seem to keep people from taking up the banner against someone else’s religion without any qualms.  This is particularly true right now as certain political interests have stirred up an anti-Muslim movement in this country.

On one hand we have the conservative right claiming that Islam is a dangerous and horrific threat to the US and that we need to wage a war on Islam.  They cite passages of the Quran to prove that Muslims want all infidels dead, their women enslaved and raped, and that Allah has instructed them to take over the world.

On the other hand, there are liberals who claim that Islam is a religion of peace and refuse to even utter the words “Islamic terrorist.”

Both of these camps have their heads firmly implanted up their backsides.

Both of these camps are spouting ignorant nonsense that ultimately puts this country at great risk.

The explanation for that claim is terribly complicated, and it would be the height of folly to think that it could be done in one of these essays, but perhaps a start can be made.

The issues here are complex, however; and you cannot begin to understand them by reading internet memes on Face Book.  Since we refuse to educate our population about important issues like this one in our public school systems, we have to take extraordinary measures post school age to re-educate an entire population from the misinformation spread by self-interested groups who purposely spread that misinformation.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today.  About 80% of these are Sunni Muslims and the remainder are Shia.  The Shia and the Sunnis split in 632 AD over the matter of who should succeed the Prophet as leader and they went to war with each other.  It was apparently a nasty conflict, and the Sunnis won.  There is still a good deal of animosity between the two groups, to say the least.

Both groups have any number of sects within the larger designation.  For the most part the Shia are closer to the Judeo-Christian tradition in that they have religious leaders known as Imams who function as the head of the faith.  They believe these Imams are chosen by God.  The vast majority of Shia are known as “Twelver Shiites.”  They believe that their 12th Imam who went into “occultation” (hiding) will come back at the end of time.  He is known as Mahdi (the Messiah).  They also believe that the final interpretation of the Quran cannot be made until he does return.  Iran is a Shiite country, and the Shia make up the majority of the population in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, as well as being a politically significant minority in Lebanon.

Sunnis reject the idea of Imams or ayatollahs being the reflection of Allah on earth.  They see that as heresy.  In the Sunni tradition Imams are usually chosen from the community.   They lead prayer, deliver “sermons,” and may counsel on personal or religious matters.  There is no “clergy” in Islam.  Muslims believe in a direct relationship with Allah, and there is no overarching clerical organization.  In the Sunni tradition there is no “ayatollah” that can be seen as an “ultimate authority.”  That is the role of Allah.

I will ignore the Shia tradition in what follows.

Those who maintain that Islam is a religion of war and cruelty usually point to any number of verses in the Quran which at face value serve their purpose.

Consider the following:

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.

11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.

12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.

13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it.

14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.

15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance do not leave alive anything that breathes.

17 Completely destroy[a]them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.

18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.


Those verses from Deuteronomy 20 are hardly less bloodthirsty than what you will find in the Quran regarding the making of war.  “Completely destroy them… as the Lord God has commanded you,” – men, women, and children.  Leave nothing alive.  Kill even the animals, because if you don’t, they will teach you to follow all the “detestable things they do in worshiping their gods and you will sin against the Lord your God.” (Emphasis mine.)

It is interesting that those people who quote the Quran as proof that Islam is a religion of war and cruelty ignore these verses from the Bible as they do so.

By this token we should have marched into Bagdad and killed every male Iraqi and taken the women and children as slaves.  They are the “plunder God gives you from your enemies.”

Scripture is words in a book.  Before they were words in a book they were oral tradition.  Often those words have been translated from other words.  Often they have been read and copied by hand over and over again.  Even if they are God’s words, people have to decide what words mean today.  No living Christian church would follow those directives today.  But they exist.

The fact that you can find scripture from the Quran which advocates what we would consider to be despicable acts means little.  What is ultimately important is how those scriptures are incorporated into the living faith itself.  And if the faith has no ultimate authority to dictate how that should be done, then it is left to each mosque or even each individual.

Imagine a Christian nation without a clergy to interpret scripture for the laity.  Imagine the Bible without a church guiding the way it is interpreted.  How would Deuteronomy be incorporated into the life of such a nation?  The Bible clearly states that when you lay siege to a city or a country, at the very least you should kill all the males when you win.  It is a literal interpretation.  It is a fundamentalist interpretation.  It may well be an interpretation that the anti-Muslim faction in America could agree with.  But it is not the interpretation that is consistent with the living faith of most Christians today.

It is, however, the closest interpretation to the actual Biblical teaching that you could imagine.  Does that make it the “true” interpretation?  Should all “true” believers in the word of God follow this scriptural injunction?  Are you a “bad” believer if you do not?

The anti-Muslim activists are continually pointing to the verses in the Quran that call for the death of all infidels as proof that we are in great danger from Islam.  The mantra is that they will kill anyone who is not a Muslim because the Quran tells them to do so.  And yet we find the following in Deuteronomy 13:

If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder

And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;

Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.

And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.


Apostasy is punishable by death in the Judeo-Christian religion as well as in Islam.  But we do not kill someone who converts from a Baptist church to, say Buddhism.  Does that make us not “true” believers in the word of God?

We say that we believe in the Bible as the Word of God.  Many claim they believe in it as the literal Word of God.  But we choose to ignore parts of it every day.  Our living church makes that choice.  It’s a choice made by living people in a particular time in a particular place, based on a particular religious and secular history and a text that is 2000 years old.  In another time, in another place, based on a different history, people made other choices.  The text is much less important than how people deal with it.

Why would we expect that Muslims should be any different?  Are they just that much more devout than Christians?  Do they serve their God better than Christians serve the Christian God?

In their book Islam and the Future of Tolerance – a Dialogue Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz use some definitions that will be helpful in moving forward here.  Nawaz defines an Islamists as those who would impose their version of Islam on society.  He defines Jihadists as those who would use force to spread Islam.  He further defines Political Islamists as those who would prefer change come through the ballot box and Revolutionary Islamists who want change from outside, all at once (as in the Iranian revolution).  Jihadists are Militant Islamists.

Harris and Nawaz estimate that somewhere between 20 and 25% of Muslims today are Islamists.  That includes the very small minority (1%- 2%) that is Jihadist of either the local or global variety.

Nearly all Jihadists are fundamentalists in the sense that they believe in a more or less literal (Nawaz calls it vacuous – as in no thought) interpretation of the Quran and the other Muslim texts.  Not all fundamentalists, however, are Jihadist.

The remainder, the other 75% to 80% of Muslims, are what Nawaz calls conservative Muslims.  They do not seek to impose their brand of Islam on society.

Why not?  Doesn’t the Quran teach that they should?

Doesn’t the Bible teach that thou shalt surely kill him who suggests another religion might be better than your own?

We must get past this superficial understanding of faith as simply what is written somewhere and take a close look at how the faith is lived by those who believe in it.

Is Islam a religion of peace?  Of course it isn’t.  Neither is Christianity.  Islam and Christianity together have been responsible for the death of more people than all the secular wars ever fought.  Islam has beheaded infidels, but Christianity has burned witches.

Is Islam as a whole bent on taking over the world and converting all infidels to their faith or killing them outright?  Of course it isn’t.  The vast majority of Muslims have no interest in imposing Islam on the world.

There are serious issues raised by the rapid migration of Muslims into Europe.  Even conservative Muslims can maintain fundamentalist beliefs.  They have been free to pick and choose what parts of the Quran and other texts to emphasize because theirs was a clergy-less experience.  There is no one-size-fits-all Sunni Muslim.  They aren’t like Lutherans.

But if they really have no desire to impose their religion on others, and if they are assimilated into a secular society where religious belief and secular law are in balance, these are not dangerous people.

If, on the other hand, they are rejected by that secular society, persecuted by that society, and branded as outcasts, they will have every reason to believe the jihadists were right and that only in an Islamic state will they be allowed to live their lives without persecution.

The anti-Muslim movement fomented by the conservative right in this country today runs a real risk of turning conservative Muslims who have been integrated into our secular American society into the very Islamists that it fears.

The Ba’athist Party in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was essentially a secular dictatorship.  Iraq was not a theocracy before the US deposed Hussein.  It wasn’t until the US left Iraq in a power vacuum that the Jihadists were able to make gains.

The refusal of many liberals to admit that jihadists are Islamists in the “truest” sense of the word, that they are following the literal (vacuous) reading of the Islamic holy texts, is just as dangerous.

ISIL is not just a political movement.  It is not a gang of thugs.  It is a militant Islamist organization bent on re-establishing a Caliphate.  They are determined to force their brand of Islam on the world – the secular world as well as on the Muslim world that does not share their views through violence.  If they have their way, the entire European and Asian continent will be changed.  Both the west and the Muslim countries  in the Levant ignore that at great peril.

ISIL is also just another of a long line of jihadist organizations.  We can kill every member of this group tomorrow and another group will rise to take its place at some point in the future.  You cannot kill an idea with guns.  You kill an idea by offering alternatives that are more appealing to the people themselves.  You cannot kill what many feel is sacred by calling it profane.  You must prove that what they think is profane is actually the new sacred.

Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

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