Thursday, October 17, 2002

Killing your children

I don't actually read the Christian Science Monitor that often, so it's a little weird to be blogging it two days in a row, but my brain got going while I was reading this review of a book about Abraham. It says of the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac:
The story of the offering stands as "the most celebrated" and "most combustible" episode. All three religions "have chosen to place the narrative of a father preparing to kill a son at the heart of their self-understanding," he says. Some Jews in medieval times even found courage in the story to kill themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert. Christians see the story as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Muslims see it as symbolizing total surrender to God, and commemorate it in the Feast of the Sacrifice, the final rite of the hajj.

The most sobering question, however, is whether the offering story serves most as a model for holiness or for fanaticism.Does it play a part in today's suicide bombings?

This reminds me of something my mother told me. She was born and spent the first eight or so years of her life in the Appalachians, back when the ol' church-state boundary was a lot blurrier. In the public school she attended the students were led in saying the Lord's Prayer every day, and one of her teachers occasionally read Bible stories to the class.

It was here that my mother, who was raised unchurched, first heard the Abraham/Isaac story. And it scared the crap out of her. As she saw it, it was a story about a parent who would willingly murder his child under orders from an invisible person. That pretty well put her off Christianity at an early age.

I think of this story when I hear arguments by people who want to bring prayer back into public schools or put the Ten Commandments on the walls and that sort of thing. They tend to assume that by stuffing bits of Christian theory and practice into schools, they're getting bits of morality in too. But as the case with my mother--and, for that matter, Muslims, Jews and Christians--indicates, people will interpret these things according to what they know, or don't know. Christianity is a worldview, a mega-narrative, and unless you're already inside it a lot of things don't make a darn bit of sense.

Of course, I realize the push for religion in schools isn't all about converting the heathen--a lot of it seems to be self-reinforcement within the Christian community. But I do think that if Christians are serious about evangelizing the world, they would do well to consider the kind of effects these things can have. Focusing on in-group things like collective prayer aren't really going to make their classmates feel welcome. The creepier Bible stories can downright repel them.

The Abraham/Isaac story is especially delicate because it has kind of a mixed message. It approves of being willing to kill your dearest for God, but also says God doesn't actually want you to do it. I suppose that back in the days when human sacrifice was more common, the latter stuck out more than the former, but today it's the gruesome child-killing aspect that most people notice. If suicide bombers are really inspired by this story, it would be nice if they'd take more notice of the ending.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Diane E. asks an interesting question:
DOES ANYONE KNOW if there is a Balinese independence movement? I've looked on the web and come up with nothing. If East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, why not Bali? It's an island, after all. If I were Balinese, I would join an independence movement immediately. Who wants to be part of a Muslim fundamentalist sinkhole?

Well, I can think of a few objections. Indonesia has a fair supply of natural resources while Bali depends heavily on the tourist industry, which has just been shot to hell. There's the fact that an independence movement is bound to bring more violence. And while Bali might separate itself politically from Indonesia, its geography inevitably puts it in the Islamic mix.

The larger point, though, is that if you're going to start partitioning Indonesia along religious lines, you're looking at Bosnia at about 20 times the scale. Bali may be a nice little self-contained Hindu island, but many other islands, such as Celebes, are much more of a patchwork. Large religious minorities exist even in majority-Muslim areas. It plays right into the fanatics' hands to suggest that Indonesia should be left to them. Let's give Indonesia's traditional laid-back approach to Islam a bit more of a chance.
A bit of good news

So it looks like the month-old civil war in the Ivory Coast may finally be ending. There was an interesting article about the conflict in the Christian Science Monitor last week, describing how "nationalist fervor" was driving Ivorians to turn against immigrants (of which there are a huge number in that country) and some of their own citizens.

The piece focuses in particular on Lasino Bamba, a member of the northern Dioula tribe who moved to a southern region and started a prosperous cocoa farm. Now his neighbors want to take it over, saying the Dioula aren't "true Ivorians."

Why not? The article mentions that the Dioula are Muslims while most Ivorians are Christians, and that is surely a factor. But there's something else about the Dioula that's very interesting.

The Dioula are an ethnic group, but they started out as an economic group. The name Dioula means "itinerant trader," and that was what they were when they started travelling the great Mali empire, more than 600 years ago. At first they spoke Malinke, the empire's dominant language. But over time their dialect drifted to the point of unintelligibility. An identity was born.

The Dioula aren't a majority in any significant area, but their influence is great. Throughout the northern Ivory Coast, in western Burkina Faso, and in southern Mali, the Dioula tongue is the language of the marketplace, and by extension of all communication between ethnic groups. Maybe four times as many people speak Dioula as there are actual Dioula.

What I can't help thinking about the Dioula is how much their position sounds like that of European Jews in the past. They're a transnational entrepreneurial class, the kind of thing Africa in general really needs. Yet Bamba's neighbors' claim that he's a foreigner, even though he was born in the Ivory Coast, sounds creepily familiar. Let's hope that with the new peace, the Ivorians don't succumb to the same hatreds as their former rulers.

Call me Camassia. No, that's not my real name. I'm a reporter at a good-sized newspaper in southern California, and decided that I'd prefer to keep my identity to myself. I hope someday that will change, but right now I have my reasons.

The name, by the way, comes from a flower. It has no special significance, I just liked it.