Long, long ago, I started my first real teaching job, at a large state institution in the Chicago area. Almost my first day of class, as I came into the room, one of the students, thinking to strike up a conversation on a topic of can’t-fail, universal interest, said, “Say, how ‘bout them Bears?” He assumed that I, that all the world, would know about the latest adventures of his favorite team. Well, I was new to the midwest and was not sure whether the Bears play baseball, football, or left-handed badminton in the Special Olympics. (I was also not a sports fan. So sue me.)
Anyway, today I am tempted to say: Say, how ‘bout that Pope? I do tend to obsess about certain things, I admit. In case you haven’t heard, that guy is in the news again. Last week he made a speech in Germany, where he criticized Islam as being constitutionally violent, spreading itself by force since the time of Mohamed himself. This sparked vicious violence on the part of some Muslims, who burned churches in the West Bank (apparently not Catholic ones), while others shot a nun in the back in Somalia. For some reason, no one as far as I know has mentioned the obvious irony in this: How dare you call me violent! I’ll kill you for that! Maybe people are so used to this sort of blatant, defiant, in-your-face, fuck-you-asshole irrationality they do not notice it any more. So people who burn churches, and don’t even bother to burn the right kind of church, are not logically consistent. What else is new? I have to admit I almost feel foolish in mentioning it myself.
If you know anything about me, you know what I think is the real issue here. If the Pope takes my advice (unlikely: he has not been returning my calls) he will make this a free speech issue. Whatever arguments there are against what the Pope said, and I am not denying that that they might be weighty ones, his comments were historical and ethical opinions, well within the limits of civilized debate. They are in a completely different universe of discourse from the pure evil of shooting a sixty-five-year-old relief worker in the back.
One thing you will not see here is any of that a-pox-on-both-their-houses, murder-and-arson-are-naughty-but-the-Pope-was-naughty-too kind of talk you see in certain quarters. To say such a thing is to buy into the false premise that there is some moral comparability between an opinion (even an narrow and nasty one) and the use of brute force. You think the Pope is an ignorant bigot? Fine, enlighten him or ignore him. The answer to a stupid argument is a smart argument. It is never, ever a bullet. And it is not a mass demonstration, either, such as the ones that were held in Egypt in response to the Pope’s speech. Demonstrations are not rational arguments. They are meant to intimidate and silence. They are not moves in a dialogue, they are attempts to end the dialogue, to shut it down.
In the near term, the prospects for Christian/Muslim dialogue do not look good. They won’t brighten up very much as long as someone claims a brutal veto-power over what can be said.