Pope Benedict at the University of Regensburg
When Pope Benedict started speaking at the University of Regensburg in 2006 there was little clue as to the controversy that was about to unfold. The pope would use the lecture to respond sternly to increasing instances of violence by Islamic extremists across the globe, a move that many westerners felt most uncomfortable with.
While I would not wish to delve into the intricacies of Pope Benedict’s lecture, his fundamental message with regard to Islam is that, unlike Christianity, Islam (or at least some of its members) does not appear to link God to reason. This, Pope Benedict suggested, could lead to fundamentalism. He was quick to state that he was not saying the Muslim God is insane or irrational but, rather, that he is not bound by a reason accessible to human beings.
The pope, in an attempt to make sense of what he was teaching, used a late 14th century quotation from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
It’s quite a quote! But fast forward to this very day, in the wake of the horrific attacks in the city of Paris, and you begin to see what Pope Benedict was getting at. Like so many popes before him, including Paul VI, John XXIII and John Paul II, Pope Benedict was not afraid to tackle the big issues head on and ultimately get it right.
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. While the mainstream media were frantically thinking up headlines to make the pope look like some kind of anti-Islamic barbarian, he gave some crucial context to his use of the quote when he added more words of the Emperor Manuel. He said: “The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable….violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” He then added: “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats. ... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind or any other means of threatening a person with death ...”
It is important to clarify, as Pope Benedict did, that the roots of such extremist violence come from a perversion of the Islamic faith and not from Islam’s authentic theology.
And while so many in the western world cringed at the words of Pope Benedict, more than 100 Muslim scholars from around the world signed an open letter wherein they respectfully took on board the comments made in the pope’s Regensburg lecture. Perhaps even more remarkable is that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia would visit Pope Benedict in Rome a year later and he would, in 2008, organise an interfaith conference to which he invited Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus in an effort to tackle religious extremism.
As Pope Benedict suggested in his lecture, the first victims of Islamic extremism are Muslim people themselves. It then spreads to other peoples, other religions and other countries, and before we know it, every part of the world is on edge fearing the next attack.
No religion can justify the use of such violence as that being wrought by Islamic State at present, be it in Paris, Syria or Africa, where so much damage is done on a daily basis with little coverage from the western mainstream media. We need strong leadership from religious leaders as well as from political leaders. We also need strong religion from those who profess their faith in a peaceful way, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and also those of no faith who live by peaceful means.
As Christians, we need to show the world what living a life of faith is really about. For us, it is about praising God by loving Him and by loving all of our brothers and sisters with whom we share our planet. And while we may often fail in that regard, we must never forget that this is what Christianity teaches us and that is the message we must take to the ends of the earth. There is no place for violence in our religion. Pope Benedict, despite being ridiculed and derided by many in the western world, wasn’t afraid to stand up for peace by speaking out against violence. We should be similarly brave in our approach.