Since Aug. 13, when I read a report in The New York Times, I have felt that I need to write about the horrific abuse of women and girls by the "Islamic State" (perhaps better known to us by the acronym ISIS, for "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.")
This action targets a small religious group known as the Yazidis, about whom I wrote in this space on Aug. 24, 2014. Catholic News Service columnist Effie Caldarola referred to assaults against Yazidi women in this paper on Nov. 2, 2014. Diane Schlindwein reported in the Feb. 22, 2015 Catholic Times on the January visit of Sister Marcelline Koch, OP, to Iraq, referring to Yazidi refugees.
I find now that I cannot occupy this column with a re-creation of The New York Times report; I ask readers to read that report for yourself. I think that I would do better to review an issue which is in our minds and which we must, without fail, keep in our minds so as to find paths to healing.
The issue is this: What is the meaning of the association of religion with utterly evil behavior?
We might look at evil behavior as supposedly emerging from particular religions, as well as evil behavior apparently provoked by the existence of particular religions. And it seems that I have before me, not a column, but the introduction to a work of one or more volumes. Still, we can try to reach some rough understanding of this perplexing aspect of human existence.
Religions, by definition, have always to do with the ultimate meaning of life and their adherents' learning what it takes to conform themselves to this ultimate meaning. Religions differ vastly from one another. Study of various religions yields many points of contact among religious traditions. Our distinct histories, however, tend to make the search for commonalities quite difficult. Terminology and vocabulary on their own will introduce complications.
And there seems to be a seed of disruption, ironically, in the word "conform." Conformity, we would suppose, establishes clarity, the opposite of disruption. But what if that clarity is the result of oversimplification? Can such clarity become an "idol"? Do human beings become enamored of the "clarity" of their way of life to such an extent that they can only despise those who hold to something else?
"Clarity" can indeed be a pretext justifying all sorts of destructive behavior. I believe that human beings are called to something better than clarity. We can easily become tired of direction toward "listening" and "dialogue," but this is the only way that people really become present to each other.
I believe that Christianity, properly appreciated, draws us into an appreciation of the complexity of being human. Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, took time to be present to Nicodemus and the unnamed Samaritan woman. We too are to sit with the mystery of the human being, loved by God in his or her individuality.
Muslims. Jews. Yazidis. Catholic Christians. Protestant Christians. Replace every one of these names with "human beings." Then accept the complexity for which every religious adherent must make room. If we don't achieve the "clarity" we might prefer, we will receive something better: insights, like footlights, guiding us in the midst of the undeniable human mystery.