|Servants Of Jesus
Sectarianism: An Evil That Comes In Many Forms
By Raff Ellis
The film "West Beirut" is Ziad Doueiri's send-up
on the evils of sectarianism as seen through the lens of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90).
The story, as told from the perspective of two happy-go-lucky teenagers, takes bizarre, if not surreal turns
as the fighting intensifies. The competing sects become increasingly emboldened and vicious as the "righteousness" of their
cause infects them like an unchecked virus. Those whom you thought were friends transmogrify into enemies and those thought
of as enemies become friends. Worst off are those who wish to remain neutral for they end up suffering the most.
In their naiveté, the two teenagers, to whom the whole affair begins as a lark, come to see the futility of war
and believe that the major combatants could resolve their difficulties if only they could meet on the neutral ground of a
brothel! The symbolism is striking and wholly appropriate.
Sectarianism exists in many forms: religious, political, ethnic and racial. Often, a group's clannishness seems
relatively benign; that is until they grow in size and power.
Coincident with the appearance of demagogic or authoritarian leadership is an increased disregard for established
authority and the views of those with whom they disagree. When people aggregate in cult-like atmospheres, they come to believe
their credos so absolutely they feel morally exempt when trampling the rights of others. If they have the means to do so,
they choose to promote their agenda by the exercise of excessive influence on the political process. If not, they often choose
the avenue of criminal behavior: trespass, riots, looting and even terrorism and murder.
Their beliefs, whether
based in some sacred canon or perceived superior social paradigm, quickly supersede normal behavior to the exclusion of rational
thought or opposing views.
Virtually all extant world conflicts can trace their origins to sectarianism. Often
times, the various factions disguise their identities under the mask of national movements but, in reality, they are doctrinally,
racially or religiously inspired. Besides Lebanon, of course, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Rwanda,
Chechnya, India and Israel come to mind.
Not long ago, I had occasion to lunch with an old friend and his wife,
a woman whom I had never met. During our repast, the woman suddenly looked up from her soup, and with a penetrating gaze asked
me, "Have you been saved?" I was a bit taken aback because we were not discussing religion or anything even tangentially related
to that subject. I replied, "Based on my understanding of popular Christian theology, I won't know whether I have been saved
or not until Judgment Day."
The ensuing discussion was nonsensical of course, because this person displayed no
theological grounding (didn't even know what the word parochial meant). I only bring this trivial example up to exemplify
the reach of people who are so committed to a particular sectarian view that breaches of social propriety are taken without
a second thought. I, on the other hand, would no more ask a person his or her religious belief than I would inquire about
their sexual preference. But these "born again" Christians suffer no such impediment. Their innate moral superiority allows
them to wear their principles on their sleeves and attempt proselytizing at every opportunity.
This was by no
means the only encounter I have had with people of this religious stripe, and it has always ended the same way. There was
no discussion of the intellectual aspects of theology because they seem only to know the bible-thumping variety. "God said
so," or, "It's in the Bible don't you know," is the best they can come up with.
Because of these experiences,
I tend to worry about the direction our government is taking since certain officials have made known their "born again" beliefs.
The President and the Attorney General are two such officials whose moral compasses have been misdirected to the extreme right
by the magnet of religious persuasion. They easily dismiss the objections of others because they reach certitude through the
superiority of faith. They disparage those who oppose their views with scurrilous ad hominem attacks, ("You're with us or
with the terrorists;" "You don't care about the security of our country;" "You are not patriotic").
They have no scruples when trampling the rights of others because their view of the world is superior to all
others. They have no problem with violating the accepted rule of law because their beliefs allow them to supplant rational
thought. As a result we have detention without charge; the suspension of habeas corpus; eavesdropping on lawyer-client
conversations; abrogation of treaties; and a looming preemptive war.
The arrogance of faith seems to have no limit.
When I see the self-proclaimed super-Christian Jerry
Falwell leading the charge for war (a definitely un-Christian activity), I cannot help but cringe. When Jerry and his sectarian
minions ally themselves with a like movement, the Fundamentalist Zionists, who are stealing property in ancestral Palestine,
everyone should cringe. A special interpretation of their respective sacred canons allows them to trample the rights of an
indigenous population without regard for the Christian or Hebraic principles of fairness and justice.
Their bible tells them, "Thou shall not kill," but they allow themselves contravention in the killing of Palestinians.
Their bible tells them, "thou shall not steal," but they think nothing of taking land that doesn't belong to them. This is
sectarianism at its finest - a complete disregard for the rule of law because of perverse interpretations of their holy scriptures.
is coming," they shout and with every waking breath, by their actions, try to make this interpretation of the Book of Revelations
a self-fulfilling prophecy. First of all, Revelations is the most contentious book in the Bible. Many scholars feel that it
is simply the recording of the dreams of a man named John (not the better-known Apostle John), whose writing is filled with
symbolism that has been totally lost over time. Many also feel that this book should have never been included in the Bible.
But, it is the most quoted "scripture" by the "born-agains" because of its allure as an incomprehensible tract that offers
the greatest resistance to intellectual argument. Better to thump the mysterious vision of John, with all the fervor found
in a tent revival, than preach the staid concepts of brotherly love and peace on earth.
So, this is what we have
come down to: a government that properly rails against Islamic fundamentalism while itself is infected with fundamentalist,
sectarian beliefs, beliefs that run counter to the democratic principles that have, until now, survived since the
Fathers laid them down. Even though we as a nation rail against many of the diseased, sectarian movements around the world,
we rush headlong in their footsteps.
West Beirut, here we come!
Raff Ellis encourages
your comments: rellis@YellowTimes.org