Thou Shalt Not Tolerate

Earlier this month, the Taliban -- the Islamic fundamentalist sect that controls Afghanistan -- ordered the destruction of Buddhist statues and relics throughout the country, including several large 3rd and 5th century statues that stand over 100 feet high.

"These idols have been the gods of the infidels," the Taliban declared, "and are respected even now and perhaps may be turned into gods again." Despite howls of protest from western countries, museums curators, UNESCO, and many fellow Muslims, the Taliban's armed forces commenced the destruction of the Buddhas, blasting away at them with canons, tanks, and bombs. In doing so, they were carrying our the irreversible orders of their religions and political leaders.

The Buddhas are being destroyed not because they are unimportant or disrespected, but precisely because they are seen by the Taliban -- and nearly the entire international community -- as powerful and important religious images. While the voices of tolerance argue that they should be preserved, the forces of religious fundamentalism have prevailed.

Many in the West have decried the Taliban's vandalism. One museum professional I know called the acts of destruction a form of "savagery." Others have said it is typical of Muslim intolerance. Islam, said the Rev. Jerry Falwell recently, is a faith that "teaches hate."

Before joining the chorus of those condemning the Taliban, let's consider religious intolerance closer to home. Christian intolerance for one. There is a strong move in America to post the Biblical 10 Commandments in courtrooms, schools and other public places and civic spaces. In fact, in 1999 Congress passed the 10 Commandments Defence Act amendment that would permit this -- though the law is Constiutionally questionable. Many Americans consider the 10 Commandments a no-brainier -- basic rules of behavior we can all agree upon. Pope John Paul II calls them "the universal moral law valid in every time and place."

But the 10 Commandments are first and foremost a religious document. The 1st Commandment states "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," clearly saying that there is no room for worship of any other than the Judeo-Christian god, a statement of intolerance that hardly is inclusive of other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and many other of the world's faiths.

The 2nd Commandment goes further: "Thou shalt make unto thee no graven images..." God goes on to pledge to punished those who worship such graven images "visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the 3rd and 4th generation."

So let's see, if you don't worship the Old Testament God, and if you make religious idols, God's wrath will be brought down upon you, your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren. Sounds a lot like the Taliban to me. Perhaps, indeed, they are simply doing God's work.

The tension between the religious tolerance that we profess, and the religious doctrines we are taught is palpable. Examples are everywhere, and they're not just the Jerry Falwells. Earlier this year, a Presbyterian minister from Chicago dared to suggest at a religious conference that, while good Christians would attain salvation and go to Heaven, perhaps a merciful God had also designed other paths to salvation for Jews, Muslims, and other non-believers. His tolerant, broad-minded remarks uncorked a firestorm of controversy within the church and he was accused of heresy, for Presbyterian doctrine teaches specifically that salvation is only possible for Christians: the earth's other four billion inhabitants are on the fast-track to hell.

So when we consider Islamic "savagery" related to Buddhist relics, I suggest we also consider another phrase found centuries ago on the wall of a ruined fort on the frontier of New France: "Nous somme tous sauvage" an anonymous French Indian fighter had carved. "We are all savages."

Instead of focusing our moral outrage on a cult in Afghanistan, we ought to consider the ramifications of creeds that support our own potential for "savagery" here at home.

I think that would be a useful "faith-based" initiative.

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