Professor declares peacefulness of Islamic faith and Middle Eastern culture

By Julie Fann
star staff

GREENEVILLE -- During the last of three lectures on the Israeli/Palestinian crisis given to members of Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Dr. Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Emmanuel School of Religion, attempted to dispel the negative perception many Americans have of the Islamic faith and Middle Eastern culture in general.
   Rollston used as a launching point for his argument a pejorative statement about Islam made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist minister whom many believe speaks as an authority on the topic of Christianity as it relates to cultural issues. Rollston made reference to a statement Falwell made following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in which he labeled the prophet of the Islamic faith, Muhammed, a terrorist and pedophile.
   "We oftentimes hear within our media about the violence of the Arab Muslim culture, and I would simply state that for Falwell and other people who ostensibly, or at least in terms of their own desires, wish to speak for the Christian world, I would simply state resoundingly he (Falwell) certainly doesn't speak for me, and I hope that he doesn't speak for you," Rollston stated.
   "Because what I would note is that all religions have built into themselves, because they consist of human beings, all religions have a tendency to engage in things that we might or other people might at various times find quite inappropriate or reprehensible."
   Rollston used a number of examples of violence within the Christian faith to illustrate his point, beginning with the Old Testament book of Joshua. In the book of Joshua, the ancient Israelites ordered that every man, woman, and child of Canaanite origin be killed.
   "We could talk for a long time about this issue of holy war and its implications, but the point that we need to affirm is that, those people who condemn the Koran as a book that's full of violence have perhaps never read the book of Joshua? So the first thing that we would want to note is that we have within our own holy book a corpus of literature that others might find quite violent," Rollston said.
   When is a holy war justifiable? Of course, members of various faiths believe that, according to their own religion, it is always justifiable. According to Rollston, it is a point that would involve great debate and that, regardless of the religion that "sponsors" a holy war, the final result is never pleasant and its benefit is questionable.
   Rollston's second illustration was the Christian Crusades waged during the Middle Ages, beginning in 1095 and extending even into the end of the seventeenth century. After pronouncing a solemn vow, each warrior received a cross from the hands of the pope and was considered a soldier of the Church. Crusaders were granted privileges such as exemption from civil jurisdiction and inviolability of persons or lands.
   "We might talk about justifications for this, but the fact of the matter is that the Crusades quickly degenerated into something quite reprehensible, and, in fact, I might remind you that on the fourth Crusade, the Christians that were crusading vanquished the city of Byzantium which was a Christian city. They did that to fund the rest of their trip to the Middle East. There's no way to justify that -- Christians warring against Christians," Rollston said.
   As a third example, Rollston told a story about John Calvin, a theologian of the sixteenth century who was highly instrumental in initiating the Protestant reform movement a generation prior to Martin Luther. Salvation, according to Calvin, came through faith in God's grace, not good works.
   "There was a physician fleeing from the (Catholic) Inquisition, and he wrote to John Calvin in Geneva, and what he said is this, 'Calvin, I'm fleeing from the Inquisition. Can you provide me with safety at your Geneva, which is full of freedom and tolerance?', and Calvin said, 'By all means, come.', and then he went to Geneva. Calvin found out that he wasn't a Trinitarian though and had him killed," Rollston said.
   "The main point is that when it comes to Judaism and Christianity and Islam with regard to violence, there's enough guilt to go around, and a fair amount of it is ours. ... For someone, be it Falwell or some other representative, self declared or otherwise, to affirm the repugnance of some other religion is really quite insane."
   The media is of little assistance, Rollston said, in that reporters treat Palestine with a "broad stroke of the brush". He reminded the audience that there are many Arab Christians within the Middle East, including Palestine. He also said that, throughout much of the Middle East, streets are safer for walking at night than they are in many major American cities, a fact that also goes unreported.
   "Also, have you noticed that the Palestinians are always called militants, and the Israeli's are always called soldiers? The reason is because someone is framing for you the way that they wish for you to view the Palestinians, and I think it's particularly tragic," Rollston said.
   Rollston's final point centered on UN Resolution 181 formed in 1948 to create two separate states out of greater Palestine -- Israel and Palestine. "Many within the Christian radical right argue that we should as a nation be completely and totally pro-Israel for theological reasons. There are those who consider 1948 to be the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That is absurd because it is a misuse of the biblical text. My area is Old Testament studies, so I speak with some authority about this."
   Rollston explained that the new tabernacle referred to in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel was built later in that same book of the bible, whereas many on the Christian right believe the mention of a new tabernacle in the Old Testament to be an unfulfilled and literal statement also referred to in the New Testament.