Colossal Distortions

For more than 1,500 years, two enormous statues of Buddha, known as the colossi of Bamiyan, have stood more than a hundred feet above a valley in Afghanistan. They were a monumental reminder of the many cultures -- Greek, Persian, and Indian -- that came together along what was known as the "Silk Road." Then last week, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, acting on orders from it spiritual head, demolished the statues. The event drew worldwide condemnation. But if you think it was only the Taliban regime that was tarnished in the aftermath, think again. No sooner had the tanks blasted away at the colossi than a pattern began to emerge in reports and commentaries about the destruction. A March 9 Chicago Tribune headline told readers that the "Taliban [Is] Not the First Group To Destroy Icons." The article took great pains to tell readers that the Taliban's actions were not typical of Islam. But readers were treated to a lengthy account of comparable actions taken by people adhering to biblical faith -- from the Puritans to King Josiah. Likewise, Crispian Balmer of Reuters informed his readers that "once Christianity took hold in Europe, intolerance soon followed." This "intolerance" included the burning of religious art -- including art by other Christians. But it's been 400 years since the last instance of wide-spread Christian iconoclasm, so why bring it up now? The answer has little to do with the Taliban. Instead, it's all about the hostility that some of the press have about the presence of religion -- especially Christianity -- in public life. Thus, the New Republic called the events in Afghanistan "clarifying." What was being clarified, however, was not the oppression of Islam, but the need for the "frustration of religion" in American life. The magazine acknowledged that there "is no Taliban in America." But this was, in their view, the product of democracy overcoming religion's -- that is, Christianity's -- anti-democratic tendencies. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote that "it is always useful to see faith run amok, because it offers, well, religious instruction." While the "faith" referred to was the Taliban's, Cohen wasted no time in bringing the subject back to America. He reminded his readers that that "intolerance and religion often go hand-in-hand." The message is clear: If Muslims do something bad, use it to remind everybody that Christians are the real villains. And this means that we should keep intolerant, bigoted Christians out of public life. The only way, so they say, that we can fully trust their contribution is if their motivations are more rooted in a secular rather than a religious creed. This caricature not only misstates believers' motives, it also ignores the role played by Christianity in the creation of American democracy. Many of the hallmarks of democracy are products of biblical faith such as the rule of law, and the conviction that all are equal before God. Christians need to combat these kinds of misrepresentations and be prepared to set the record straight. We need to remind people that our role in public life is motivated by love of our neighbors, and not the lust for power. And statements to the contrary are distortions that, unlike the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, ought to be demolished. For further reference: Balmar, Crispian. "Taliban Builds on History of Intolerance." Reuters News, 3 March 2001. Cohen, Richard. "As Buddhas Fall." Washington Post, 6 March 2001. "Saturday Rape." New Republic, 19 March 2001. "Taliban Not the First Group to Destroy Icons." Chicago Tribune, 9 March 2001.


Chuck Colson


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