Robust interreligious dialogue

London’s Trafalgar Square includes a bronze statue of Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853), an architect of the British Raj in India. Few Britons or tourists, pondering Napier’s role as a military leader in the Sind campaign, would think of him as an exemplar of interreligious dialogue. But consider this:

As one point in his pacification of Sind, Sir Charles confronted the long-entrenched and religiously-warranted practice of “suttee,” according to which a widow was thrown onto the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Napier invited the local leaders to a meeting and said, “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we shall follow ours.”

Suttee, as you might imagine, quickly disappeared from the areas under Sir Charles Napier’s command, as it eventually did throughout the subcontinent. Was Napier’s abolition of suttee an act of cultural aggression or religious intolerance? Is anyone prepared to argue that thriving modern India, the world’s largest democracy, would have been better off if Napier had taken the position of today’s multiculturalists, that, while there may be your truth and my truth, there’s no such thing as the truth — so who am I to impose my values on you?

The parable of Sir Charles Napier and the practice of suttee is worth remembering as Americans and Europeans alike begin to confront the fact that radical, jihadist Islamism is a powerful 21st century force that must be countered and repelled, if the free and virtuous society envisioned by classic political tradition of the West and the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is to be built. The Holy See has begun to confront this hard fact of contemporary international life in recent months, with various senior officials insisting that there must be “reciprocity” if there is to be genuine interreligious dialogue: that, if a grand mosque can be built in Rome, it is absurd and unacceptable that the Mass cannot be celebrated in public in Saudi Arabia. Or, to take the recent case of the Afghani Abdul Rahman, if Christians are rightly free to convert to Islam, Muslims must be free to convert to Christianity without, like Rahman, being put in jeopardy of their lives.

Multiculturalism and relativism have seeped so far into the consciousness of the West that many Americans and Europeans find it hard to imagine that there are, in fact, Muslims who believe themselves obliged by God’s will God to impose their conception of God’s will on western societies, by lethal force and the murder of innocents, if necessary; thus the endless search for the “root causes” of terrorism. Similarly, as in the Rahman case, the passions engaged seem, to many, so bizarre as to be incomprehensible. We simply take it for granted, and have for centuries, that it is profoundly wrong to kill someone because of his or her religious convictions. Yet there are millions, perhaps tens of millions, of Muslims around the world who believe precisely the opposite: that it is profoundly wrong not to kill someone who leaves the House of Islam for, say, Christianity.

Nothing is achieved, and much harm will be done, by denying these realities of contemporary life. If the pattern of recent decades — in which a radical, jihadist Islamism has become the most dynamic force within a global religious community with over a billion adherents — is to be reversed, so that other, less aggressive forms of Islam prevail within Islam’s internal culture war, it will not be because Christians confuse tolerance with indifference, as if differences make no difference. Nor will it be because Christians, unable to give a plausible account of their own moral standards, refuse to assert the superiority of those moral standards over other understandings of right and wrong — or imagine that defending those standards in interreligious means taking an accommodating view of lethal violence in the name of God.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.