Freedom to choose
by Richard Boeke
In In spring 1945 physicist Robert Oppenheimer watched the flash of the testing of the Atomic Bomb and the words from Hindu Scripture: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" flashed across his mind.
As a U.S. Air force Chaplain in 1955 I watched as 35 planes were loaded with Atomic Bombs: only half were expected to reach their targets and perhaps kill millions of Russians, most of the remainder were not expected to fly back safely. I recalled the Hebrew scripture: "I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life, that you and your children may live". I made a choice… I chose life and left the Air force and became a 'Peacenik' Unitarian: working with many religions for the common causes of civil rights and peace. I felt inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Either we shall learn to live together as brothers or we shall perish together as fools". King joined millions over the centuries, who defied authority and witnessed to their vision, even onto death. While I was a student at Yale Divinity School, one of my professors, Roland Bainton, published a biography of Michael Servetus titled: Hunted Heretic. Servetus was born in Spain in 1511, and in his childhood he learned of the expulsion of Jews from that country in 1492 as Christian victors brought to an end the tolerance of Moorish Islamic Granada. Servetus was both a doctor and a scientist who discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood. He chose also to bravely speak out for the Oneness of God behind the pluralism of religions. for his act of heresy in perceiving to question the Trinity, Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva on 27th October 1553, a period of great religious upheaval throughout Europe.
This spring, I watched the BBC Production of 'The Tudors' and found it a stark reminder of the bloody history of heresy and dissent in England. Mary Tudor, later known, with good reason, as 'Bloody Mary' had many Protestants, who chose not to convert to Catholicism, tortured and burned at the stake. One such person was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who prepared much of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Under Mary on 21st March 1556, Cranmer was burned at the stake in Oxford, along with two other bishops.
In much of Europe at that time, Cuius regio, eius religio was the policy.A phrase in Latin that translates as "Whose realm, his religion" - the religion of the ruler dictates the religion of the realm. Under this policy dissenters were considered heretics and cast out of the church and many were killed. Tens of thousands fled Britain and Europe in the hope of freedom in America. The 13 United States of the time would not adopt a Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added. The first article of that Bill of Rights (1789) reads,
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
In the 18th Century, all these were Rights not fully present in Britain. It was the 19th Century before Jews, Catholics and Nonconformists such as Unitarians were granted most of these rights. Many forms of discrimination remained. Oxford and Cambridge degrees were closed to Non-conformists until 1871, and to women until after World War I.
The U.S. first Amendment shows that Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers linked civil and religious freedom. In his Second Inaugural Address, 4th March 1805, Jefferson said: "Our wish…is that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved…" No society can allow unlimited freedom. The single-minded pursuit of one goal can damage others equally valuable. This is true for nations, corporations and religions. This said, what is the significance of religious freedom in Britain today? With hundreds of clergy, I joined a million marchers in London in opposing Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq. He has now created a faith foundation that aims to promote respect and understanding between the major religions. I believe he now sees the real power in faith.
German Theologian, Hans Kung, maintains that: "There will be no peace in the world until there is peace among religions". The work of interfaith dialogue is to promote peace by respecting the rights of others to religious freedom. But resistance is profound. In Norway a racist crusader murders young Norwegian people in an attempt to force the ruling party to halt immigration of Muslims. In Iraq a Sunni suicide bomber murders worshippers in a Shia Mosque. China places hard line restrictions on Buddhists, Muslims and Christians: the Dalai Lama remains in exile from his beloved Tibet.
Last year our family attended the beautiful Coptic wedding of our daughter in Cairo. We became aware that 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, one of the oldest Christian traditions. While our daughter and her husband now live in Virginia, USA, we are in touch with his family, and very aware of the tensions that exist following the overthrow of President Mubarak. There is also the goods news of hundreds of Muslims joining to protect Coptic Christians in Alexandria and Cairo to affirm their right to worship in the way they choose.
In Pakistan, two moderate leaders have been murdered. The Ahmadiyya Movement is forbidden to call itself Muslim, as its founder claimed to be a prophet centuries after Mohammed. In England in July 2011, 30,000 Ahmadiyya Muslims gathered in Hampshire to renew a century old pledge to practice Islam purely as a religion of peace, and to declare that good citizenship is an act of faith.
No matter where you are in the world inter-religious understanding is an imperative for the promotion of religious freedom. Think of the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent Satyagraha - the Truth and Love force with which he sought not only freedom from colonialism but the friendship between Muslims and Hindus. A poem I have seen pinned to a church wall tells of such a vision:
He drew a circle that shut me out
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
Chair, British Chapter, International Association for Religious Freedom www.iarf.net.
(co-editor of SERVETUS-OUR 16TH CENTURY CONTEMPORARY "Festscrift" for the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus.
Photographs: Richard Boeke at statue of Gandhi in Tavistock Square, London; Diana and Amir with Abouna Beniameen and Abouna Johanna