Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost


Dr. Mark Welton is a parishioner here at St. John’s, and Professor of International and Comparative Law at West Point. He has written widely on Islamic Law. His previous assignments included Chief of International Law for the U.S. Army, Europe.

In our Exodus reading for today, we heard about how a people took action to attain and preserve their freedom and, with divine approval and assistance, to protect themselves from those who would harm them. The recognition that oppression and other evils exist in our world, as they did in the time of Exodus, and the legitimacy of action to counteract those evils, resonates for Americans, especially on the anniversary of 9/11. It does with me, and it is certainly an ever-present reality when teaching cadets at West Point.

The reading from Matthew also resonates with me as an educator. Forgiveness seems to me to be a virtue that can be terribly difficult to apply, especially when responding to incomprehensible acts of viciousness and extremism such as we remember today. But if I am challenged to at least consider this virtue, perhaps learning about that which may seem to some as foreign, dangerous, and even evil, is a first step that we can and should take. I am, as I know you are, absolutely appalled by seemingly wanton acts of cruelty and destruction; I am also distressed, however, when the response to these attacks is sometimes based on ignorance and prejudice. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three Abrahamic religions; they are like the brothers and sisters in the last line of the parable in Matthew. They are also related in other ways as well, as I would like to briefly explain.

The modern liberal democracy in which you and I live here in the West, in which we are free to think, act, worship, and live as we choose within the bounds of law, is a product of very violent revolutions, commencing with the Papal Revolution of the late 11th century, which gave us our first modern legal system, and culminating in the French and American Revolutions of the late 18th century, which gave us our modern concept of individual liberty. In between was yet another set of revolutions, the English and German revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, which we often refer to as the Reformation. The trigger for this Reformation included the translation of the Bible into languages that people could read for themselves, and the exposure of increasing numbers of literate people to new and foreign ideas through trade and commerce, which were in turn spurred by new technologies. Coupled with distress over the corruption and other problems plaguing the church, these developments essentially overturned the established religious, political, and social order. What is often overlooked is that, in doing so, the Reformation spawned violent conflicts that often exposed an extreme intolerance between those who disagreed with each other, and which took many decades to resolve. Nevertheless, they set the stage for the independent thought and power of the individual that, after the final 18th century revolutions ended, gave us our modern democracies.

Much of the Islamic world is now in the midst of a similar Reformation. The stage was set when the centuries-old pattern of life under Islamic law and rule, and the recognized authority of religious Muslim scholars, was disrupted in the 19th century by European colonialism and the replacement of traditional Islamic law and rule by western codes and secular law. When the era of colonialism ended, most of the Middle East was governed by native autocratic rulers who, unlike in the past, were no longer subject to religious law and ethics. The Islamic law that had restrained the arbitrariness of their rulers in the past had served the people very well in their daily lives, by giving them a firm footing in the rule of law, but that system was now decimated by the years of colonial rule and by local Muslim reformers. The religious and legal foundation of Islamic civilization had been destroyed– and this triggered a desperate search for something to replace it.

At the same time, as happened during the European Reformation, the Islamic religious texts – the Quran and the Sunnah – were for the first time translated into contemporary languages so that people could read those texts for themselves. Also like the European Reformation, new technologies -– first television, and now the internet, twitter, and the like -– have exposed people to new ideas, both from within the Muslim world and from the West. Not just religious leaders and secular rulers, but also teachers, engineers, doctors, bricklayers, students – people of all backgrounds – are now claiming and proclaiming the ability, authority and the right to decide what Islam means, and to reshape the future of a region whose traditional religious and legal foundations have shifted radically beneath them.

So should it be surprising that– in this revolutionary time of turmoil—many people yearn for the stability and certainty of the past, and call for a future based on “traditional values?” For a small minority in the Islamic world, that means a return to a partially mythical “pure” Islam which involves a rejection of the West and its values. And is it not foreseeable that among these, a very few would assert that violence is the necessary course of action to achieve this goal? This attitude and danger would have been very familiar to a European living through the era of the Reformation. Yet we should also understand – though this is ignored by some political pundits and preachers – that the vast majority of Muslims, including most of those who have taken to the streets in recent months to demand change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, do not resort to violence, nor have they called for conflict against the West. What may be surprising is that, in the days after 9/11, one of the very largest, spontaneous demonstrations outside the United States, in sympathy to the victims of that tragedy and in opposition to violent extremism, took place in candlelight vigils and internet blogs, not in Europe, but in the streets and cities of Iran.

As an Episcopalian, I value the balance between faith and reason that my tradition calls for. As a professor who studies and teaches Islamic law and history, I find the many parallels between that tradition and my own to be striking. Muslims throughout history have also sought to balance faith with reason in dealing with the world and its challenges, especially during the rapid, revolutionary changes of recent times. We should never ignore the dangers of extremism that are endemic in times of all revolutions, nor should we fail to take action to counter those dangers whenever they are directed at us. But we should also understand the many commonalities that connect our two traditions, in faith, history, and the desire of most of us to live our lives in peace and dignity. The common Arabic greeting and response – salaam aleikum, wa aleikum es-salaam – which is sincere and heartfelt by most Muslims around the world, should be very familiar to those of us in an Episcopal church every Sunday – peace unto you, and to you peace.