Oh brother don’t hate me: Christianity vs Islam: a family feud
Published 2001 December (After 9-11 began to digest)
Stories of twins are ancient, harking back to the Hebrew tales of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and the countless other myths that all cultures tell in one form or another about twins. Some tales end well, like Castor and Pollux being granted immortality together by Zeus in the night sky as the sign of Gemini. Some end badly: the murder of Abel by Cain. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks the twins are emerging again as a theme of the age, a story that underpins events of the day and illustrates the dilemma that confronts civilization. The twins in NYC were targeted by people who oppose what they represent(ed): American and Western dominance.
Most stories of twins have faded into obscurity, leaving us collectively without the guidance of the ages, the wisdom passed down from past generations about how they dealt with similar challenges of their day. Without this valuable knowledge we are ill-equipped as East confronts West and the twins once again wrestle, this time under the specter of mutual annihilation. However, the knowledge passed down through mythological tales of twins is written deep in our minds; with Cliff’s Notes, we in this time of need and trouble will hopefully get the message.
To understand how twins stories underly history – and current events – the relationship of Christianity and Islam has to be understood as that of rival brothers taught by the same parents, who grew up with far different interpretations of what they learned. Islam and Christianity are offspring of Abraham. Said to be the father of many nations, Abraham made the first covenant with God, and is claimed by both brothers as the rightful heir. Throw in Christianity’s connection through Jesus and the result is thousands of years of conflict that will continue until one side or the other steps back, puts aside its ego and refuses to keep reenacting the same script. The three religions are so tight they share every prophet commonly except two: Jews and Muslims reject Jesus as the Son of God, Jews having disavowed him to crucifixion and Muslims claiming him as a prophet leading up to the last and highest prophet, Muhammed. “The Prophet,” as the once upright merchant of Mecca was known before being visited by an angel, is rejected by Jews and Christians for their reasons. No wonder Islam and Christianity are at odds like never before – religiously, culturally, and militarily. With the parent culture, the Jews, aligned with the Christians against Muslims, we have the making of a royal family feud. We seek the wisdom of the ancients encoded in stories in order to find a way of avoiding the final confrontation and fulfillment of the darkest possibilities.
In the story of the prodigal son, one sibling leaves home with a fat inheritance only to return penniless after many years of raucous living. The brother who stayed behind and tended the family business resented that his sibling would have the nerve to show his face again – and even worse, the last thing he expected was his wayward brother welcomed back with a feast and an equal place in the family! Is the little snot to be rewarded for being a screw-off and blowing his fortune? This attitude in turn angered the father, who tells the resentful brother that if he can’t welcome back his wayward sibling and be happy for the family, he might as well leave. These days a kid can pack bags and go crash with a friend; back then you slept with the wolves, so the threat carried with it a virtual death sentence.
Islam finds itself nowadays in the place of the brother who stayed home but isn’t getting the rewards deemed due for years of faithful service. Islam collectively gives much more importance to prayer and organized religion in daily life, yet lags far behind the West in technology and prestige. The West has grown so predominant that it threatens to engulf Islam and force it to conform to western ways, effectively taking away its identity. Add in the fact that Israel – the parent – is aligned with one sibling against the other, and you get the idea of how the Islamic world feels right now. Fear of annihilation or decent into irrelevance is common in old stories of twins; Islam stares the possibility in the face. That’s why Middle East peace negotiations continue to go nowhere. Why Osama bin Laden’s call to arms resonates throughout the Islamic world, and why the days we live in have great potential for extreme peril.
Despite the enmity, the twins can’t live each other because they provide balance. East and West are incomplete without the other. In a New York Times article published Nov. 24, 2001, a twin described the loss of his brother in the World Trade Center and how there’s no way to express what it means to lose someone he considered his other half. As much as we hear ‘down with the West’ in parts of the Mid East, they’d miss their antagonist sibling. All sides don’t have to particularly like each other or agree on a way of life, but they have to at least respect each others’ uniqueness and rightful place in the world. Otherwise, as happens in myth, they perish together. We all have a stake in how the story of this age plays out, and the more we see the mythological underpinnings, the better we see the nature of the conflict at hand. As Helen M. Luke posited in an essay titled “Jacob and Esau”:
“In Judeo-Christian tradition, the theme of the two brothers at enmity begins after the Fall with Cain and Abel, continues with Isaac and Ishmael, and culminates in the much more complicated story of Jacob and Esau the first twins. It is because of the image of twinship that their story, particularly its ending, is of such profound relevance in this our century, when the separation of twins has become the most terrible danger, threatening the survival of all life on this planet.”
Luke’s words from the Summer 1994 edition of Parabola magazine couldn’t be more relevant today. The clash of opposites between Christianity and Islam is a mythological tale that could end like a Greek tragedy, where seemingly irreconcilable differences lead both parties down a path of mutual destruction. Or the story of this age could end like Jacob and Esau, who came to terms but never truly reunited as brothers.
Jacob was the born just behind Esau but from the beginning challenging his brother’s place by grabbing hold of Esau’s heel on the way out. They were no mirror images from each other – they were twins with nothing in common. Jacob took to the indoors, a mamma’s boy with light skin and short hair, perhaps a bit of a dandy, delicate and well-spoken. Esau came out red and hairy and loved the outdoors, the favorite of his father. Christianity is like Jacob: light, clean-shaved, worldly. Islam is like Esau: hairy, fiery, closer to the earth. One of the tents and one of the fields, so the story describes them. One who boldly explores strange new worlds pushing all limits, the other who stays closer to home pumping a living from the ground.
Christianity and the West in general have to understand their role as a modern Jacob to make a solution possible. Looking back into our story, Jacob went astray when he stole Esau’s birth right as eldest son. Esau had come to Jacob’s door faint from thirst and hunger. Jacob agreed to share some food and drink if Esau would relinquish his rights as first-born son. Esau said he would die on the spot if he didn’t get some nourishment – what good would be his birth rights if he were dead? – so he gave it up, perhaps figuring that his brother wouldn’t hold him to such a dubious agreement. Then Jacob fooled his father into believing he was Esau to receive his father’s blessing as heir.
Aside from illustrating what a jerk Jacob was, this part of the story tells how Islam gave up its place as the world’s predominant religion and culture to the West. Islam had exclusive rights to the title of ‘most cultured and sophisticated’ until Christianity reemerged about 800 years ago, and held the top spot until the 20th century when the West officially passed them. Islam, after all, preserved the ancient writings and knowledge of the Greeks while Christianity went through fits of barbarism and superstition during the Middle Ages. Islam combined western ways together with the teachings of Muhammad and created one of the grandest civilizations ever. But where are they now? Bitterly divided, relegated to the “Second World,” dependent on (grandpa’s trust fund) oil for their means. Thirsty and hungry from the labor. Ready to reclaim their birth right, or at least have it out with their usurping sibling. What does the West – Jacob – do? The rumble is brewing and the younger one can either flex the big muscles and fight to the end, or adopt higher wisdom and avoid the fight altogether.
After Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, they went their separate ways. Each built families and established themselves separately as individuals and adults with many descendants, workers and flocks. Years later, Esau sent advance word to Jacob of his presence in the area with 400 men. Jacob thought his brother had finally come to avenge the treachery of stealing his birthright. Terrified, he sent gifts in hope of mollifying old grudges. The night before their meeting, Jacob went through a dark night of the soul, a serious coming-to-terms with himself and his past. He wrestled with a divine force through the night and at dawn, having gained the upper hand, asked his adversary to name itself. Bless me before I release you, demanded Jacob. A new man emerged. The next day he met lost brother Esau, prepared to pay the consequences. Instead of his head on a platter, it turned out Esau sought reconciliation. Jacob greeted his brother warmly, but afterwards went his own way, rather than reestablishing old family bonds. Perhaps as an adult he didn’t want to revisit the house of his parents and once again deal with issues of his youth.
Either way, the story of Jacob and Esau still has a relatively happy ending. They didn’t kill each other. However, Jacob’s transformation prevented fratricide, and in the story of this age, the West is still ignorant of itself. Western Christian culture needs to wrestle with its shadow like Jacob and realize where its hubris has led to nemesis – namely, in exploiting technology and resources, and pushing the rest of the world to try to keep up, playing winner-take-all in the game it knows best. Its knowledge and power has gotten ahead of its ability to wisely use it. For all its high ideals of democracy, human rights, and liberty, the West – especially the U.S. – has a vast blind spot to its own shortcomings. And its urbane, hyper-competitive culture – born of “the tents” and raised on its self-importance – tramples over everything that gets in the way.
Islam has much to teach Christianity about respect. When Islam predominated it promoted tolerance, inquiry, and prudence, virtues incomplete in western culture. Granted, these virtues are incomplete in Islamic culture, too. But seen by its brother Islam, Christianity would seem to be high on its power, too secure in its climate-controlled offices wielding power in the name of profit, not prophet. In the name of money and not mankind. In pursuit of short-term gain for the few over long-term prosperity for all. The World Trade Center symbolized this dark side. A more widespread feeling in the Islamic world – beyond Osama and the fanatics – is that someone has to oppose the western juggernaut in the name of Muhammad and Islam. The call to Jihad – defending the faith – must be heeded. Even some of the most moderate Islamic adherents see threat in the West. Without Jacob’s transformation, the story could have ended tragically, and so could this one we’re living right now.
What is to be learned from old stories of two brothers who fight for the same birthright, learn from the same parents, and grow up as opposites locked in dualistic struggle? The story of Jacob and Esau and other twins points towards a duel relationship in constant conflict but ultimately seeking harmony, it gets a little messy among family sometimes is all – a good analogy for the universe in general. This dynamic tension is always present, creating balance. Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Islam and Christianity. Twins. Siblings at odds. We can learn from their relationship the nature of the conflict the world faces today, and how to solve that conflict. Helen Luke at the end of her essay about Jacob and Esau suggests a way:
“Collectively, we have lost the wonder of stone and soil, of animals and birds, and we have lost the spontaneous voice of dreams and visions, without which the people perish. But there are individuals who recognize the natural “red one” within and without, feeling the same fire that the hubris of intellect had turned into greed for power. There is a new wish to return to the gifts of our mother the earth. We may, as C.G. Jung said, come to a global, cosmic rebirth in this darkest time, if enough people will wrestle with the unknown God and ask his name – and see in our rejected twin the face of God.”