Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I Went to a Theology Lecture, and a Fight Broke Out. Almost.

First some background: tonight, September 13, Archdiocesan Chancellor Fran X. Maier delivered a lecture titled "Christian-Muslim relations in the wake of 9/11."

The lecture, meant as a catechetical lecture for Catholics and not an interfaith dialogue, discussed the great difficulties involved in discussing Christianity with Muslims. It took place in Bonfils Hall on the John Paul II Center/St. John Vianney Seminary campus. I hope to post excerpts from the talk later, after reporting its aftermath in this post.

A large portion of Chancellor Maier's speech was a bloody litany of Islamic crimes committed against Christians in the past hundred years. The works he referenced are often cited in the mainstream conservative commentariat: Bat Y'eor and similar writers.

Q & A time came, and that's when things got interesting in the sense of the reputed Chinese Curse. The first questioner stood up and said his name was Mohammed, but noted that he was not a Muslim. (I later learned that he was an atheist whose sister had married a Christian, a marriage which apparently provoked their flight from a Muslim country to new residence in the US. )

Without great fervor he declared himself offended, and very politely suggested that Chancellor Maier's sources were lacking in quality. Chancellor Maier interrupted, noting that the lecture was meant for a Catholic audience, that these words should be saved for another day, and suggested we politely move along. The questioner did not press the issue, conceding that it wasn't his lecture.

Alas, another man did press the issue. An elderly man in his sixties or seventies started causing a ruckus:

"Now wait a sec, what is this 'Catholic-only' stuff? This exclusivity is part of what is plaguing the United States right now."

He then received a one-woman ovation from the woman sitting next to him, apparently his wife.

"You let, you let the man here give you his question"

Chancellor Maier: "No."

Old Man: "Stop being a moral coward."

Maier: "No."

Old Man: "You're a moral coward."

Maier: "Well thank you very much."

Old Man: "You're a racist moral coward..."

(interrupted by laughing, at which time I cut off my recorder.)

Order is restored, and a few questions proceed uninterrupted. Not for long, since Old Man wants to ask a question:

Maier: "Sir, we're not going to get into an argument."

Old Man: "well then put away this.... islamo, -o, -phobia."

Maier: "We cannot, the way you define it. We can't put it away, because that's part of the honesty of the argument."

Old Man: "It's a very high priority with the neo-cons, and the zionists, to turn the American people into muslim-haters, and yes it's also high on the--I'm talking!

Maier: "Yeah, but you're not--what you're really trying to do is give a lecture--

Old Man: "I'm opposing you! The thing is I'm opposing you!

Maier: "No, that is not true..."

Old Man: "You, you arrogant bastard!"

Maier: "Thank you."

(nervous laughter from crowd)

At this point a somewhat younger man between middle-age and elderly started making his way towards this man from the back in a retaliatory mood. Notably, he was not a security guard. One of the younger fellows, a husky twentysomething man, tried to keep the peace by blocking his advance. (I later learned he was expecting me and a friend, seated in the back row, to jump in and help form a blockade. Sorry!)

Situation Escalator Man to Peacekeeper: "Get out of my way I'm going to throw out his fat ass--

Old Man: "you hit me and I'll have the cops on you--

Situation Escalator Man: "Get out of my way."

Peacekeeper, probably knowing he himself could be charged with assault if he made forceful contact, was pressed down the aisle into the row of seats, becoming the meat sandwich bracketed by angry-man bread. Old Man, seemingly being grasped by the long arm of Escalator Man, shrieked that he was being assaulted and wanted to know Mr. Escalator's name.

Chancellor Maier, recognizing a ruined evening, decided to close up the meeting and started saying the Our Father, which calmed things down.

What a mess. Cranky old men have a semi-annual habit of showing up at JPII Center lectures and behaving like toddlers.

One of the audience members, a man who helps run a Catholic support group for sexual abuse victims, said that Old Man had once disrupted his group's meetings. Old Man is apparently a fellow-traveler of SNAP, not an abuse victim himself but an agitator on their behalf who goes around to pick fights. Needless to say, his activism that night was exceedingly counterproductive.

As a searcher for truth in every kook, I will add that one can clump together a coherent objection from Old Man's disjointed complaints about Neocon/Zionist-induced Islamophobia. Given that terrorists, irregular combatants, and the occasional innocent civilian are being tortured with the consent of the president, and that the wardrums for the invasion of Iran are beating at varying volumes, and that crackpot realists of the second tier punditry are calling for pre-emptive nuclear strikes, might not discussions of Islamic atrocities simply feed bloodlust? Might Chancellor Maier's close ties with the Hawks at NRO and Crisis Magazine skew his understanding of history and his diagnosis of our present ills, spreading ideas which inadvertently pave the way for brutal, unchristian American warmongering?

Yes, it is good to speak truth, and knowing the truths about the dark side of Islam is wise. But there are higher truths which need witnesses, and it would be a tragedy if the greater wisdom were eclipsed by the lesser.

Since Chancellor Maier's comments were obviously inflammatory in some people's eyes, I will wait until tomorrow, and probably until I receive his permission, before excerpting any of his speech. He might have trouble enough in the papers tomorrow.

It seems that the Church Militant has not been pacified, but her militancy is now often directed inward against herself.

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