With its long coastline, rugged mountains and haunting sand dunes, Oman is a paradise for desert lovers, hikers and boaters. Muscat, the capital city, is a gem—its arched white buildings and flat roofs squeezed between the blue ocean and black mountains. Yet call me an egghead, but what I remember most from a trip to Oman is a booklet I read there with an ominous title: Body Count: A Quantitative Review of Political Violence Across World Civilizations (2009). In it, author Naveed Sheikh claims that “the Christian civilization emerges as the most violent and genocidal in the world history.” Compared to Islam, Christianity is a clear winner: 31.94 million deaths by Muslims to 177.94 million deaths by Christians.
It is by living and dying that one becomes a theologian, Martin Luther said. With that comment in mind, we have resumed a Century series published at intervals since 1939 and asked theologians to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined.
About ten years ago I started to become vegetarian. But although my menu shifted, my Christian observance continued pretty much the same. A cradle Anglican, I was a graduate student at King’s College, Cambridge. Evensong in chapel was a staple of my spiritual diet, often followed by dinner in the hall. Although physical sustenance came right after spiritual sustenance, I had little sense of a link between the two beyond the notion that sharing food with others was a good thing to do and that one should not take too much food in order to leave plenty for others. As a Christian, I was not unusual in failing to make connections between faith and food.
A banner in the Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University features these two statements set off from each other: Do not DESPAIR one of the thieves was SAVED; Do not PRESUME one of the thieves was DAMNED. The couplet refers to the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. The second half of the couplet, which is attributed to St. Augustine, is ambiguous. We could treat it as a command to presume that the second thief was damned. But I prefer taking the word presume as a synonym of assume: we should not necessarily assume that the second thief wasn’t saved. After all, Luke’s Gospel says nothing about his fate.
Few things are more humbling for a professor than to hear your classroom assertions parroted back to you. In the student’s puerile response you hear an echo of your own pronouncement—but on undergraduate lips the thought sounds unbearably stupid.
George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, says he is ready to back legislation that would legalize assisted dying for the terminally ill in England and Wales. Admitting it’s an about-face for him, Carey now argues that by “strictly observing the sanctity of life, the Church could now actually be promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope.” Justin Welby, the current archbishop, is strongly opposed to assisted dying. “What sort of society would we be creating if we were to allow this sword of Damocles to hang over the head of every vulnerable, terminally ill person in the country?” Welby said (Ecumenical News).