Rachel Held Evans recounts her spiritual journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a Christian stance with many more nuances and much more depth in her book Evolving in Monkey Town, the town being Dayton, TN where the famous Scopes Trial, or Monkey Trial, took place. One event made a particularly deep impression on me as it showed how a growing instinct for the Paschal Mystery broadened her vision of a terrible news story she witnessed on TV.
The story was shown in 2001, just before the US invasion of Afghanistan, obviously for the purpose of justifying the invasion on the grounds of the Taliban’s callous treatment of women. (Never mind that if every country that has people who commit atrocities towards women deserve to be invaded, then every country in the world would deserve it!) The video showed a woman named Zarmina, dressed in a burqa, being dragged into a soccer stadium during halftime where she was executed before the capacity crowd. She had been charged with murdering her abusive husband, although a confession extracted after two days torture is rather suspect.
It is very important to note that Rachel’s reaction had nothing to do with criticizing Islam as a religion. Rachel’s problem had to do with Christianity. She had been taught all her life that only those who consciously accept Jesus as savior can be saved. But seeing a woman suffering such an atrocity on TV made it very hard for her to believe that a woman who had suffered so badly should have her suffering compounded by spending eternity in hellish torment because she had died a Moslem. That Zarmina had said her Moslem prayers in the face of what her co-religionists were doing to her speaks strongly for the power of Islam as a source of deep spirituality.
It became very hard for Rachel to believe that a loving god would predestine a woman like this to hell. When she thought about the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the gassing of Iraqi Kurds and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Anne Frank among them, it became harder than ever for Rachel to believe this of God who had sent his only begotten Son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. She noted that in Sunday school, hell had been presented as a place for people like Hitler, but with no mention of his victims. Yet, all of Hitler’s victims who were Jewish were excluded from Heaven according to what she had been taught.
This event precipitated a crisis of faith that lasted several years. The irony is, this crisis was caused, not by a self-centered doubt about God, but by a deepening formation within her of the Paschal Mystery. If the risen and forgiving Jesus is the “living interpretive principle,” as James Alison says, then Jesus does not just interpret the scriptures, although obviously he does that, but Jesus interprets everything everywhere through the Paschal Mystery. So it is that all victims from Abel to the latest youth killed in urban gang warfare are brought into the Cross, and from there, raised to the life of the Resurrection. What Rachel had experienced as a crisis of faith was really a deepening of faith in the scope of the Paschal Mystery. So it is that Zarmina was surely gathered into deeper and greater life blossoming from the Moslem prayers she recited just before she died.