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Bad Enough

By December 16, 2007 No Comments

When is “not as bad as,” bad enough?

“Does the Qur’an say that it’s alright to beat your wife? ” A Muslim friend is talking with me about Islam. He brought the subject up, so I have license to ask tough questions.

“Does the Qur’an say that it’s alright to beat your wife?”

“Yes,” he answers, “but only a little.” He is earnest in his response to my question. He wants to be truthful, but he also wants to be understood. “Yes, but only a little.”

“Do you beat your wife? ” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says, “of course.” His face wears the expression of great anxiety as he reads the distaste on my face. “Yes,” he continues, “but only sometimes, and never severely. Muhammad says that a man must beat his wife a little from time to time. When she talks too much, or when she is lazy.”

“But just a little? ” I push.

“Yes, yes, just a little.”

Now, let’s be fair here. Domestic violence is a fact of life in ever y congregation of ever y church in ever y country, and none more so than in the United States. In fact, truth be told, there are probably battered wives silently sitting in almost every row of every church. It is a huge problem in Israel as well.

There are Muslim men who beat their wives. But not all Muslim men beat their wives. Maybe most Muslim men do not beat their wives. I don’t know. It seems to me that Islam has work to do in addressing women’s rights. A nd I know that there are many men and women in the Muslim world who are fighting this fight. As Christians, we applaud them. The evolution to equal rights for women is a recent and ongoing movement within the Christian faith as well. Not that long ago, battered Christian wives were told by clergy to go back home: “Don’t do anything to upset him.”

Since that conversation with my friend, I’ve had opportunity to talk with two Islamic scholars about this issue. Each agrees that this mandate to beat your wife/wives is indeed in the Qur’an. Both also agree that it is unfair to read this imperative outside of the context of the time in which the Qur’an was written. Muhammad, according to these two men, was appalled at the way A rab men were treating their wives. Therefore, his command was a radical corrective to clear abuses: “Beat them, but only a little and not so often.”

Come on now, you’ve heard this argument before, right? Paul and slaver y, Paul and women in ministry–women in general? How many times haven’t you heard Paul described as a man who hated women? But each time you quickly resort to the contextual argument, right? Of course, I’m right.

“What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is ‘not as bad as’… the holocaust.” Of course this is true. This is absolutely true, unequivocally true… and totally beside the point!

“What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is ‘not as bad as’… apartheid in South A frica.” Well, maybe this is true, maybe not. Some argue that Israel’s version of apartheid is worse because it is more subtle, always slipping just below the world’s threshold of intolerance. But for the sake of argument, let’s concede the point: what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is “not as bad as” apartheid in South Africa. So what?

You read the conversation between my Muslim friend and me: end of discussion, right? You agree that a little beating is not “as bad as” a severe beating, but even a little beating is still bad–right? Of course that’s right. Isn’t it like the discussion Americans have been having about torture? A little torture is not “as bad as” a lot of torture. A re we actually debating what level of torture is an acceptable level of torture? Please tell me that the “moral high ground” hasn’t sunken this low!

What Israel is doing to the Palestinian people is wrong. It is wrong. That some other action by some other party was or is worse does not change the basic truth that this is wrong. That people and nations across history have done far worse to Jewish people is not in dispute. You won’t ever hear me argue away the wrong that has been done to the Jewish people. Jewish people have suffered. But that does not excuse the suffering that Jewish people are causing to Palestinian people. Because you have been abused does not then give you license to abuse others. We don’t accept this argument in families, and we shouldn’t accept it here.

A small Palestinian village, hundreds of years old, is nestled in a valley below an illegal Jewish settlement just a few years in the building. Both are well inside the Palestinian West Bank. The allotment of water the State of Israel assigns this village is enough to permit the children of the village to wash just two times a month. From their location below the Jewish settlement the children can see sprinklers watering the grass of these Jewish homes. This might not be “as bad as” what has been done to Jewish people over centuries of abuse, but this is still bad and we ought to say that this is still bad. And I will. And I am. This is bad!

I hear some say that the Jewish people are not “as bad as” the Palestinian people. Rubbish! People are people, and I hope that all of us are better than this.

Marlin Vis is a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as a missionary in Jerusalem.