October 3rd, 2012
By Carrie Stokes (’12)
Dr. Charles Kimball, former Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Wake Forest, returned to Winston-Salem on October 2, 2012 from Norman, Oklahoma where he serves as Presidential Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Kimball’s evening lecture in Brendle Recital Hall was co-sponsored by the WFU Humanities Institute and the Department of Religion with support from the Divinity School and the Chaplin’s Office.
The lecture, attended by an audience of 450 drawn from WFU and the larger Winston-Salem community, addressed the theme from his most recent book, When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2011), a sequel to his bestseller, When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperOne, rev. ed. 2008).
Early in his lecture, Kimball explained to the audience that one of his first encounters with Islam in the Middle East was as a doctoral student. He was one of seven Americans that travelled to Iran and met with the Ayatollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis in 1979. Since then, he has made over 35 visits to the Middle East, worked for the National Council of Churches in New York, NY as the Director of the Middle East Office, lived in Egypt for a period of time, and worked closely as an expert analyst for Congress, the White House and the State Department.
His knowledge and expertise on the geographic area and central religious and cultural traditions in the Middle East has become increasingly relevant following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the more recent uprisings in predominantly Islamic countries, including Egypt and Libya. Kimball is frequently interviewed by the media because of his knowledge of Islam and his vast experience.
In his lecture, Kimball first acknowledged that there are no easy answers or simple solutions to the volatile mix of politics and religion, but he assured the audience of ways to move forward constructively. He stressed that education and the development of a coherent frame of reference are essential for more accurately understanding the world and, in particular, the religious tradition of Islam.
Islam is not monolithic, Kimball stated and reiterated. Just as Presbyterians and Lutherans self-identify as different denominations of the Christian tradition, the Islamic tradition is equally varied, with groups including Sunnis and Shiites, among others, whose distinctive histories, practices and beliefs are important to acknowledge and understand in relationship to the geographic and national contexts in which they live.
In relationship to current political rhetoric in the United States about the re-establishment of a “Christian nation” and Middle East discourse about the creation of an “Islamic state,” Kimball addressed the absence of a scriptural template for these kinds of nation-building claims. He argued that though religion and politics have always been linked, without an exact blueprint for building social and political systems, attempts throughout the centuries have been experimental in nature and remain, at best, works in progress. In fact, the flexibility and adaptability of the Christian and Islamic traditions have been crucial for the longevity of each.
Kimball concluded his talk by asking citizens and leaders in the United States to be cautious in their involvement in Middle East politics and to remember the Founding Fathers’ wish for people of this country to enjoy both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Kimball believes that other countries will, in time, look to this effective model. “The world will take note,” he said, “because the world is too small and too dangerous for anything else to work.”