Christian Today, today, came up with this rather inflammatory headline: Christian thinkers accuse politicians, media of failing to name Islam as the real enemy behind terror attacks. It is mainly based on a blog by Ravi Zacharias which is perhaps somewhat more reflective and nuanced than the headline. Nonetheless, Christian Today would not have run the headline if it did not think that it would resonate among its readers.
I’ve seen the same thing, mainly from the USA where the notion ‘Christian=American’ is still strong, frequently on Facebook, and rather less from the UK, mainly because I’ve tended to unfriend the people who are happy to post Britain First memes which make a similar case.
It seems to me that there are two extremes of thought, neither of which does us much good. One is to say ‘all religions are the same, and are religions of peace, therefore it is not Islam’s fault’, and the other is to say ‘these people have one thing in common: they are Muslims, therefore Islam is the enemy’.
Leaving aside the Bible for a moment (if you are not a Christian, but have stumbled onto this article for whatever reason, this should give you some relief), it seems to me self-evident that all religions are not the same, and a desire for peace is not the universal goal of religion.
It is far too contentious to discuss Islam and Christianity at this point, so let’s look at something I know a little about: the AEsir. Norse religion, up to the early middle-ages, is well known to us from TV shows, Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, and, to a much lesser and less popular extent, from extant Old Norse texts, historical accounts and archaeological findings. As someone who has laboured away translating Skirnismal into English, let me try to simplify matters by saying that the Norse religion for which we have evidence was not a religion of peace, but one of war. More exactly, it was a religion in which only death in battle could assure a place in Valhalla (pronounced with a glottal stop for the double ‘l’, in case you wish to be seen as erudite at dinner parties), and where the principal aim of Odin (pronounced ‘O-th-in’, if you’re still worried about the dinner party) was to gather warriors for the final battle.
Religion as such is not intrinsically about peace.
Equally, it seems clear to me that believing the teachings of your religion to be ‘true’ in any worthwhile sense means that you believe that which contradicts them to be ‘untrue’. This would be uncontroversial if we were talking about whether there should be one or two spaces after a full stop (it’s one, actually), or whether the answer to 1 + 3 x 2 – 6 / 3 is 5, or some other number. As it’s religion, even whispering that you think someone else is wrong seems to be desperately illiberal, and rather marks you out as the person causing all the problems in the first place. Perhaps if we chose the words ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’, it might make things a little easier.
Even so, this does not mean we have to fall out.
Disagreeing about whether Jesus is a saviour, a prophet, or an impostor, whether Abraham took Isaac or Ishmael or no one onto the holy mountain, and whether the extent of God’s revelation is the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, both of those and the Qu’ran, or nothing at all, does not require us to be enemies. In fact, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and others have managed to live peacefully in many different sets of circumstances over the last 1400 years. Some of those circumstances were intrinsically unjust, others were not.
When the early Christian missionary Paul arrived in Athens, the book of Acts in the New Testament retells that he was distressed because of its many idols. As a good Jew, brought up as a Pharisee and subsequently a convert to the new faith of Christianity (though not denying his Judaism), Paul was only doing what was culturally native to him by being distressed in this way. However, as Acts records, Paul’s response to this was not to declare a pogrom against idols, or even get up a petition. He went to the Areopagus, and addressed those there in these terms:
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
You can (if you like) cast doubt on whether this is really what Paul said in Athens, whether there really was a Paul, and, indeed, whether there really is an Athens, but in as much as the framework of Christian belief is set out in the New Testament, this is what it is.
Paul’s writing, by contemporary standards, is at times quite intemperate. However, his intemporacy is almost always directed at people who describe themselves as Christians but reject (in word or action) whatever it is that Paul was teaching at the time. Neither he nor any of the other New Testament writers ever call for Christians to make the pagans their enemies, to attack their temples, denounce their gods, or do anything else to engage in a war of religion. The notion of a religion as an enemy is fundamentally foreign to the New Testament, Christian perspective.
“Ah”, you might say, “but Paul and his friends did not have to suffer what we are suffering at the hands of Daesh (or ISIS)”.
This is where things really do get interesting.
Up until Constantine, and already in the time of Paul, there were frequent violent, and often fatal, attacks by pagans on Christians. Some of these are recorded in the book of Acts (again, cast doubt if you like), and many others recorded by the Romans themselves. Some had imperial backing, to the point of requiring all copies of the Bible to be destroyed, and the execution of believers. We have a relative luxury of writings from the period. Many questions were raised among theologians, and there were some quite bitter disputes, but these were mainly about the status of Christians who abandoned their faith under persecution and then wanted to return to it. At no point in the first centuries of Christianity did the prevailing mood of the church become ‘treat the pagans as enemies’.
Daesh is clearly causing an enormous amount of suffering in today’s world, but it is not different in kind from the persecutions the early Christians faced. They were not instructed to make other religions their enemies, nor, by and large, did they do so.
The New Testament records Jesus as saying (and Paul, later, as repeating) ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you’. In this sense, individual Muslims, Jews, atheists, or people who do not consider faith or lack of it to be particularly important in their lives, can be our enemies, and we can both love them, and pray for them. The notion of a religion such as Islam being an ‘enemy’, though, is foreign to the New Testament world view.
Let’s fast-forward this to the present day. The kind of people who post on Facebook and encourage me to ‘like and share’ (I don’t) that Islam is the enemy will say that I’m just playing with words here. Surely (they would argue) it is clear that it is Islam which is the unifying factor among our enemies, and that we are deluding ourselves if we do not call it out for being so.
Let me give three responses.
First, anyone claiming to be a Christian (everyone else can skip to the next paragraph) needs to recognise that to be Christian at all means abandoning the right to call other people ‘enemies’. ‘Love your enemies’ has the direct implication that, after a while of loving them, you no longer look on them as enemies. Elsewhere, Paul writes that Christians should do their best to live at peace with those around them, and Peter argues that if we’re going to be persecuted, it’s better to be persecuted for being a Christian than for another reason. Trying to describe Islam as ‘the enemy’ is trying to extend a concept when Jesus Christ is calling us to abandon it altogether.
Second, whether or not Islam is a religion of peace (and, as a non-Muslim, I cannot possibly see how I could be qualified to have an opinion on the subject, and I feel other non-Muslims should exercise the same circumspection), it is clear that the vast majority of Muslims in North Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, South East Asia, former Soviet Central Asia, in the UK and across the rest of the world do not support Daesh or sympathise with them. Even the Sun’s ragged piece of journalism which claimed (in contradiction to the results of the survey) that 1/5 Muslims sympathised with jihadis, would have meant that 4/5 had no sympathy with them (leaving aside the fact that ‘jihad’ doesn’t mean ‘waging war’ but rather ‘exertion’, and is more commonly found in giving to the poor than in fighting battles).
Third, even from an entirely secular point of view, we are slipping back into bad, twentieth century, habits, if we try to identify an ideology and demonise it. “First there was Nazism. Then there was Communism. Now there is Islam.” The rhetoric is easy, but the conclusions are false.
Nazism was a genuinely evil ideology, linked at its roots with the exaltation of the selfishness of one group of people at the expense of the lives of other groups. Very few ideologies in the whole of history have ever been so vile, which is perhaps one reason why it endured for less than a generation. Nazism was not merely a vicious ideology. It was an aggressive one, and we fought a war against it, at great cost. The Nazis genuinely were the enemy.
Soviet Communism was totalitarian, imposed using many of the techniques of Nazism (though also using many techniques invented among the ‘Christian’ Tsars), and existed in a long period of cold enmity towards the West. The ‘continuous revolution’ of Soviet Communism genuinely was a threat to the West, and the language (and equipment) of the Cold War meant that the notion of the Soviet Union as ‘the enemy’ was not too far fetched. However, as the McCarthy witch-hunt trials showed, making communism (and, by extension, any form of socialism, and by extension to that, any disquiet with American capitalism) the enemy resulted in a great deal of injustice which reduced the freedom of Western Society. In making communism the enemy, we became more like the enemy.
We have got used to the idea of having an ideological enemy. With Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia gone, and communist China one of our biggest trading partners, it is all too easy to look around and see Islam as the next big enemy. To do so is sloppy thinking, flies in the face of history, and demonises hundreds of millions of people who have never done us harm, nor wished it.
When war is contemplated, it is usual to attempt to co-opt every part of society into supporting it. Western rulers have all too frequently put crosses on their shields, flags or tanks and tried to claim that ‘x is the enemy of Christianity’.
The truth is that Christianity is a faith entirely based on the notion of forgiveness, of loving one’s enemies, of seeking reconciliation. Co-opting it for war does violence to the faith itself. This is far from saying that Christians should be pacifists. There may come a time when many Christians conclude, from a reasonable perspective based on the New Testament faith, that it is their duty to go to war. But not a war which is ‘Christianity versus Islam’ or ‘Christianity versus Communism’.
If we do go to war in Syria, let it be because it has a realistic, strategic goal of saving lives and putting to an end an injustice which should and must be stopped. As Christians, let us resist to the end all notions of Islam as the enemy, and a war between two faiths. The symbol of the cross—if it is to be co-opted at all—belongs on medicines and food parcels, not on warplanes and munitions.