Q: President Obama argued that, just as Islam is used by some to promote violence and injustice, so has Christianity. Is he right?
A: At the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast (can you eat prayers for breakfast?), President Obama opined that…
during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. …So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
In this, the President is absolutely correct. The Bible, from Old Testament to New, is replete with examples of people who distorted God’s revelation for their own personal gain or bent his words to suit their own purposes. You can start with the Devil himself in Genesis 3 and move on. But is this a valuable insight when it comes to dealing with the real, live, and very 21st Century crisis posed by Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS?
It can be, on the home front. Our country is still underpinned by Christian values, and a chief one of those values is honest judgment free from hypocrisy. Christ called on us to remove the logs from our own eyes before we take the specks out of others (Matthew 7:3-5). Paul, leader among apostles, recognized the sinful nature still goading and prodding his own behavior (Romans 7:18-20, and perhaps also 2 Corinthians 12:7). It’s good to be reminded that there is no high horse on which we can stand. We stand on Christ and his righteousness alone, or we stand nowhere at all.
But having acknowledged that we, too, are sinners, we are still called to answer the more difficult question. Are Christianity and Islam equally susceptible to being twisted toward violent ends? Some would suggest yes (consider, for example, this article). But consider this. Almost a millennium separates the crusades from the time when Jesus walked the earth; a millennium and a half between the Sermon on the Mount and the Inquisition; eighteen centuries between the penning of Galatians 3:28 and Jim Crow. The Spanish Inquisition was practiced by a branch of the Christian Church that had already been called on the carpet for placing human decisions over the writings of Scripture. And the movement to abolish slavery in the UK and the US was led largely by “radicalized Christians,” people unwilling to accept any status quo that flew in the face of the clear teachings of Jesus and his apostles.
On the other hand Islam began in violence. Before the Quran was complete Muhammad had raised an army and attacked Mecca. Within one decade of the death of Muhammad, adherents to Islam began a military expansion across Europe that is still stunning in its breadth and scope. Within a hundred years of his death, Muslims had attacked and subjugated the Byzantine Empire, most of northern Africa, Persia and northern India, portions of eastern Europe, and Spain. There was an attempt to invade France, famously repulsed by Charles the Hammer and his impromptu militia.
The bottom line is that it took many centuries before Christianity could be twisted to evil purposes, and only in a period when the teachings of its founder were no longer read or well known. Islam, on the other hand, has had a militaristic streak from its very beginning. Can Christianity be used to justify violent, militaristic responses to one’s opponents? Yes, if one can successfully ignore the Gospels, the Epistles, and the first several centuries of church history. Can Islam be used to justify the same? Yes, but such justifications can easily draw on its early beginnings. Radical Christianity scares me, because it calls me to rethink my materialism, my lack of concern for my neighbor of any language or skin color, and my desire for revenge. Racial Islam also scares me, but for very different reasons.