There are no appropriate words that can encapsulate the horrors we are seeing almost daily in Iraq, as well as in Syria. This is not to mention the continuing conflicts in Israel/Gaza, which fill our newsfeeds nonstop. And on this day we remember the unbelievable tragedy that took place on our soil in New York and Washington D.C. and in Pennsylvania on 9/11/01: The day we woke up and realized that there was such a thing as radical Islamism. Indeed, it woke us up to the rest of the world. And it has haunted us ever since.
In the midst of these startling images, stories, and the unimaginable reality they speak of, is there any place for hope? Specifically, can Christians hope for peace in the Middle East, or between Jews and Muslims, or Christians and Muslims?
Before I attempt my feeble answer, let me be careful to illustrate how bad things really are. I recently led a discussion/lecture series at my church based upon Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom. This very important book discusses the growth of Christianity in the global south. One of the main features of Jenkins’ work is his prediction that the growth of both Christianity and Islam will increase conflict between Christians and Muslims. Many local and global conflicts are going to take an increasingly religious color.
“No fewer than twelve of the world’s twenty-five largest states in 2050 could be profoundly divided between Islam and Christianity, and conceivably, any or all of them could be the scene of serious interfaith combat.” (p. 208).
We are certainly seeing an example of the phenomenon he predicted, in Iraq and Syria, and many other places.
I want to talk about what our relationship to Muslims and Islam should be in this sort of world – is there any hope for Christians and Muslims living in peace?
Many Christians wisely recognize the difference between Islamic extremism and the rest of the Islamic world and heritage, but some downright ignore the difference and with shameless historical revisionism and unbecoming vitriol conflate groups like ISIS with all of Islam [this controversial Charisma News.com piece has been taken down]. Many more are somewhere in the middle, simply confused about what relationships between Christians and Muslims can and should be.
Here are some thoughts to help us:
- We need to get rid of any hint of the myth that Christians and Muslims are predestined for conflict everywhere and always and thereby assume that peace is not ever possible.
First of all, we should note the fact that Christians and Muslims have a very mixed, and sometimes very positive, history. When the Muslim armies began invading Christian communities in the Middle East and Western Asia, they were typically very respectful of the Christians there and even encouraged Christian participation in public life; some Christians were appointed to high positions of power.
Historian Mark Dickens explains, that Christians had, at the time the first Islamic empire was being established in the Middle East,
“a reputation with the Arabs for being excellent accountants, architects, astrologers, bankers, doctors, merchants, philosophers, scientists, scribes and teachers. In fact, prior to the ninth century, nearly all the learned scholars in the Caliphate were Nestorian Christians. As a result, they came to hold positions of great power at the Arab court.”
Similarly, many Nestorian Christians were glad for the Arab invasion because under Arab rulers they were tolerated much more than by the Byzantines who were persecuting the Nestorians for their views of Christ’s human nature (the jury is out on what Nestorians actually believed, most now recognize that it was nothing as extreme as has been caricatured, complicated by the fact that there were multiple miscommunications between the Greek and Syriac/Arabic speaking worlds).
There was periodic persecution and various forms of discrimination. Though, even this needs to be treated carefully in light of the historical context: Christian Medieval Europe was not a bastion of religious tolerance at the time either, and was often much worse.
While there are passages in the Qur’an used by Islamists to justify violence (and we need to humbly admit that we have had a similar problem in our history too), there are explicit passages in the Qur’an that commend Muslims to treat Christians and Jews kindly, and for much of history many Muslims have taken those passages seriously:
“…and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant”
I side with Jenkins:
“Such a clash is anything but inevitable. Around the world, Christians and Muslims often have lived contentedly side by side, learning to respect each other’s sensitivities. This remains true today, after all the influence of growing militancy and foreign incitement.” (p. 17).
Conflict certainly increased in the Crusade-era (and we need to remember that there was plenty of nastiness on both sides – torture and beheadings and conquests all the way around). And there was in that era more violent Muslim regimes that were very intentional about wiping out all non-Muslim presence. The example that sticks out to me is that of Timor in Central Asia, whose conquests I recently observed in a trip to Uzbekistan – he wiped out Christian populations and built a Muslim empire on top of them.
Yet, despite this mixed history, Christians continued to often enjoy relative peace and sometimes friendship, in many Muslim lands (this is what Jenkins also argues). Until the past few decades regions like Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, have been strong examples of Muslim and Christian co-existence. When we hear of persecution going on few of us stop to realize that the mere existence of Christians in these lands speak of the fact that they have lived there for many, many centuries – this comes out of our woeful ignorance of the history of Christians outside of Europe. And hints of these hopeful encounters still exist – we recall reports of Muslims protecting Christians trying to pray during the upheavel in Egypt, or consider this clip of an Iraqi Muslim TV host in tears over the Christian suffering. Some Middle Eastern countries continue to tolerate Christian presence. The rise of Islamist violence and this extreme and totalitarian level of persecution, Jenkins also points out in his book, is a largely new phenomenon. This terrible reality need not define our image of what relationships between Christians and Muslims have to be.
We in the West have a lot of trouble recognizing the mixed nature of Muslim-Christian relations. Brother Andrew, ‘God’s Smuggler,’ in his recent book Light Force, illustrates the problem well:
“There had been many books on prophecy, most recently the best-selling Left Behind series. Many people wanted to interpret news events from the Middle East of the prophecies of the Bible. I did my best to stay out of these controversies, because there was one very important point that was often missed about the last book of the Bible. This book was written to a Church in conflict about a Church caught in conflict. . . . There couldn’t be martyrs without a Church. . . I was convinced that there was a contribution that the Christian community could make.”
–Brother Andrew, Light Force
The apocalyptic literature of American evangelicalism has sometimes painted Muslims and Arabs as the necessary, apocalyptic, ‘bad guys.’ Such an aura of pessimism has spread beyond those who adhere to this sort of end-times perspective. This pessimism dates back to the era of the Crusades, when the Christian West (not necessarily the Christians within Muslim lands) saw itself in an apocalyptic showdown. But there were the occasional dissenters, who tried to remind people that only the love and truth-telling of the Gospel, not force of arms, could win:
“I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms; but in the end all are destroyed before they attain that which they think to have. Whence it seems to me that the conquest of the Holy Land ought not to be attempted except in the way in which Thou and Thine apostles acquired it, namely, by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and of blood.”
–Raymond Lull, 13th century (in the middle of the Crusades).
With Lull, I don’t buy the pessimism. I’m very suspicious of any apocalyptic schemes that lock a particular group or people into a specific end-times role. I think that’s bad exegesis.
2. But, any hope that we have must be realistic, and humble.
We do not know, and cannot begin to comprehend, the suffering that is occurring in the Middle East among our own brothers and sisters, or others caught up in these conflicts (Palestinian civilians, or the Muslim groups that are also being massacred by the Islamist terrorists). For this reason, we should be slow to speak. We need to be realistic about this awful reality. It’s easy for us to say ‘the persecuted Church should love their enemies,’ when we have no idea what their suffering is like, or the danger they live with. It’s just not necessarily our place. There may be time to encourage one another to return to the words of peace and love for enemies in our Gospel, but we need to approach it all with the humility that recognizes that we just don’t understand.
The threat of Islamist terrorism and the violent persecution of Christians in Muslim lands is real, it is awful, and it is sadly growing and we cannot be ‘Pollyannaish’ about this truth. And the other sober reality, that would take many more blog posts to treat well, is the rapid rise of Islamist extremism in European lands – this creates a whole host of risks and difficulties that are not easy to navigate.
This call to sober-mindedness is not an exclusive critique of hippie idealists. This includes any temptation to grandiosity (‘we must come in and save the day’), that overlooks the real needs of the people suffering, and the realistic risks associated with ‘saving them.’ We must avoid looking to commit or support actions that make us feel good about ourselves but that don’t actually help.
- We Must Look Beyond Military Solutions
Despite some attempts to publicly condemn and defame Christian pacifism, the Christian Pacifist tradition is robust, ancient, and important. Many of the early Church Fathers were startlingly adamant in their belief that the call of Christ required abandonment of all violence, and a commitment to Christian love and prayer as the only Christian answer to all sorts of enemies, even the persecuting kind:
“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
-Origen, 2nd Century
The sweeping condemnations are an unfortunate vilification of a good chunk of the Christian tradition (the Quakers, the Anabaptists, and others), as well as our most ancient, shared, roots. Slander of this sort exploits our divisions and disagreements in the public sphere, something that helps no one but the Church’s true enemies. We need one another, and we need to remain united despite our disagreements.
Many Christians have and do disagree with this pacifist tradition. And we need to talk honestly and openly about our disagreements. There is also a robust Christian tradition of ‘Just War’ dating back to Augustine. And, certainly, the atrocities of groups like ISIS gives pause to even the most committed of pacifists. But, a few things here to keep in mind, even if we do ultimately believe that violence is justified and warranted in this situation: We should not lose sight of the moral gray area in using violence – even if we believe that using violence is justified, we should never pretend that using violence is a clear-cut affair. It is, at best, a necessary evil. Our reluctance is healthy, and a sign of our commitment to the Gospel, and the long tradition of Christians prophetically reminding us all to be very wary of solutions that include violence. Despite critiques of ‘Christian squeamishness,’ reluctance is a sign that we recognize that the problem is bigger than what a military can solve, and that the call of love for even our greatest enemies, and evangelism, must still be our primary goal. It reveals that we still believe that God, and His power alone (a power made manifest in His self-sacrifice) is the only ultimate solution. So, let’s please stay squeamish.
4. We must be careful to not use rhetoric that fulfills extremist propaganda.
Muslim extremists thrive off of spreading the sentiment that there is an epic showdown occurring between the Christian West, and Islam. Their propaganda is padded with accusations that the Christian West wishes to corrupt the Muslim world with our Western sexual licentiousness, greed, and our quest for control over their lands and resources (and like all good propaganda, there are bits of truth in all of this – western influence has disrupted their traditional world). Any time they can make the case that the Christian West has a vendetta against Islam as a religion, they are able to convince more people that Islam needs to be defended. This does not mean that we are to blame for the evil we see today. And this does not change there are many other factors in the rise of Muslim extremism, including political conflicts, economic instabilities, religious idealism, and downright evil. But we must understand how to avoid making it easy for them to make such claims. In our globalized world, we play a part with the words we use, or the actions we exhibit, in social media. The Qur’an-burning in Florida put many Christian lives in danger because, for many Muslims, it affirmed the fear that Christians are (via Western power) leading a new war against Islam. Mainstream evangelicals were right to condemn the act.
We cannot let extremists define the conflict – we must stand above with grace and truth, an earnest desire to embrace and be ‘good neighbors’ to the Muslim world, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (like not burning our Scripture publicly, or spreading stereotypes about what we do or believe) so that the extremists do not have any extra flak for their propaganda.
I will be clear: we must always, clearly, and forcefully condemn violence and persecution. But that is different than stooping to the level of extremists and talking in terms of a major religious showdown (something that also, by the way, feeds right into the rhetoric of the cranky atheists who believe that religion is the source of all violence).
I also recommend this excellent article illustrating that ISIS, despite their nostalgia for the Islamic empires of old, are hardly a ‘religious’ movement, and look nothing like the society they are purporting to recreate. They are more of a modern revolutionary movement than anything else.
5. Believe in a Gospel of Hope
When I talk to others about the pursuit of peace with Muslims, I hear a few key objections. Most regularly, I hear people note that the Bible promises we are destined for persecution and conflict: “Isn’t peace a sign that we are losing our ‘salt,’ is that not ‘accommodation’?” What’s the point, then? There is no hope for peace with outsiders.
Yes, the Bible promises that the Church will be hated and persecuted. But, the Church is also commanded to go about the work of loving our neighbors and enemies, and actively pursuing peaceful relations with them (I Timothy 3:7 says that Church leaders should be respected among non-believers, Romans 12:18 says “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”).
We may be persecuted despite our good-faith efforts. But remember that the Sermon on the Mount says that those who suffer for righteousness are those who are also peacemakers. They are the same group.
It is devilishly easy to be half-hearted in the pursuit of good relations with outsiders and then play the victim when they turn on us. We must be making every effort to be peacemakers.
Christians are persecuted on the path of peacemaking and ‘good-neighborliness.’ In fact, those are the things that agitate evil the most, not bullets or bombs. Satan is always pleased at the increase of conflict and violence. And the increase of conflict and violence prevents our ability to preach the Gospel, a Gospel that is even for persecutors of Christians (people like Saul of Tarsus, who had very bloody hands indeed). It is only on this path that we can hope to share and spread the Gospel.
We have been given a spirit of hope, not of timidity. We have been given a hope that when we follow God’s commandments we can know that if they lead to hatred, or even death at the hands of those we are trying to love, we are not failing. God is still being glorified. This hope gives us the strength to do what seems counter-cultural and illogical in the world’s eyes: Be loving neighbors and pursuers of peace even when it seems impossible. We can do this with confidence because we know, whatever the outcome, God is being glorified and He is the Victor.
Anecdotally, I can say that the Muslims I have known have been some of the most interesting, gracious, and hospitable people I have ever met. I have met them in America, in Bosnia, in Israel/Palestine, in Uzbekistan, and in Macedonia. And, as a theology student, I can have a great time with them because they often love honest theological discussion. Traditionally, Islamic culture highly values hospitality. Personal encounters, and the formations of friendship, is one of the most important tools we can implement in daily life for peace.
“For many Americans, Osama bin Laden is the paradigmatic Muslim, an absurd conviction for anyone who has lived with Muslims.” -Miroslav Volf (Croatian theologian).
I was encouraged to read of the account of a Muslim leader who is the Imam of a mosque near my hometown, who expressed publicly how humbled and impressed he was by the grace and hospitality he was shown by Christians around him. Through Christian good-neighborliness, he has become a public Muslim voice, speaking well of Christians. Everyday hospitality and friendships create bonds of peace. Our personal interactions may not have (or not seem to have) an impact on these horrible conflicts, but peace must always start locally. And we are to be faithful with what is in front of us, and pray that God in His power and grace grows His Kingdom out of our meager efforts.
The President of our seminary (Dr. Dennis Hollinger) spoke in convocation yesterday about the challenge Christians are facing around the world in our day – from Islamic extremist persecution, to conflicts over Christian groups on college campuses. I wish I had a transcript of his words handy, but his conclusion was powerful and needs to be widely disseminated. He reminded us that our hope comes not in our political prowess, or our military might, but only in Jesus Christ.
Amen and amen. And all glory, all honor, all power, all dominion to the one who laid down His life for His enemies, showing us all that only the love of God can swallow up death.
“The expectation of things that comes as a gift from God–that is hope. And is love too, projecting itself into our world and world’s future. For love always gives gifts and is itself a gift; inversely, every genuine gift is an expression of love. At the heart of the hoped-for future, which comes from the God of love, is the flourishing of individuals, communities and our world globe.”