September 3, 2007
God’s Warriors (Part Two)
by Pastor George Van Alstine
Last week I began writing some reflections on the recent CNN series âGodâs Warriors,â? in which Jewish, Muslim and Christian fundamentalist movements were compared. I indicated I had three observations, and wrote about the first, before I ran out of paper: that these extreme expressions of the three faiths are all reacting to a perceived deterioration in societal values, in morality, in a sense of right and wrong, in time-honored traditions. In this article, I continue with my other two points.
(2) Extreme views are one thing; when these views result in violent behavior, the fabric of society is threatened. I thought the CNN reportâs major flaw was in its implication that all three fundamentalist movements are equally prone to violence. Even the title of the series, âGodâs Warriors,â? seems to assume this.
But CNNâs own reporting shows that this is not true. A few Jewish violent acts were documented, in the struggle over settlements in disputed territories and over worship on the Temple Mount. The only Christian acts of violence mentioned were a few bombings of abortion clinics. Most activism done by Christian fundamentalists was expressed in street demonstrations, in courts of law, and in political initiatives.
By contrast, the current expression-of-choice among Muslim fundamentalists seems to be violence. Acts of terrorism have become so public and so frequent that many people in the rest of the world think of Islam itself as a violent religion. CNN failed to show this dramatic difference, and the report has been widely criticized for this.
Iâd like to think for a while about why it is that modern Islam is so identified with violence. Actually, the religious movement was born in conflict. Even in the days when Mohammed was still alive, military conquest of new territory was a large part of Islamâs sense of mission. Within a hundred years of its founding, great areas of the Middle East, North Africa and even Europe were under Muslim control.
To be fair, Muslim leaders in the Middle Ages were quite humane and tolerant in their rule over conquered peoples. There are many reports of Jewish communities that found life better under Muslim rule than under Christian rule. Even some Christian peoples submitted to Muslim armies rather than to the Christian Emperor of Rome or Constantinople, because of the âChristianâ? rulerâs reputation for cruelty to those who were defeated.
We also have to remember how much ruthlessness and bloodshed characterized the Christian Crusades to the Holy Land. Jerusalem and its environs were controlled by Muslims, who were seen as infidels and worthy of instant death. Christians also committed many acts of terror against Jewish people dispersed throughout Christian lands. The same merciless treatment was shown later, Christian-against-Christian, in the Medieval Inquisition designed to purify the faith.
So history doesnât give us a clear picture of peace-loving Christians threatened by violence-prone Muslims. We wonât find an answer there to the question we raised, as to why modern Muslim extremists are so characterized by violence. I suspect the answer has a lot to do with the frustrations of the last two centuries, as worldwide events have been pretty much determined by European and American colonial powers, who have carved up wealth and power among them, leaving only crumbs for Muslim peoples, who have been pretty much relegated to third-world status. Terrorism seems to many of them to be the only means of expression left. Christian and Jewish fundamentalists have political and legal avenues that are not available to Muslim fundamentalists. Iâm sure this is much too simplistic, and I welcome any additional insight or criticism readers may be willing to share with me.
But there is one additional factor I feel quite strongly about. Islam and Christianity have core beliefs about Godâs relationship to the world that ought to make a great difference in how they react to the injustice and imperfection they experience.
Iâve heard Islamic leaders explain from the Koran that their faith promotes love and peace, rather than war and violence. I havenât been persuaded that the message is that clear. The Koran does value respect for all human beings, whatever their belief system. But it envisions a world in which the teachings of Islam dominate and God is, therefore, the center of government and society. This is the seed of the idea of conquest and rule.
Jesus said, by contrast, âMy kingdom is not of this world.â? He called upon his followers to live in a society where their God is not respected or obeyed, in a society where they will be persecuted. He tells them that in this environment they should love their enemies, turn the other cheek, answer persecution with prayer, be peacemakers rather than warriors.
I know Christian history doesnât demonstrate that this teaching was ever taken seriously by the majority of believers, but it has always been at the heart of the gospel; and it is today. Iâd like to believe that the basic reason why Christian fundamentalists work through courts and political campaigns, and not through terrorist attacks, is that they are followers of Jesus. To the extent that they are, they realize that their kingdom is not of this world, but is spiritual and filled with Christâs giving love.
(I guess my third observation will have to wait until next week.)