"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Muslim and Christian Violence

There is a certain tedious regularity to some people who, when confronted with the latest of myriad examples of violence committed in the name of Islam, resort to a knee-jerk "What about Christians shooting abortion doctors?" or "Yes, but what about the Christians and the Crusades," about which of course almost everyone today is maddeningly ignorant. This overlooks many things, not least that individual Christians who commit gratuitous violence today are always vanishingly small in number and always do so in clear violation of the example given by Christ Himself who  unequivocally rebukes those who use violence in His defense, famously saying that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword (Matt. 26:52; cf. Luke 22:49-51). 

The same, of course, cannot be said of Mohammad, whose own life precisely refuses to separate the things of "Caesar" from those of God, and who himself took up the sword in vicious, bloody, and lethal military campaigns against his enemies, which are credibly and amply documented. His example remains influential (some Muslims call him the "perfect man") in shaping the views and, worse, the behavior of some Muslims today. The point in mentioning all this is not to exonerate one tradition at the expense of another, or to exaggerate or whitewash the offenses of either, but only to say that the two track-records are vastly different and any responsible telling by serious scholars must acknowledge this. The archbishop of Canterbury has not responded--and will not respond--to Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh's monstrous and demonic fatwa by demanding the destruction of all British mosques; the pope of Rome has not called--and will not call--on the Italian government or Roman Catholics to blow up all the mosques in Rome and the Italian peninsula; the patriarch of Moscow has not called--and will not call--on Russian Orthodox Christians or the Russian government to destroy the houses of worship of Russia's largest minority religion, Islam. And the reason none of them would countenance violence is because doing so would be direct and obvious disobedience to Christ. 

This raises an interesting question: does the media's willingness to react so swiftly and often simplistically to Christian violence, and to take such absurd pains to downplay or dismiss Muslim violence (e.g., the obfuscation around the religion of the Toulouse murderer of four Jews last month) reflect the fact that the media knows--but will not admit--that violence is supposed to be an anomaly for Christians, but also knows--and perforce will not admit--that violence is a justifiable commonplace for many Muslims? Several new books take up these questions. For Muslims, Jeffry Halverson's forthcoming volume looks promising: Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (Potomac Books, August 2012), 192pp. 

About this book we are told:
At a time when violent images of the Muslim world dominate our headlines, Western audiences are growing increasingly interested in a different picture of Islam, specifically the idea of Muslim nonviolence, and what it could mean for the world. But is nonviolence compatible with the teachings of Islam? Is it practical to suggest that Muslim societies must adopt nonviolence to thrive in today’s world? Where is the Muslim equivalent of a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.? Searching for a King offers a comprehensive look into Islamic conceptions of nonviolence, its modern champions, and their readings of Islam’s sacred texts, including the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.
Jeffry R. Halverson asserts that the foundation for nonviolence in Islam already exists. He points to the exemplary lives and teachings of modern Muslim champions of nonviolence, little known in the Western world. Using rich historical narratives and data from leading international agencies, he also makes the case that by eliminating the high costs of warfare, nonviolence opens the door to such important complementary initiatives as microfinancing and women’s education programs. Ultimately, Halverson endorses Muslim champions of nonviolence and argues for the formulation of a nonviolent version of jihad as an active mode of social transformation.
On the Christian side, we have two new books looking at violence in Christian Scriptures. The first is a collection: Pieter G.R. de Villiers and Jan Willem van Henten, eds.,  Coping With Violence in the New Testament (Brill, 2012), 305pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Violence is present in the very heart of religion and its sacred traditions – also of Christianity and the Bible. The problem, however, is not only that violence is ingrained in the mere existence of religions with their sacred traditions. It is equally problematic to realise that the icy grip of violence on the sacred has gone unnoticed and unchallenged for a very long time. The present publication aims to contribute to the recent scholarly debate about the interconnections between violence and monotheistic religions by analysing the role of violence in the New Testament as well as by offering some hermeneutical perspectives on violence as it is articulated in the earliest Christian writings.
A second recent book has also taken a look at this problem: Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne, 2011), 320pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions—all are in the Bible, and all occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more hard-wired in Christianity than it is in Islam. In Laying Down the Sword, “one of America’s best scholars of religion” (The Economist) explores how religions grow past their bloody origins, and delivers a fearless examination of the most violent verses of the Bible and an urgent call to read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more genuine faith.
Christians cannot engage with neighbors and critics of other traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith—until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the “holy amnesia” that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible’s most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict. Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation.
Laying Down the Sword presents a vital framework for understanding both the Bible and the Qur’an, gives Westerners a credible basis for interaction and dialogue with Islam, and delivers a powerful model for how a faith can grow from terror to mercy.
Jenkins, it should be noted, is not your typical academic drone eager to slag Christianity while cravenly running from the slightest critical word about Islam. He is a highly acclaimed historian who, in some of his previous works, has shown himself an astute defender of Christians as in, e.g., his 2004 book from Oxford University Press, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, a study made all the more remarkable for the fact that its author is not a Catholic himself. 

He has also offered one of the most perceptive accounts I have seen of the shifting centre of gravity within Christianity in his 2002 book (updated in a third edition in September 2011), The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity

Finally, mention must also be made of his 2009 book God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, a book that I found useful not least because it introduces some important and welcome nuances into recent discussions about a supposed demographic "take-over" by ostensibly burgeoning Muslim populations in Western Europe, especially France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

Jenkins shows that the picture is rather more complicated than some of the more apocalyptic writings of certain figures (e.g., Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West) have led us to believe, and the demographic data are not as inexorable as some may assume. Nevertheless, for all that, Jenkins does paint a disturbing picture of a European Christianity in sharp decline, and that in itself is more than enough to worry about quite apart from Islam. 

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