Last night our monthly Faiths in Conversation gathering took on the difficult question of “The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism.” The shared perspectives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the three branches of the Abrahamic Tree were in full view as each of our spiritual traditions showed the sacred texts that “our” violent extremists have interpreted as their mandates for terror. This is not just Islam’s problem, it is Judaism’s and Christianity’s problem as well. All three branches of our family tree have dark texts and bloody histories. Each of the speakers talked about how their texts have been used by certain segments of their own faith communities to support violent extremism, and showed how the proper interpretation of these same texts can result in very different conclusions and applications.
The direction our Faiths in Conversation session moved last night reminded me something Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the most eminent scholars on religious terrorism in the world today, said in an interview on “Cosmic War on a Global Scale” (posted by Nathan Schneider – “The Immanent Frame” – @ http://blogs.ssrc.org). After describing the religious roots of modern terrorism, the question was asked, “How should these religious claims and actions be addressed?” The first two proposed answers were, (1) ignore the religious claims altogether and focus instead on the underlying political and economic conditions, and (2) they can’t be addressed religiously, these people won’t be reasoned with, they must be destroyed. Dissatisfied with both of these answers, Mark Juergensmeyer proposed a third: “a conversion from within the religious community, one that persuades people (of faith) that they are not engaged in a cosmic war and should redirect their activities.”
This is the crucial conversation of faith to be had, it seems to me. Instead of trying to name and correct the way that Muslim extremists are misinterpreting their texts and contradicting their own religious claims, we need to speak to those on the fringes of our own faith communities first and most. Christianity’s violent extremists (see “Terror from the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City” @ www.plcenter.org and “Terrorist Acts by Christians and Members of Other Faiths” @ www.religioustolerance.org) need to be engaged in the conversation of faith with other Christians. Now, having seen the Westboro Baptist Church at work up close and personal on more than one occasion, I know just how problematic this proposal is. But that fact doesn’t diminish its importance or urgency. If for no other reason than to show people who think that “they” represent who Christians are and what Christians do that there is an alternative, we need to be clear, consistent and compelling.
Here at Northway two of our named congregational values are “Open Bibles” and “Open Minds.” Now, I know some Christians who advocate “Open Bibles.” And I know some other Christians who advocate “Open Minds.” But here at Northway we want to be Christians who advocate both “Open Bibles” and “Open Minds.” We intend to be Christians who take Scripture seriously by knowing both what it says and how it applies to our lives and the world. Christian extremists didn’t get that way by reading their Bibles, but by not reading their Bibles carefully enough. As Tim Keller puts it –
Think of people (Christians) you consider fanatical. They are over-bearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, harsh. Why are they so? It is not because they are too fanatically committed to Christ and his gospel, but rather because they are not fanatical enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement moral framework they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) What strikes us as overly-fanatical is actually a failure be fully-orbed in our commitment to Christ. Extremism and fanaticism, which leads to abuse and oppression, is a constant danger within the body of believers. But the answer is not to toned down and ‘moderate’ faith, but a deeper and truer faith in Christ and his word. (https://www.facebook.com/notes/monergism-books/fanaticism-by-tim-keller-excerpt-from-the-reason-for-god/224327212550)
My presentation last night at the Faiths in Conversation session on “The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism” was an attempt at modeling this “Open Bible” and “Open Mind” approach to Christianity. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not it succeeded at what was intended, and I’ll keep working on what it means to give voice to a deep and true faith in Christ and his word in the interfaith setting. I think it matters. DBS+
“The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism”
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
March 17, 2015 – 7 pm – The Islamic Association of Collin County
Peace on earth, good will to men” is what the Christmas angels sang the night that Christ was born according to the Gospel of Luke (2:14), and so in the minds of many, Christianity doesn’t have much of a contribution to make to this evening’s conversation about extremism and violence.
Hanan’s got the book of Joshua that he’s got to deal with as a Jew, and Kahlil’s got the whole concept of “jihad” that he’s got to explain as a Muslim. But as a Christian what I’ve got are the lilies of the valley, the birds of the air and the sweet by and by. Oh, Christians can take extreme positions and participate in violent acts to be sure. But such responses are widely thought of as being exceptions to, even contradictions of genuine Christianity which is a religion, as everyone knows, of love.
The general impression is that there is a kind of violence that is intrinsic to the teachings of the Hebrew and Muslim Scriptures, but not to the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. And so Christians know all about the brutality of the conquest of Canaan by their spiritual parents, the Jews, and suspect that terrorism is in some way sanctioned, if not actually commanded, by the Koran. But we have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to our own “dark passages” and bloody history. This is the only way that I can account for the objections that have come from parts of the Christian community in recent days to the comments that President Obama made at the National Prayer Breakfast about the terrible deeds that have been committed in the name of Christ – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 30 Years War – by Christians at times in our history. We suffer a selective amnesia.
For instance, any Christian you ask here tonight can tell you that the birth of Christ is observed by us on December 25 and then sing you a sweet Christmas carol or two by heart in celebration of it. But rare is the Christian who knows that December 26th, the day right after Christmas, is the day when the church deliberately remembers St. Stephen, the very first Christian to be put to death for his faith in Jesus Christ; or that December 27th is St. John the Evangelist’s Day, the Apostle who wrote the fourth Gospel, three New Testament letters, and quite possibly the Book of Revelation, who spent years of his life exiled on the Isle of Patmos as a punishment for his Christian faith; or that December 28th is the Day of the Holy Innocents when the church remembers King Herod’s brutal slaughter of all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem right after Jesus Christ was born.
Together, St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents are known as the “Christmas saints,” and their days, the three days right after “merry” Christmas each year on the church calendar, are days quite literally “drenched in blood.” The days right after Christmas on the church calendar are amongst the most violent of the church year, and the church deliberately planned it that way to inject some realism into the sentimentality that the birth of the baby Jesus so easily stirs up in us. When all we want to do is “ohhh” and “ahhh,” the church consciously shifts our focus away from that cute little baby to the fight that He came to join.
The Christian theologian Gustaf Aulen (1879-1977) said that Christianity “looks upon existence as a ‘dramatic struggle’ and sees the inner meaning of existence emerging out of this struggle where the divine will stands in conflict with hostile forces” (170). That’s what those bloody days of violence after Christmas each year on the church calendar are there to remind us of as Christians, and Gustaf Aulen argued, I think persuasively, that any attempt to understand Christianity without giving sufficient attention to the reality of this conflict that is at the very heart of the New Testament “is doomed to failure” (176).
On the handout that I prepared for you this evening I have provided you with the climactic verses in the New Testament about this conflict from the book of Revelation – selections from chapters 12, 13, 17 and 19 on the first and second page. What these passages describe is what is known in Christian circles as the battle of “Armageddon.” “Armageddon” is the final battle in the “dramatic struggle” of the divine will that stands in conflict with all of those hostile forces. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In the public ministry of Jesus, this “dramatic struggle” can be seen in Christ’s temptations in the wilderness right after His baptism in the Jordan River by John, and in His repeated confrontations with the demonic through the exorcisms that He performed. All of those militant sayings at the top of the front page of my handout this evening, each one of them attributed to Jesus Christ, are expressions of His awareness of the nature of the fight that He was in. This “dramatic struggle” was the context of Jesus Christ’s own life and public ministry, and this is what comes to its climax and finds its conclusion in “Armageddon.”
Now, some Christians take “Armageddon” quite literally, as a future event that will take place in space and time in the valley of Megiddo right below Mount Carmel in Northern Israel, while other Christians are much more inclined to take “Armageddon” symbolically, as the climax of the spiritual struggle between good and evil that has characterized human life right from the very beginning, since the serpent approached Eve in the Garden of Eden with his contradictions of what God has said (Genesis 3:1-7). But either way, there is in Christianity this idea that there is a war between good and evil, truth and error that is constantly being waged and that will finally come to a climax resulting in the triumph of God that it is part of the conceptual framework of Christianity. As one of my seminary professors put it when he was asked what the book of Revelation is about, “God wins.”
That “win” is described in the passage from Revelation chapter 20 on the last page of my handout this evening. These verses are about what we Christians call the “Millennium” – the thousand year reign of Christ on earth after the final defeat of God’s enemies. Again, different Christians have read these verses differently. Some anticipate a literal thousand year reign of Christ that will commence when He comes again to vanquish His enemies. Other Christians understand these verses as a description of the heavenly kingdom to which we go when we die. And still other Christians understand them as a reference to the church and to the steady advance of her mission by changing hearts and changing the world. And while I’m not particularly interested here this evening in sorting through these different interpretations to show you which one I think is correct, I am interested in getting in front of you this idea that it is out of Christ’s “dramatic struggle” with the hostile forces that God’s Kingdom finally comes that is part of the conceptual framework of Christianity.
That’s what those verses from I Corinthians 15 on the last page of my handout this evening describe, and this is what we pray for as Christians every time we say the Lord’s Prayer with its opening petition: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” This world as we know it is in a state of moral and spiritual rebellion against God and His ways. The coming of Christ was the decisive moment of God’s invasion to get back what belongs to Him, the divine strategy for our liberation and restoration that goes all the way back to the call of Abraham in Genesis chapter 12.
Oscar Cullman, a 20th century German theologian, famously compared Christ’s coming to the allied invasion of Europe on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. He called it the decisive battle of the war between good and evil that guaranteed the enemy’s final defeat. But, as you know, WW 2 didn’t end on D-Day. VE-Day came almost a year later; eleven long months filled with some of the fiercest fighting of the war. And Biblically, Christ’s “dramatic struggle” with the hostile forces is not finished until He comes again. The spiritual and moral VE-Day of God’s campaign is the Second Coming of Christ. And what this means for us as Christians is that we live in-between D-Day and VE-Day; in-between the “already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” of Christ’s Second Coming. And this is where our conversation this evening gets really interesting for Christians.
Against the backdrop of this conceptual framework of Christianity that I have just described, the questions that just beg to be asked are – “What is the Christian’s role in this ‘dramatic struggle?” And – “What is the Christian’s responsibility for the ushering in of this kingdom?” And – “How are we to conduct ourselves as Christians in-between Christ’s first coming and His Second Coming?” Theologically the question with which Christians have to wrestle is how much does this defeat of the hostile forces and the establishment of the Divine Kingdom depend upon them and their efforts?
Violent Christian Extremists – and let there be no question here this evening that they exist – tend to coalesce around the position that it is their spiritual responsibility to actively engage the hostile forces and establish the Divine Kingdom by their own efforts. Armageddon is an event that they believe that they will bring about by their own armed conflict with the hostile forces. The Millennium is a dispensation that they believe that they will usher in by constantly pushing the world towards its catastrophic climax.
David Koresch, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik all saw themselves to one degree or another as “holy warriors in this sacred struggle” who believed that their acts of violence would hasten Armageddon and help to usher in the Kingdom. There are Christians who think and sometimes act like this. They are advocates of something that known as “power encounters.” Believing that our God can beat up your God, they are always out looking for a fight, hoping that the next confrontation will be the apocalyptic tipping point that will finally unleash the cosmic forces that lead to Armageddon and the coming Kingdom. But this is and always has been a minority position within the Christian community.
Most Christians, while no less informed by the conceptual framework of the “dramatic struggle” that I have quickly sketched out for you here this evening, have understood it in spiritual rather than in literal sorts of ways. The last passage on my handout tonight is from 2 Corinthians chapter 10 where Paul said that the “weapons of our warfare” as Christians are not literal swords and shields, spears and chariots, but the instruments of divine power. And what are these “weapons of our warfare”? Well, go back through the full armor of God that the text from Ephesians chapter 6 on your handout this evening described – “the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit” – and the spiritual nature of the fight that we are in with these spiritual resources becomes abundantly clear.
A familiar hymn to most Christians is “Lead On, O King Eternal.” It begins with a rather militant statement of the “dramatic struggle” that we find ourselves in as Christians.
Lead on, O King eternal, the day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King eternal, we lift our battle song.
That’s the battle cry, but then listen to where it takes us –
Lead on, O King Eternal, Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.
Instead of “power encounters” advancing the purposes of God, this hymn suggests that the church’s mission is actually better served by “love encounters,” and this is where most Christians I know come down these days. The extremism of Biblical Christianity is not the extremism of violence – with “swords’ loud clashing” and “roll of stirring drums” – but rather the extremism of “love and mercy” by which we believe “the heavenly kingdom comes.”
Aulen, Gustaf. The Faith of the Christian Church. The Muhlenberg Press. 1960.
Cullman, Oscar. Christ & Time. John Knox Press. 1964 .
The New Testament’s “Texts of Terror”
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. (Matthew 12:29)
And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)
He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36)
1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. 7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’ 13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. 18 Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.
1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound* had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’ 5 The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.
9 ‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in* blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’. 17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in mid-heaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.’ 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. 4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.
I Corinthians 15
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole amour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
2 Corinthians 10
3 We do not wage war according to human standards; 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments 5 and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.