Violence in the Time of Love

 

Members of the Islamic State lead a group of Egyptian (Coptic) Christians along a beach near Tripoli, Libya, to be executed.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

The love of God is not in crisis.
— Salvatore Martinez

In the choppy wake of the Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina, a Facebook friend sent me a message. This Facebook friend, I should point out, is also an actual friend—a friend in the physical, material realm. We've coffee-d together, broken bread together and laughed together.

Here and there, like real friends, we've also argued together. A committed follower of Jesus, my friend is—as I know him to be through previous conversations and numerous Facebook posts—a politically conservative evangelical Christian living in America.

In his message [see: below] he refers to the Chapel Hill shooter, then, abruptly, as if changing the cable television channel, brings the subject back around to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—

The man who killed them is a murderer and is incarcerated. What is happening to the ones that beheaded and burned the others. Both are egregious acts. One is going to pay dearly as he should.
He did not commit his crime because he is a Christian. He, as you rightly stated is an atheist.
My sense is that the others are being lauded. They film it and use it to cause fear and spread hate. We need some activists in the religion of Islam to stamp out ISIS.

Because the substance and style of this perspective plays loudly and acutely among American evangelicals, and because I hail from evangelicalism at-large, I wanted to offer an impassioned response to this sort of everyday Christian polemic. However, in so doing, it also seems timely to put forth a few candid reflections for mainstream Muslims*, among whom I count many as (actual and Facebook) friends.

*Albeit a tad artificial, I prefer using a term like "mainstream Muslims" over, say, "peaceful Muslims." In truth, as history and the 21st-century evidence—tragically, and in great numbers—there are quite a few not-so-peaceful people across all religious traditions. Furthermore, my sense-and-sensibility is that the term "peaceful Muslims" is more than slightly pejorative to mainstream Muslims, if not outright insulting.


Namee Barakat (center), the father of Deah Shaddy Barakat, puts his son into the ground.

First—humanity, dignity, solidarity.

My friend's words: The man who killed them is a murderer and is incarcerated. What is happening to the ones that beheaded and burned the others. Both are egregious acts. One is going to pay dearly as he should.

So this is what the stark cultural divisions and political polarizations in American society have yielded in the heart of some of my tribesmen (and tribeswomen)? Can evangelicals and other Christians not sit for one excruciating and horrifying moment in the pain, sorrow and grief of the parents and families of Deah, Yusor and Razan?

Must we immediately turn to vitriolic debates about moral equivalency? Must we inevitably pull the human spirit into the convoluted orbit of everything-is-politics?

Thankfully, there are Christians who, as fate would have it, are also mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They are sitting—and standing—with and beside their Muslim neighbors along the aching terrain of violence and death.

Surely there is a dignifying respect to humanizing one another, which transcends moralism and politics (if we let it). And, bit by bit, could it not also help to chip away at the entrenched religious and cultural barriers between Christians and Muslims?

Even if it doesn't, there is a deep solidarity to this way of honoring the other—no matter our small or significant differences—in moments of incredible suffering.

 

On the other hand, notice the atmosphere and tone of my friend's words. It's as if: #MuslimLivesMatter, yeah, yeah, yeah; the man who murdered them is a killer, yeah, yeah, yeah; but could we please get back to talking about the shock-and-awe of the Islamic State? (I suppose here we should also say: the angry atheist in North Carolina who's guarding his apartment parking space like a religion might be more than just a simple killer, yeah, yeah, yeah.)

The larger point is: Cold-blooded violence is no respecter of moral equivalency arguments or political talking-points.

It lays all of us bare. We are forever naked in the face of its gruesome evil.

Besides, are we really going to say to bereaved Muslim families in America: I'm sorry for your loss; I hope the American rule of law comforts you?


Photo: International Herald Tribune.

Second—religion, Islam, Islamic extremism.

My friend's words: He did not commit his crime because he is a Christian.

Given the elevated and rising levels of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., generally, and among American evangelicals, specifically, it's a decidedly glum assessment, but, I believe it is only a matter of time.

God forbid, but it is only a matter of time before the next person on a rampage is (most likely) a politically conservative Christian with a fundamentalist streak. You know, instead of an angry atheist with a penchant for the Second Amendment and the movie Falling Down (1993). As The Atlantic's Peter Beinart observes, "Let’s hope decent conservatives begin speaking out before it does."

Meanwhile, the implicit and not-so-implicit argument being made by my friend (and, I imagine, other Christians like him) is this: Their religion made them do it.

Permission to speak candidly to American evangelicals—and to mainstream Muslims.

 

Strictly speaking, when it comes to these arguments, I most appreciate Mark Juergensmeyer's distinction with a difference. On the heels of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January, he wrote, "Religion doesn't cause the violence, it is an excuse for it." Mostly, I think this soundbite is mostly right-on.

On the other hand, rigorous intellectual honesty demands that we go (still) further in our consideration and analysis. Take George Packer's commentary in The New Yorker after Charlie Hebdo:

Because the ideology is the product of a major world religion, a lot of painstaking pretzel logic goes into trying to explain what the violence does, or doesn’t, have to do with Islam. Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith, or that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a “distortion” of a great religion.
A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique.

Here is a kind of absolute straight-talk.

Christians and others must not tiptoe around the Islamic connection. We must not separate (entirely) the carnage from the faith. We must acknowledge the substantial minority and not persist, as some mainstream Muslims do, in defensively distinguishing the few Muslims who are violent as over against the majority of Muslims who are not. This trope is getting slightly tired.

 

I'll grant you the statistical correctness.

But what I sense well-meaning American evangelicals and other Christians are looking for is a growing, committed contingent of mainstream Muslims (in the U.S. and elsewhere) who are willing to drop the religious defenses for the sake of a more comprehensive engagement on this level of conversation. We are looking for mainstream Muslims who are willing to talk and to tackle the scriptural and theological underpinnings of extremist ideology—an ideology, as Packer says, that accounts for an "astonishing surge in Islamist killing around the world."

[For two prominent examples of mainstream Muslims using their particular leadership platforms to talk and to tackle the scriptural and theological underpinnings of extremist ideology, please see: 1) Abdallah bin Bayyah's project called Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies; 2) the global conveners of Muslim Democrats of the World, Unite!, including Tariq Ramadan, who write: "We must take ISIS's and Boko Haram's claims to be practicing a rigorous Islam seriously: suggesting simply that terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam have nothing to do with Islam is not serious."]

 

Yet more can and must be done.

A senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot recently wrote what I found to be a very reasonable (not merely politicized) critique of President Obama's controversial remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. Boot says:

More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to bebut just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the factindeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.
No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world.

My practical fear is this: By not persistently addressing what the historian Fred Donner has described as "militant piety" in Islam—which he shows as an essential dimension to the origins and early history of Islam (not some later aberration)—mainstream Muslims may find themselves sailing along in the same boat with the sort of Christians who—stubbornly, unfortunately—have chosen to remain defensive/dismissive of, say, the chilling violence of the Crusades.


An ISIS crucifixion scene in Syria.

Photo: From a series of photos released by ISIS in January.

Third—the Islamic State.

My friend's words: My sense is that the others are being lauded. They film it and use it to cause fear and spread hate. We need some activists in the religion of Islam to stamp out ISIS.

Beheadings.

Burnings.

Crucifixions.

Throwing gays off of buildings.

Enslavement of women and children.

God knows what else.

And we are all guilty—

American evangelicals and other Christians. Mainstream Muslims and other Muslims. Religious or irreligious. New Atheists. Old atheists. Angry atheists. Democrats and Republicans. The U.S. government. Gulf states.

We are all guilty of not taking ISIS for what it actually is.

 

For me, in terms of accessibility, The Atlantic's Graeme Wood has written the most complex and compelling religio-political portrait of ISIS to date. (You'll need 15-30 minutes, perhaps, to stomach it in its entirety. Yes, the article has received blow-back that we should be duly attentive to. But, as Martin Accad argues better, I think, mainstream Muslims and others would do well to not dismiss Wood so quickly.)

Especially reliant upon the scholarship of Princeton's Bernard Haykel, as well as first-hand interviews, Wood argues:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission.

In January, I came across this frighteningly informative BBC audio documentary on the Islamic State called "Bureaucracy and Brutality." Tucked within the story, a jurist for ISIS uses the holy analogy of Noah and his wooden salvation companion; the ark is used to depict the Islamic State's "righteous" vision and mission in a wicked-up-to-here world. The documentary is a substantial peek inside the beast of burden that is ISIS.

Ultimately, ISIS appears to be an Islamist movement holding together modern ideological sensibilities with a skewed seventh-century vision of Islamic law in the backdrop of religious apocalypse. Clearly, ISIS wants far more than to "cause fear and spread hate," as my friend says.

Which also means that articles like this in Christianity Today—a very instructive encouragement for American Christians who would confuse the kind of Muslims who were killed in Chapel Hill with the kind of Muslims who are killing for the sake of God—might risk oversimplification at the altar of pastoral helpfulness.

Still, evangelicals and other Christians really should not confuse the territorial and political expansion of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa for the same thing as ISIS "being lauded." Rest assured, the Islamic State is not being praised by mainstream Muslims of any affiliation. As far back as August, Media Matters aggregated a collection of mainstream Muslim denouncements that critique ISIS as illegitimate and barbaric.

Here is one example—

 

These Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom were among other Muslims who contributed to the video "UK Imams against ISIS," published to YouTube in July 2014.

Photo: BBC.

But, how do you stop a movement like ISIS that, as Wood says, "is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model"? The question is, above all, a haunting one. It does not at first brim with hope; wishful thinking has already turned and fled.

Wood concludes:

Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Nonetheless...

In the face of such violence run amok, undoubtedly love will have its fair share of scoffers. But not me. I refuse to scoff in the time of love's virtue and power.

Salvatore Martinez is right: the love of God is not in crisis. Not in 2015. Not ever.

And precisely because I'm a follower of Jesus I believe there is a prevailing love that remains stronger than any version of cold-blooded violence.

May Christians and Muslims (and, yes, angry atheists) come to know more of this love. So that we might reject violence in all its forms. So that we might live—and live well with each other.

At the heart of reality rests the love of God.
— Henri Nouwen

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