At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Obama made reference to the violence and murder being done in the name of religion. He began with references to various instances of Islamic terrorism committed by the Taliban, and by ISIS, including the Charlie Hebdo headquarters killings, and then expanded his remarks to include religious violence in Africa, waged against both Christians and Muslims, and finished with remarks about the Crusades and the Inquisition. That unleashed a firestorm of criticism about his “comparison” of the two, and the launching of a variety of apologetics among many Christian conservatives, and non-Christian political commentators like Rush Limbaugh.
Are you kidding me?
“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27 HCSB
The President is not blaming the crusades or the inquisition for either Islamic extremism, or the violence that it brings. He’s simply making a statement that beheadings, torture, kidnapping, and burning people alive are not characteristic or definitive of any true religion. And whether you agree with him on much else or not, he’s right about that. The criticism that is coming from some sources is misplaced, silly, and pointless. And frankly, it makes those who are making those criticisms look stupid.
Defending the crusades, and the inquisition, doesn’t make the point. It doesn’t matter that there were hundreds of conquests of Europe and the near Middle East four hundred years before by marauding Muslim armies, and comparatively fewer crusade conquests by armies who believed they were fighting under the cross. They were not an expression of true religion, as it is defined in the Bible, or revealed by God. Many of the crusades turned out to be exercises in sacking and burning towns and cities, murdering people and carrying off their belongings for personal gain, not to advance Christ’s kingdom. At least one crusade lost sight of their cause early in their journey and wound up sacking and looting the city of Venice, rather than going on ahead to Israel.
The inquisition was also not an example of the church’s best moment, and is, in fact, part of its worst history. Those of us in the Protestant and Evangelical traditions of the church should recognize the inquisition for the evil that it was. It wasn’t the church’s best moment. The President made his point, that what we are seeing with ISIS is not worthy of the use of the term “religion.” To go anywhere else with that, pull it apart and use this to criticize him is asinine.
When you believe God is holding your coattails and cheering you on in your crusade to run the world, you’re dangerous, plain and simple, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re Islamic, or Christian, or Buddhist, or Jewish or Hottentot. You’re also not doing God’s will.
I heard a long discussion today, on talk radio, about how the Koran is very inconsistent on this subject, and that it actually promotes violent behavior on behalf of Allah. I’m not familiar enough with it to have read those passages, but I’ll take the word of experts on the subject. Apparently there are several contradictory verses in the Koran where followers of Allah are exhorted to kill infidels, or to “even the score” against infidels who are enemies by executing in the same manner in which they were attacked, which would explain why ISIS chose to burn the Jordanian pilot instead of beheading him. But then, without a lot of training or study, or a clear understanding of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New one in Christ, there are a lot of places in the Bible that could easily be misunderstood as God’s universal instruction to believers to act against those who are described as the enemies of God. And there have been, and still are, people who are quite willing to cite those passages to justify criminal behavior, even in our day and age.
The term “religion” is a rare one in the scripture, in fact, from a New Testament perspective, appears twice in this part of James, and then only one other time, when Paul uses it to describe the people of Athens after looking at what they had. In the contest of the passage in James, while he is clear in demonstrating that good works do not “save souls,” he is making the point that pure religion is evidenced by righteous attitudes that come from God, and that doesn’t include violence and hatred.
The attitudes that most American Christians have toward their brethren who do not share exact doctrine or interpretation of scripture are bad enough. But there was a time, in Christian history, when one could be burned at the stake or executed in some other cruel way for not believing and acting the way that church leaders thought they should. And I think Jesus made is crystal clear that kind of behavior did not belong in his church.
There is a lot of senseless violence in the world, much of it justified by invoking God’s name or will. Though none of it will be resolved until the Prince of Peace returns, it seems that our time could be better spent doing something to bring people to Jesus, rather than trying to be critics of those who are in a position to address the problem.