The violence inheres in us

cain-and-able_1Greg’s ReKnew post on Islam has prompted some conversation on ReKnew’s Facebook page (March 31, 2015). Greg returned to clarify a couple of points:

• Greg makes a distinction between the “religion of Christianity” and the “Kingdom of God.” The former tends to “Christendom.” The latter always looks like Jesus (loves its enemies and never engages in violence). Insofar as Christianity is violent, it has nothing to do with the Kingdom.

• The Quran does advocate violence in certain situations, but so does the Old Testament (and on a much greater and vicious scale). Christians have plausible ways of explaining this. Muslims also have ways of explaining their violent passages. At the very least, the vast majority of Muslims don’t interpret the Quranic injunctions to violence as anything like a general pogrom against the non-violent world.

That said, Greg stands by his claim:

  • If one concludes Islam is inherently violent, he should also conclude Christianity is inherently violent. Neither has anything to do with the Kingdom of God, and both are open to the possibility of violence.

Having spent half my life in the Middle East and talked at length with Muslims about this very question, I’d like to offer several comments to follow up, because as helpful as a few of Greg’s points are, he misses an opportunity to address the more important issue regarding the debate over the question of Islam and violence.

First, if we answer the question “Is religion X inherently violent?” by defining “Christianity” and “Islam” in the way Greg does, then both Christianity and Islam are inherently violent (because both are, as he admits, inherently open to violence). But once you define the “Christianity” in view as “Christendom” and the “Islam” in view as Christendom’s this-worldly Islamic equivalent, Greg’s conclusions follow by definition. This is news? These are not the things we want to compare, because they don’t take us to the heart of the matter. The two faiths Greg describes are just religious versions of an unredeemed and despairing narrative. But besides being true, it’s uninteresting and pretty much irrelevant to what we ought to be exploring in response to the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’

Second, if we focus on that version of each of these faiths as taught and embodied authoritatively/normatively by their founders (Jesus and Muhammad) and as lived and embodied by their earliest followers in the formative years of these faiths (which is the comparison people are asking this question of in the first place), then we have a far more interesting conversation than the one Greg is in. In other words, when we ask ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ we’re not asking about the behavior of Muslims around the world today. We’re asking whether there is something definitive and authoritative about Islam against which we may measure the behavior of Muslims. What is that? For Muslims, it is Muhammad himself, just like for Christians it is Jesus himself (not Christendom).

Third, the violence worth being concerned about here doesn’t inhere in ‘narratives’ or ‘worldviews’ anyhow. That’s the first mistake assumed by the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ Violence gets written into our worldviews by violent human beings. We are what is inherently violent. Our “faiths” or “worldviews” just express who and what we believe ourselves to be. So if I were to say of some worldview that it’s ‘inherently violent’ (which isn’t a phrase I’d default to), all I’d mean is that worldview doesn’t have the resources needed to transform violent human beings on a vast scale. It lets the violence that inheres in us express itself without contradiction to the faith in question. That is where these questions ought to take us.

“Is Islam inherently violent?” ought to be read as:

  • Does the overall worldview of Muhammad—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Islam normatively—have the resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

The parallel question put to Christians is not the one implied in Greg’s post, namely, Can ‘Christendom’ transform violent human beings on a vast scale? We know the disappointing answer to that. Rather, the question he should ask is the one he isn’t asking in this context, namely:

  • Does the overall worldview of Jesus—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Christian faith normatively—have the resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

Those are the questions to address, Greg.

Fourth, no faith/worldview is utterly void of resources to address violence on some scale. All faiths say something about being benevolent, non-violent, etc. Some worldviews have more redemptive power than others. Some religious worldviews define their value and vision in terms of addressing violence absolutely. Greg believes the Christian worldview (i.e., Christ’s own worldview in its normative function for Christians) is violence-free in this sense. It perfectly expresses/embodies the Kingdom of God within our fallen world.

Whether or not one thinks Jesus compels an absolutely non-violent ethic for today, it certainly is the case that Jesus’ worldview addresses violence on a scale sufficient to reform/redeem violent human society. It can save the world from its violence without recourse to violence. It offers the world a way to be human that doesn’t require violence to define itself, express itself or defend itself. This cannot be seriously doubted. In spite of what Christians became when they gained political power under Constantine, and latter still in Europe, and in American Christianity’s affair with political power, we know that for centuries Christians by and large (with very few exceptions that only prove the rule) didn’t define themselves or their faith in terms of any recourse to violence whatsoever. In other words, it worked. It actually redeemed violent human beings on a wide scale and did so for centuries.

The questions I’m asking Greg to address, then, are: Can you make the case that Muhammad’s own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale? To the extent it fails at this (and I’m not saying it fails absolutely), Islam is inherently violent, that is, it allows the violence that inheres in human beings to express itself without contradiction to Islam. Conversely, Can you make the case that Jesus’ own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale? And to the extent Jesus’ worldview/life fails at this, Christianity is inherently violent. My own view is that Christianity thus understood does not allow the violence that inheres in human beings to express itself without contradiction to Christianity.

(Picture here.)

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3 comments on “The violence inheres in us

  1. Razor edge sharp as usual! Cuts straight to the point.

    Like

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