Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Image of God at the Heart of Religious Violence

It seems every day that we are confronted with news of horrible acts of terror and destruction perpetrated by people who claim to follow God.  For months now groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have captured global attention with their sadistic version of Islam that has led them to brutally execute and enslave people of various groups, even other Muslims.  But it’s not just Islamic extremists who are engaging in violence in the name of God.  I just read a heartbreaking article today about Christianmilitias in the Central African Republic who are engaging in brutal acts against Muslims to the extent that there are now 50,000 Muslims who are fleeing the country rather than face being hacked up with machetes by Christians.

Here in America Evangelicals are more and more frequently calling for the U.S. to wage war against ISIS.  This week I watched a video clip from Pastor Robert Jefress, Dallas First Baptist, who somehow twisted the teachings of Jesus on being salt and light into a justification of why we need to go to war in the name of Jesus. 

While I agree with the desire to protect the innocent and to stand up to evil, I am very disturbed by how easily American Christians are willing to appeal to Jesus as a justification to use violence against other religious groups.  It seems to me that as much as American Evangelicals may hate what ISIS is doing, their answer as to how to deal with ISIS is simply to answer violence with violence, hate with hate, and destruction with destruction, and all of this from the moral high ground that God is on OUR side.  Though this way of responding to tyrannical groups may make sense in terms of national defense, this position cannot be defended by way of the example or teachings of Jesus.

As New Testament Scholar Richard Hays has noted,
“From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it … Nowhere does the New Testament provide any positive model of Jesus or his followers employing violence in defense of justice.” 

I am becoming more and more convinced that much of what is called Christianity in modern America is little more than tribalism, nationalism, and patriotism covered in a “Christian” veneer.  This type of Christianity doesn’t show forth the good news of the gospel rooted in enemy love, forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation but instead keeps recycling the same old story of retributive violence. 

N.T. Wright has noted that humans become like the god(s) they worship.  When I look at religiously motivated violence whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic I see that under the surface they all have in common a vision a violent, retributive God who is “on our side” against others.   It takes nothing to believe in a violent and retributive god who is on our side.  Why? Because he looks just like us! 

But Jesus reveals the God who is utterly different than anything we could come up with.  In Jesus we see "God with us", the God who will step into our world and get his hands dirty, the one who taught us to love our enemies, to seek peace, to show mercy and compassion to the sick, poor, and those living on the margins of society. In the cross of Christ we see the overthrow of the vindictive and violent picture of God as Jesus prays with his dying breath "Father forgive them, they don't even know what they are doing."  As the author of Hebrews wrote, “[We come to] Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24.) The blood of Abel is at the foundation of civilization crying out for vengeance but the blood of Christ, the Lamb slain at the foundation of the world, announces forgiveness.  This is the good news!

Isn’t it interesting that the most prolific writer in the New Testament was a former religious, fundamentalist terrorist? Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul had terrorized the early church through persecution and even lethal force.  Imagine Paul’s shock when he bumped into Jesus on the Road to Damascus, realizing that rather than fighting for God he was actually fighting God himself.  Paul would never again see violence as a legitimate way to live out his faith because the image of God behind his worship had been radically changed.  Paul went on to spend of much of the rest of his life being persecuted and imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, but even in persecution he did not resist or fight back but rather followed the example of Jesus to the very end. 


The question of how to deal with ISIS is a tricky one, especially for those of us who follow Christ and live here in the west with no fear of persecution. While I do not know what we should do concerning ISIS, I do know religiously motivated violence from Christians will not bring about the righteousness of God. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Our Religious Violence is Better than Your Religious Violence


Yesterday President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and within no time various political sites/blogs were already condemning his words, or should I say about 50 of his words.  Here are the “inflammatory” words for which he has been criticized:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think that this (religious violence) is unique to some other place, remember that during the crusades and the inquisitions people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ… In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow was all too often justified in the name of Christ.”

All day I have seen one anti-Obama post after another on Facebook about how the violence perpetrated by Christians in the Crusades was not nearly as bad as what Muslims did, and that Christian violence during the Crusades was at least justified.  In other words, “our religious violence is better than your religious violence.”

But the truth is that Christians did commit some horrible acts of violence during the Crusades and the inquisitions not to mention what “Christians” have done in this country towards Native Americans and African slaves among others.  Have Muslims done horrible things in the name of their religion?  Yes, and certain extremists are committing horrible atrocities to this day.  Religious violence, no matter what brand, is wrong!

I watched the controversial clip of President Obama from the prayer breakfast and honestly couldn’t find anything in that clip with which I remotely disagreed.  So I decided to watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast for context thinking that I must have missed something.  To my surprise President Obama spent most of his speech condemning religious acts of violence and calling for humility in how we live out our faith.  His closing words  were a call to practice the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 7:12 “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” 


I did not vote for Obama nor do I support many of his policies, but these latest attacks on him for condemning religious violence and calling for humility are truly disheartening.  I highly recommend that folks watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast instead of getting a 30 second sound byte spun by political blogs/news sites, and see if you really think his speech was as crazy as it is being made out to be.