Faith in the Power of Good

An Arab scholar, Al-Afif al-Akhdar, writes: "There are two Islams from the period of Mohammed. There is Meccan Islam [referring to Mohammed's period in Mecca], which is a 'Christian' Islam – that is, under Christian influence – and is essentially peace-seeking. The use of violence, even for self-defense, was prohibited. In this Islam, jihad was prohibited. This Islam was the basis for the mystical Sufi movement.”

Most Christians would be shocked by the phrase "Christian Islam" and also by the idea that the earliest form of Islam was nonviolent, to use a modern term. These same Christians are also likely to ignore the passages in the New Testament that present Jesus as an advocate of nonviolence.

Akhdar continues: "When Mohammed was forced to move from Mecca to Medina, a second Islam – jihadist Islam – was born. And it is this Islam that the contemporary terrorists have adopted. To justify the passage from the 'conciliatory' peace of Mecca to the militant peace of Medina, Mohammed told Muslims jihad is permissible only for self-defense [The Pilgrimage, Surah 22:39]: 'To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight], because they are wronged.' Mohammed was wronged – he was expelled from Mecca, and the purpose of the defensive jihad is to enable his return." (Ehud Ein-Gil, "The Roots of Jihad," Haaretz, 18 March 2006)

Christians asserted the right of self-defense, after the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted and began to use the church to promote support for imperial rule. This rationalization for violence in the name of all that is holy was soon used by church leaders to suppress heretics and later was employed to justify killing Jews and crusading against Muslims.

Surely, our desire to characterize the Christian tradition as more peaceful than the Islamic tradition is largely self-serving. We know too little of Islamic history, and we have forgotten too much of Christian history, to make any such comparison. In fact, history reveals that Muslims and Christians have been both peacemakers and warmongers. 

Only a minority of Christians and a minority of Muslims believe that the nonviolent imperative initially embraced by the founder of each community of faith is the true Christianity or the true Islam. 

Christian and Muslim communities have generally justified the use of violence in self-defense, and often each community has promoted war as a means of extending its influence. Moreover, Christians and Muslims continue aggressively to spread their civilizations throughout the world, and there is no sign that the influence of either tradition will soon decrease. It is too soon to declare what the true Christianity or the true Islam is. Only time will tell. 

Therefore, it would be wise to refrain from characterizing either religious tradition in terms of its past or even its present. 

Instead, our challenge is to construct a future that draws on the teachings within both traditions that support peacemaking and faith in the power of good. It is fair enough to expect Muslim leaders to do this, if Christian leaders are also take up this challenge in their own religious communities and secular societies.

We should support efforts by our government to secure religious freedom and other human rights for Muslims in countries now ruled by wealthy families and military leaders, so long as such assistance is offered without the threat of violence. Encouraging elections, fair trade, and educational and cultural exchanges can be pursued peacefully in a spirit of mutual benefit and collaboration. Grants and loans to enable countries to invest in the development of democratic institutions make sense, as does support for training police, jurists and other government officials in nonviolent conflict resolution according to the rule of law.

Christians as well as Muslims must find ways to reaffirm the teachings within their traditions that support peacemaking and faith in the power of good, rather than war and violent jihad.

To pursue this imperative in the Muslim world Akhdar recommends "a reform of the Islamic discourse, of religious education, the religious media, the sermons in the mosques, and so forth. The plan is to remove from the textbooks all the violent and jihadist verses and leave them only in the source, in the holy writings." To Christian ears this sounds very unlikely. Yet, he notes that Tunisia has done this since 1999, and in October 2005: "Libya, too, canceled the [public] teaching of jihadist Islam and of the verses that justify violence.”

What might a similar approach to the Bible mean for Christians? That we should stop reading, as the word of God, texts in the Old Testament in which God orders the Israelites to exterminate their enemies. (See Deuteronomy 20:17, for example.) A peacemaking approach must also mean not reading on Good Friday the passage from the passion story that has the crowd of Jews say, in reference to the coming crucifixion of Jesus: "His blood be on us and on our children!” 

This horrific condemnation of Jews, which surely reflects a first century conflict among Jewish Christians, is only in Matthew 27:25. So, reading the Passion account from the other New Testament gospels is an easy way to omit this from Christian worship. Tragically, throughout history Christians have used this verse to rationalize violence against Jews. We must now repudiate that understanding of scripture and repent by recommitting ourselves to the gospel of nonviolence that Jesus preaches.

In addition, Christians should not teach that the battle depicted in the Book of Revelation at the end of time is a prophecy of an actual war to be fought by Christians versus Muslims (and other non-Christians). The image of this battle is indelibly a part of Christian scripture, but the interpretation that the end of Revelation is about an actual war yet to be fought is a reading that the church has resisted for much of its history. The witness of Jesus and his followers in the rest of the New Testament call us to interpret this violent imagery figuratively, as representing a spiritual battle rather than an actual war.

Christians and Muslims should also urge their leaders not to identify with Satan those who oppose their understanding of the Bible or the Koran. Both scriptures identify Satan with the force of evil in the world, but leave the notion of Satan shrouded in mystery. Yet, recently some Christians have labeled Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden as Satan, and some Muslims have identified President Bush or America with Satan. We should reject all such invidious characterizations.

Instead, we should affirm that faith in the power of good is at the heart of each of these traditions. To encourage this faith Muslims have, since the 9th century, taught that Jesus said: "Charity does not mean doing good to him who does good to you, for this is to return good for good. Charity means that you should do good to him who does you harm." (Tarif Khalidi, editor and translator, "The Muslim Jesus: Savings and Stories in Islamic Literature," Harvard 2001) As Christians, we may act in solidarity with this Muslim teaching by taking to heart the words of Paul: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) © Robert Traer 2016