Last week President Obama created a national kerfuffle at the National Prayer Breakfast. He suggested that Christians should not “get on their high horse” about the violence attributed to terrorists linked with Islam, because Christianity too has had its own struggle with the use and promotion of violence in God’s name. Although some media outlets persist in doing so, the Presidential Administration has been sensitive about linking terrorist, terrorism or extremism with Islam. President Obama’s address at the breakfast was just one more attempt to intentionally separate the atrocious acts of murder and violence from the reflection of a faith tradition with a rich and long-standing history.
Reactions to Obama’s comments occurred both immediately and vigorously. Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer called the President’s remarks both “banal and offensive;” Political commentator Sean Hannity deemed it “ridiculous and dangerous.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough assessed the comments as “just stupid and dumb,” while former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore claimed Obama’s remarks “offended every believing Christian in the United States.” Even more moderate commentators, like columnist Eugene Robinson, questioned both the message and its delivery, suggesting the comparison between Christianity and Islam “glib, facile, and patronizing.”
Whether we like it or not, a cursory reading of the history of Christianity supports the historical accuracy of the President’s comment. Christianity, like all religions, at some point in time has been twisted to validate extreme ideological ambitions. Sadly, throughout its history, people have aided and abetted a long list of “–isms” that have denigrated and diminished humanity and the earth in the name of Christianity. Isolated Bible quotations and elements of the tradition have been used over the past 2,000 years to support all kinds of unchristian, anti-human activities. These have included: slavery; colonial destruction of indigenous culture and oppression; genocidal activity toward native peoples; denial of rights to women and minorities; harsh treatment of children and the mentally ill; damaging economic policies; unjust imprisonment, torture; support of totalitarian governments and social engineering experiments like eugenics; and the destruction of the environment.
It is important to recognize that every religion is vulnerable to this distortion, and manipulating a religious tradition can happen rather easily. As referenced by the President, for more than 250 years, “practicing” Christians justified holding slaves in the United States by building a theology around a few biblical verses like the following:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5).
“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (Titus 2:9).
By exploiting isolated Biblical passages such as these, along with the lack of a clear denunciation by Jesus of the institutionalized slavery of the Roman Empire, political and economic leaders constructed proof-texted religious principles that justified an economy supported by the enslavement of millions of human beings. However, at the end of the Civil War the northern and southern divisions of faith denominations came together and realized that both sides had used Christianity to justify their approaches to slavery. Exploring the religious world of meaning created by catechisms and hymnals for young children during the Civil War, Kent McConnell writes about the complicated task educators faced to deconstruct those theologies and replace them with something more true to the heart of the Christian message (see his article here). As black theologian James Cone has so poignantly captured in his book: The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the direct and collateral damage of such a self-serving, harmful theology is generational, the effects of which are still felt today.
A selective use of any sacred text, harnessed by someone living under the right circumstances and influences, can easily morph into a justification for unspeakable crimes against other humans. Although some critics of Obama’s comments suggested that the Christian tradition has cleaned up its act, unfortunately, self-professed Christians continue to scandalize their faith tradition. Racial distrust and hatred is just one example. Long after the abolition of slavery but still not in our distant past, George Wallace gave a famous speech called “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” in his gubernatorial inaugural address in 1963. During the talk he proclaimed that the federal government’s position on equal rights for blacks and whites opposed the will of Christ. Additionally, the Klu Klux Klan remains in operation, and like other Aryan groups, continues to use the Christian tradition to justify hate speech against people of other religions (even Christian religions), immigrants, homosexuals, and any group they deem too different from themselves. Wars are still fought with Christian religious justifications buried in the rhetoric of politicians, military leaders and even religious leaders.
It is important to consider the larger contextual issues that feed terrorist actions. Over the past 150 years the social sciences have proven that extremist thinking does not come primarily from a cracked interpretation of a religious tradition. There are deeper fundamental causes for the twisted thinking that supports the killing of innocent people in the name of God. Those causes rise from the ashes of despair and desperation, poverty, lack of education, and real or perceived oppression by a dominating group of people. Experiences of hopelessness, a sense of powerlessness in changing life’s limitations, and a simmering and pervasive distrust of society and its agents have the ability to lead to the hatred that triggers the kind of irrational acts seen in the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the Copenhagen murders. These actions have their origin in the human hearts formed within families and communities that have experienced prolonged injustice. It took generations to mold the minds that carried out the Paris and Copenhagen massacres. It is no coincidence that those involved in these killings came from families generationally linked to France’s colonial occupations of other countries.
Longstanding religious traditions have come to recognize that people with brutally harsh and oppressive life experiences rarely have the ability to embrace religious traditions in freedom. Because of this, virtually every major religious tradition throughout the 20th century has become more vocal and critical about a call to address issues of social justice.
People need full stomachs, access to good education and real opportunities for a life with hope (in this world as well as the next) if they are to become a contributing member of society, let alone accept the religious demands to love selflessly and to sacrifice oneself for a greater good. Lives of desperation are a foundational component for violence and terrorism and the manipulation of religion. You don’t fix this kind of problem by transforming religion (as one pundit suggested Islam must do with its “violence problem”), you fix it by transforming the people, practices, policies and structures of a society that allow individuals and groups to get swept unnoticed into ghettos of despair and discontent to the point of eruption.
Although–in light of historical fact, Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast are accurate–I suspect one of the reasons the negative reaction to the President’s comments have been so forceful is less about what the President said, and more about the way he said it. Obama preceded his historical comparison with the following clause: “lest we get on our high horse.” In effect, he “picked a fight” even before he made historical references to Christianity’s past, by calling out the people who insist on linking Islam with extremist thinking. Obama could have done this as an off-the-cuff comment, but, I suspect he utilized this rhetorical device purposefully, with the intent of inviting an out-sized reaction. Many non-violent activists like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., often used such a strategy–saying (or more often doing) something that elicited a strong emotional reaction from an opponent with the intent to push one’s opponent to say and do things in their reactive stage that illuminates the intellectual irrationality underlying the opponent’s position. To some degree Obama’s strategy worked. Slate.com tracked the responses of Obama’s critics, and found that some, in their reactive state, reached as far as to defend the crusades as justifiable (see the report here). Although, historians warn against judging the complicated decisions of other periods of history, most people would find justifying the crusades as absurd, especially after reading first-hand accounts of such bloodshed.
Sometimes the shadows of our faith traditions can be disheartening. In my own spirituality, as a believing Christian, I consider the activities spoken about here as diametrically opposed to the values and intent of my faith tradition. However, I remain committed to my religious heritage because I also know that throughout history, followers of Jesus have faithfully resisted the misuse of the religious tradition. In the face of harmful manipulations of their faith, their long-term commitment maintained the beauty, nobility, and truth of Christianity. It is clear that issues of violence and terrorism are not unique to Islam–rather, more and more people of religious faith are becoming aware that our traditions are always vulnerable to harmful manipulation. Time will tell if the President’s effort to separate harmful acts of violence with overgeneralizations of faith communities convinces larger segments of the general population to agree with him: linking a religious tradition like Islam with extremist thinking is inaccurate, unfair, and misleading. This is one more reason for all people of faith to join hands in our efforts to rid the world of the real causes of terrorism and extremist thinking and remain critical of the connections we make between violence and religion. It is vital that we as members of faith communities widen the scope of criticism and recognize the pervasive social justice issues at hand, remembering that lives cut off from dignity negate our inheritance as children of God.