At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015, the President of the United States made some remarks that, interestingly, provoked a sharp negative response from some who claim Christianity as their religion.[i] The particular words were:
And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.[ii]
The entire remarks are worth reading, however, because his point is clear: religion throughout history has been perverted and distorted by some to justify hate and violence. Both Islam and Christianity are no exceptions to this. Therefore, in how we view faiths different from our own, we should have humility and perspective. It is hard to argue with this point based on historical fact; and I would commend each reader to the full, entire text of the President’s remarks. It is a beautiful speech.
We are engaged currently in a deeply disturbing conflict on a global scale. In this conflict, we are indeed thankful to our Muslim allies, and recognize that they themselves are going through a trying internal struggle in which the greatest numbers of victims are among Muslims. At the same time, we must relentlessly defend ourselves against those who would commit violence and acts of terror. But in looking at the present, it is important to look at history and to understand that there are chapters that were written that are very different from how we understand things to be today.
It is understandable from a human point of view that Christians would be upset that the President brought up the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery, because no one likes to be reminded of an embarrassing past that does not fit with the present narrative. As Ross Douthat recently wrote, “Nobody likes to have those ambiguities brought to light; nobody likes to have the sanctity of his own cause or church or country undercut.”[iii] But on this point I believe it was necessary for the President to do just that. Many Christians in this country have been harping on a theme that Islam is religion of violence, implicitly indicating that Christianity is not or has not been. Such arguments fail to recognize that defining what “Islam” or “Christianity” mean is a maddeningly difficult task because so many diverse groups claim those labels without any one individual or group providing the definitive categorization. Many Christians believe that only their denomination or branch is “true” Christianity. Islam is no different. Many of us will look at the history of our own faith and the actions that were done in the Name of our religion and say, “oh, that was not true Christianity,” or “they intended to defend the faith but did some bad things in the process,” or “their goals were actually political, not religious.” Yet, at the very same time, they will deny the legitimacy of those exact same arguments to Muslims today who argue that terrorists and ISIS do not represent Islam. The double standard used by many Christians is so remarkable as to be breathtaking.
What the President was saying is that before we get prideful about how we compare our faith to what is going on today, we should have some humility about our own history. One would expect that a call to humility among Christians would be answered with a “yes.” Such was not the case for some. Here in this response we see the limitations of religion to transform the soul, to bring about transformation and the New Man, but instead establish yet another form of evolutionary tribalism that says Us=Good – Them=Bad. On this point a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn seem appropriate from The Gulag Archipelago:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The double standard by which commentators, individuals, priests, and ministers are casting judgment is disturbing, and so is the rabid misuse of information in attempts to prove a point that markedly fall short. One example is that following the President’s remarks, many on social media began posting the 2009 Thomas F. Madden book review titled “Inventing the Crusades” that appeared in First Things.[iv] It is an odd non-sequitur. Prof. Madden’s point in 2009 was that the Crusades did not cause the violent Islamic extremism that we see today. The President has never made such a claim. What is noteworthy, however, is what the good professor leaves out of his commentary. He makes no mention of the People’s Crusade of Christians (which was opposed by the official Church) that led to the massacre of Jews in Central Europe. He states that the Crusades were in response to encroachment by Muslim powers on Christian lands, but the First Crusade was to liberate Jerusalem that had been in Muslim hands for over 460 years. The butchery of Muslims and Jews by the Christians was legendary. Contrast this with the Muslim takeover of Jerusalem in 634 which was bloodless, and both Jews and Christians were permitted to continue their worship, and with the retaking of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslims where there was again no bloodbath and Jews were invited back into the city once again and Eastern Christians were permitted to stay. Prof. Madden also makes no mention of the Fourth Crusade, about which he is an expert, in which the western Christians committed a savage sacking of the eastern Christian capital of Constantinople. In fact, the violent history of Christendom, both towards others and toward co-religionists, did not finally come to an end until as recently as 1998 when the Good Friday accords in Ireland finally ended organized Christian terrorism. History is complicated. And this all goes to the President’s primary point: “[T]his is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” I would hope that we all could acknowledge that.
I close with another Solzhenitsyn quote:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
[i] The words “who claim” were chosen intentionally because some of the President’s critics have actually questioned his Christianity, despite his explicit statements that he is a Christian. If those critics are going to sit in judgment regarding his faith, they certainly can not object to raising the question of their own faith.