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Spring 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2
Religion: Cause or Cure for Terrorism?

The Christian Church and a World of Religiously Inspired Violence

During a visit to Seattle Pacific University in February, Indian theologian Vinay Samuel posed a provocative question to students, faculty, staff, community members and area pastors: “Had Muslim pilgrims set sail for America in the 1600s, would they have been welcomed in what became the United States? Was the Christianity of the Puritan fathers broad enough, big enough to say, ‘Oh, yes, we believe in religious freedom. You can be a part of our new country’?”

As religious intolerance and religiously inspired violence increase around the world, American Christians have a particular responsibility to address the problem, said Samuel. “Your country was founded in part on the virtue of tolerance. This is an arena in which you have had much success and an issue about which you have something important to say.”

At the heart of America’s success in demonstrating religious tolerance, emphasized Samuel, has been the Christian church and the gospel. He challenged listeners to become full citizens of God’s world and active agents of his will in responding to the scourge of religiously inspired terrorism.

is not merely a topic of analytical interest to me; it is extremely urgent and real in my life as a Christian and world citizen.

In India last November, I was called to pray with a Christian pastor who had been beaten very badly by Hindu fundamentalists. His plight was unexpected, and I asked my friend if he had preached some wild thing about Hindus. He said no, that he had merely visited a new Christian in a nearby village. But he had been watched. tHe Jeep in which he was traveling was burned; he was beaten; and the police did nothing. India! The world’s largest democracy and a tolerant nation. Hinduism! A tolerant religion. What is happening?

I was just in Washington, D.C., meeting with Christian leaders from Pakistan. They told me about the burning by Muslim fanatics of hospitals that have cared for the poor for more than 100 years. Nurses were killed and doctors intimidated. So this is not an academic topic for me. It has to do with people I know being pressured, imprisoned and murdered. This is the reality of religiously inspired violence, and it is what we are seeing increasingly across the world, from Oklahoma City to Bali.

Christians in America have a significant responsibility not only to understand, but to respond to such violence. For me, the struggle is between religious fanaticism and extremism on the one hand, and the ability to live in peace beside those with whom we disagree on the other hand. You have a responsibility to address that struggle because of what God has given you for more than 400 years: a free society built on the idea of embracing difference.

What Is a Religious Fanatic?

Let’s try and understand the nature of a religious fanatic. Some of them have been my neighbors and friends for years. Now suddenly they are fanatics. They possess an absolute sense of certitude, and it violently propels them. They think they alone have the authority to interpret the true meaning of the sacred texts they use. They are not on any road to truth; they have arrived.

Religious fanatics feel called to take the world by its neck and conform it to their vision of what the world should be like. To do that, they will sacrifice everything, including self. Who they are, where they were born, their life plan — these are absolutely meaningless. Have you wondered how young men and women can fill their pockets with bombs and blow themselves up? Because they have no sense of self; it’s all erased.

In the eyes of religious fanatics, those who ignore, reject or combat their cause must be destroyed. It gives them intense pleasure to destroy what others hold sacred and precious. To them, the present ruling order — whatever it may be — is imperfect, impure and corrupt, and must be reduced to rubble.

If you think I am describing Islam, let me assure you that this description has also been true of Christianity. For example, during the Protestant Reformation in Europe, some Christians sought to destroy all traces of Roman Catholicism, including churches and priests. They believed that to abolish the “earthly city” would usher in the “city of God” and perfection would follow. Even Martin Luther, while he came to abhor the violence against Catholics, advocated the burning of Jewish schools and synagogues.
So when we point a finger at others, we are also pointing at ourselves. Such fanaticism penetrates and is a part of all forms of modern society and infects both religious and secular ideologies.

Church, State and Religious Freedom

It was the tension between church and state that produced the idea and practice of tolerance in Western society. For 300 years, Europe struggled with the question of how to live in the interval between the “earthly city” and the “heavenly city,” how to have a religion that is able to shape the public sphere without producing fanaticism. Out of this struggle developed a separation of church and state that fostered a tolerance for different groups of people and different beliefs. For Spinoza, for Liebnitz and for Locke, tolerance was the defining virtue of modern Western society. Then was added the economic dimension of free markets, helping further define what Western society is all about.

Fanaticism refuses to accept this separation between the state and the religious order. In Europe, fanatics continued to confuse church and state until the Pilgrims had had enough and left to create a new society on the North American continent — a society where church and state were separate, yet lived together in constructive tension, based on the ideal of religious freedom. As someone who is not an American, I want to say that the experiment has been a great success. I think it is the best success story of the last 400 years.

But today America faces a completely new situation, the same situation being experienced worldwide. What America has not had to deal with until now is the close proximity of religions that are altogether different from Christianity — with a cosmic view, a vision of the world, which is not Christian. Is America diverse enough, open enough, free enough and strong enough to accept the diversity we face in the renewed religious identities of today? Does America, for instance, have a vision that can embrace Muslims and Hindus? The answers are important, because you represent the grand experiment of religious freedom.

A Contest of Identities
The reasons for the rise in religiously inspired violence are much more complex than a rise in religious fundamentalism. The spread of fanaticism in today’s world is due in large part to the transition taking place from traditional to modern societies. In this transition, individual expectations increase. Communities mobilize to gain benefits and advantages. Groups jostle and conflict with each other. How can this process possibly continue without implosion and explosion?

That is the context of violence in and between societies today. As groups of people are moving and changing, they are also saying, “We want our identity to be affirmed.” They are in a contest of identities, and if there are no arrangements and procedures for public discourse about their place in the modern world — as, for example, in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia — chaos results. And so a country like Saudi Arabia crushes even the smallest discussion.

What is it that young Pakistanis or Saudis want? Like most of the youth in transitional societies, they want to live like Americans. But if there is no way for them to express themselves and live out their dreams in their own countries, it produces enormous tension. It’s as if someone has placed a lid on them. The pressure builds until it implodes or explodes.

Like other religious fanatics, Islamic radicals “instrumentalize” religion, using it as a tool to gain political power in the face of chaos. It is also used as a way to activate the community for reasons of solidarity and identity. It is not a common moral vision or plan for the future of a modern, developed nation that motivates such fanatics. What will unite them, they think, is to go back in time to their traditional customs and religious practices.

In Hinduism — seen as a tolerant religion — there are no doctrines, traditions and rituals common to all Hindus, no system that unites like Islam. So why do we see Hindu fanaticism also growing rapidly? I suggest that this is happening once again because of a drive to recover a suppressed identity. Hindus feel they have been suppressed by Islam, and then by British colonial rule and Christianity, for the last 1,300 years. Now they want to recover Hindu pride, Hindu culture and Hindu religion.

With this comes a rejection of the old idea of India as a secular state. To build a strong nation, many Hindus say, “We need Hinduism to empower us.” Is that so different, they ask, than what some groups of Christians advocate about America?

Islam and the Closed Society
For Americans, Islamic religious fanaticism became all too real on September 11, 2001. Why, Americans ask, do radical Muslims hate us?

Today’s Islamic religious fanatics identify their enemy as “the Western devil.” The pluralism and diversity of modern Western societies are labeled the core problems in the world, the sign and expression of moral decadence. Islam, they believe, is God’s corrective to that ignorance and moral rottenness. The Arab people of Muhammad’s day had embraced pluralism and diversity, and even worshipped many gods. So radical Muslims believe Islam was divinely given to reverse the effects of modern times. In their way of thinking, religion becomes the essential thing; followers appeal to religion only, not reason, in all things.

The result is a closed, rather than open, society. The people are oriented collectively rather than individually. God-given orders and a sense of duty prevail over a concern for the rights of the individual. You start with the sovereignty of God and deny the sovereignty of people. You understand differences of values as an expression of moral confusion and not the inevitable result of a pluralizing society and world. There are no safety nets for difference and diversity. To agree that there can be two positions on anything is immoral. This results in a hegemonic doctrine of purity that leads to persecution and violence. That is fanaticism. Not all of Islam, certainly, but fanatical Islam.

Can that kind of Islam adjust to modernity? Can closed societies ever become open societies? Is plurality possible there? In principle it seems impossible, but in practice might it be possible?

Western societies have learned how to manage conflict between groups and different identities through a long process of institution-building and procedural arrangements. But many Muslims have rejected the Western model, both because they find the competing ideology of the West unacceptable, and because those Islamic societies that have copied the West have experienced authoritarianism and a greater gap between the rich and the poor. Consequently, much of Islam has maneuvered itself into a blind alley of sorts, rejecting the Western example of plurality in the interests of moral clarity and uniformity in all aspects of life.

So what of the future of Islamic societies? The average person in these societies — not the few fanatics who make a lot of noise, but the vast number of ordinary people — know there is no going back to traditional Islam. They’ve got to move forward. And that is the challenge faced by the United States and the church today. What should we who live in open, liberal and plural societies, especially as Christians, be doing regarding the struggle of people in closed societies? They are not the enemy bent on nuking our cities and killing us. Their primary drive is the struggle to become modern, to retain their identity and to cope with their internal violence and conflicts. These internal clashes are far more urgent to them than aiding an Al Qaeda group to harm America.

A Christian Response

Again I ask, what is our responsibility to transitional societies? Should we just simply pray? Should we hope they’ll implode and all become Christian? How should we respond?

First, Christians need to demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God in the present — in our own communities, churches and colleges. We need to practice kingdom principles and values. For instance, we must promote covenantal relationships that take people and their futures very, very seriously. Can we conceive of a covenant relationship between nations to respect each other’s sovereignty and to build each other up? That was the original vision of the League of Nations, and it broke down. Yet the League of Nations and the United Nations were ideas that came out of the United States. Where is that idea of covenant now? What are Christians doing to promote covenantal relationships that build people up?

Second, Christians need to be good global stewards — stewards, not rulers. God calls human beings to be stewards of the earth, stewards of each other, stewards of human life. Thus, the greater challenge to the United States is global stewardship rather than global hegemony and global rule. As the only superpower on earth, it has to be a good steward of that power. This does not mean just managerial ability; it means nothing less than restoring justice and peace. How many American Christians accept this responsibility in anticipation of the kingdom of God?

Third, Christians need to practice the kingdom value of reconciliation. We must embrace difference, not erase difference. That’s the hardest thing to do. How can people embrace difference unless they have experienced the reconciling love of God in their families, in their own lives and with those who are completely different from themselves? This is the problem with churches, because they are so socially and culturally the same. They do not experience difference, let alone embrace it. Yet the world desperately needs people with the ability to embrace difference, people who have learned to reconcile its complexities, tensions, contests and conflicts.

This is a very big picture and a very big challenge. But to ignore it is to deny the very basis upon which your nation was founded. The United States was an experiment to demonstrate the triumph of religious freedom over religious fanaticism, the possibility of people living with difference and out of it creating a new nation. Is that still possible? We need those who have inherited and who will inherit this nation to continue the Christian vision with which it began — not just for the sake of this country, but also for the sake of the whole world.

— BY VINAY SAMUEL | Director of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians

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