About the Book
Could it be that the mainstream Christian tradition, when it comes to war-making, is more like Muhammad than Jesus? What is to many an outlandish question prompts all sorts of understandable fear, in light of the gross mass murder of September 11.
Such fear is one of the things that prompted this book: A lecture I made regarding Christian-Muslim relations was, I think it safe to say, mischaracterized in a front page news story in the Nashville daily newspaper, and elicited calls from Fox NEWS and Detroit Talk Radio, receiving livid emails from Manhattan to Tel Aviv to New Zealand.
This fear is one of the realities of contemporary western culture, and there are many who, on the one hand, working out of such fear, assert that Islam is inherently war-mongering, and cannot abide alongside other faiths. This fear-mongering is epitomized by the woman who said to me one day, “What are we going to do about all these Muslims down on 12th Avenue here in Nashville who want to kill us?”
And yet on the other hand there is a polar opposite which asserts that Christianity and Islam are saying the same thing: all religions are just different ways of getting at the same basic sorts of ethical commitments.
Ironically, both these are wrong: and it turns out that in dis-entangling exactly how these two stereo-types are wrong leads to all sorts of other provocative questions, not only about Islam, but about the practice of Christianity in America, too.
A few years ago my wife and I made our way to NYC on September 11: the atmosphere there had to be the closest I would ever get to descriptions of medieval pilgrimages, a mix of silently weeping widows, chanting conspiracy theorists and fire-breathing evangelists. A humbling site to see, people grieving the horror. We made our way up to St. Paul’s chapel which sits just opposite Ground Zero, and was a place of refuge and rest for rescue workers; in a display I found a thank you note from a little girl to the fire-fighters, in which she asked the question, “how could they do this?”
What I decided to do was to try to take that question seriously: What if we do try to identify the sorts of justifications or rationalizations that have been used to commit the mass killing of civilians? Not for the purpose of justifying, but for the purpose say, of loving one’s enemies. In other words, what if we “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” as the ancient prayer puts it. What might we learn?
So I launched out to meet new people and travel to new places: I would drink a Coke with a life-long PLO activist in Hebron; I would have dinner with a Muslim theologian in east Jerusalem; I would visit with Muslim scholars in Istanbul. Practicing what Miroslav Volf calls “double vision” taught me things not only about our Muslim neighbors, but about myself; not only things about Islam that surprised me, but things about Christianity, and America, that surprised me: and I think they will surprise you, too.
In fact, there are all sorts of common-place assumptions thrown about much too casually and over-confidently in western culture these days about “religion.” Consider, for example, the claim that religion is responsible for more killing than any other institutional force in human history. It’s become common for the so-called “militant atheists” to make sweeping assertions about the violence of “religions.” And indeed, there is ample evidence of such. I went wandering to places like Old Jerusalem where the streets ran with the blood of Muslims when Christian Crusaders took the city in 1099. There are many such sorry tales, and the only appropriate response is confession and repentance.
But still, there’s something that’s wrong-headed about the way in which this argument is waged: that is, many have told a tale in which Christianity, once having waged war on behalf of its faith, grew up and separated church and state and privatized religion. Consequently, it is asserted that Muslims need to make the same transition—they need to modernize, to privatize their faith, to stop holding onto a public or so-called “political” faith.
But I want to suggest that this is altogether wrong-headed: in fact, I suggest that we Christians need to learn something from Muslims on this score, namely, that our faith is necessarily public and, we might say, even “political,” if we define the word correctly.
But would this not be a step back into medieval dangers? Frankly, maybe so. But not so, if we actually pay attention to the so-called politics of Jesus, which challenges all sorts of western notions, and raises all sorts of new possibilities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to explore such terribly important questions and fears and concerns in Who is My Enemy?
Buy a copy here, and I look forward to hearing from you.