Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Allah: A Christian Response

I recently finished a fascinating book “Allah:  A Christian Response” by renowned theologian Miroslav Volf.  The book is very much worth the read, as Volf tackles the theological question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, though they clearly  have some different perspectives on God.  By the way, the title “Allah” is simply Arabic for God, just like “Theos” is Greek for God or “Dieu” is French for God.  In fact, Arabic speaking Christians also use the title “Allah” to refer to the God worshipped by Christians and Jews. 

I won’t go into all the theological arguments of the book, though I would recommend the time and energy necessary for wading through Volf’s arguments, but in keeping with a main theme of this blog, I will share some of the quotes on the Christian call to love our enemies and to avoid violence.  The call to love our enemies has a particularly poignant applicability when dealing with Muslim extremists. 

Enjoy the quotes.  And have I mentioned this book would be worth a read?  Well, it is. 
Pg. 177
God’s love for the ungodly and human love for enemies are inextricably tied together.  Over the centuries, Christians have not been very good at loving their enemies, to say the least.  We have left a trail of blood and tears as we have marched through history.  Still, human disobedience doesn’t annul the divine command, especially not a command that is so close to the center of the gospel and so bound up with the nature of God.  That’s why even those who transgressed egregiously the command to love enemies still felt compelled to try to reconcile their conduct with the command.  For example, in a letter to Sultan Mehmet II after the Ottoman leader had sacked Constantinople in 1453, Pope Pius II noted, “We are hostile to your action, not to you.  As God commands, we love our enemies and we pray for our persecutors.”  At the same time, the pope went on organizing a crusade against the mighty sultan – which is not, in my judgment, the way to love an enemy.

Pg. 178 –
The point of loving one’s enemies – of “repaying” persecution with blessing, and wrongdoing with forgiveness – is not to put up with evil.  It is to resist being “overcome with evil” and to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  Martin Luther makes the point eloquently.  The followers of Christ are supposed to “grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves. And they do this that they may recall those offenders from their sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered.  Therefore they put off the form of their own righteousness and put on the form of those others, praying for their persecutors, blessing those who curse, doing good to the evildoers, preparing to pay the penalty and make satisfaction for their very enemies that they may be saved.  This is the Gospel and the example of Christ.” 
The ultimate purpose of loving one’s enemies is clear: “that they may be saved” from their evildoing and that goodness may triumph.

Pg. 179 -
In New Testament times, Christian communities were a persecuted minority with no aspirations to become a political or military power.  If any fighting were to be done to protect those communities or if any retribution were to be exacted to avenge the injuries they suffered, God was the one, not them, to fight and to exact retribution (see Rom. 12:19; Rev. 19:2).  Violence against enemies was displaced onto God.  God fights Christians do not – neither in their own name nor in the name of God.

Pg. 180 -
“As Muslims,” they [many Muslims] write, “we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them – so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”  Muslims are “not forbidden” from “dealing kindly and justly” with those who are “just” toward them (Al Mumtahinah, 60:8).  Muslims can be kind to non-Muslims as long as they are not against Muslims.  But Muslims are against those who wage war against them.  This is an understandable stance, and it is compatible with the requirements of justice.  But that’s not love for one’s enemies as Christians understand it.  To love, we have to be for someone.  That is the teaching and the example of Christ.  For Christians, this is not just a noble way to live out one’s faith, a supererogatory act, but an explicit and repeated command of God.

Pg. 203 -
Prejudices are errors born of ignorance, self-absorption, resentment, and fear – all stances incompatible with the active love of neighbor enjoined on Muslims and Christians alike by their common God.  The best way to fight prejudice is by knowledge – not just knowledge of people’s beliefs and practices, but knowledge of their feelings and hopes, their injuries and triumphs as well.

Pg. 212 -
It is wrong to compare the best practices of one’s own faith with the worst practices of the other faith.

Pg. 241 -
Religion, as seen as a marker if identity (see Chapter 10), has swallowed up allegiance to the common God.  Even though God is on everybody’s lips, religion has become the godless (or maybe religion is godless partly just because God is on everybody’s lips).  The consequence?  Each community thinks only of its own injuries and hopes, pursuing only its own interests and its own good.  Neither cares for the other or for the common good.  It would take all allegiance to God in love and fear to cure them from self-preoccupation and excessive fear of others, my friend suggested.  To care for the common good, and not just for our own good, in the face of powerful impulses to protect the group and enhance its power, the God of truth, justice and love must claim us.

Pg. 256 -
Extremism does not have a single cause, (say, perceived injustice suffered or dangerous religious convictions); it always has multiple causes – political, economic, cultural, religious, and more.  And if the causes are many, the solution cannot be one.  Multipronged approaches are necessary – from struggles for greater justice in international relations, to the re-crafting of political institutions, to reforming judicial systems, to improving the quality of education and media, to fostering religious understanding and the purification of religious convictions.
Now the exception.  I reject military approaches to combating extremism, though I support nonmilitary coercive measures, such as policing and economic sanctions.  Far from being effective in combating extremism, the use of military force only exacerbates the problem.  If I am correct – I am aware that I am making a controversial claim and that people much more knowledgeable than I disagree with me – that’s an important pragmatic reason against military solutions.  But in my judgment, moral reasons are even weightier than pragmatic ones.  The war in Iraq, partly waged to combat extremism, was an unjust and therefore morally unacceptable war; to a lesser degree the same is arguably true of the war in Afghanistan.
There is a consistent Christian tradition, prevalent in the early church and then resurfacing during the Protestant Reformation, that condemns all use of military force as incompatible with the way of Christ.  But even from a classical Christian perspective, shaped by Augustine, which embraces the just-war idea, these wars or any other wars that may be waged to combat extremism must be condemned as unjust and incompatible with Christian convictions.  Some key criteria for just war cannot be met – above all, just cause for war (because combating extremism through military means as a rule involves preemptive use of force) and immunity for noncombatants (because terrorists hide among civilians), to name just two.  At best, what could be defended within that tradition is targeted attacks against terrorists themselves or their direct supporters.

Pg. 258 -
To start with, remember this is a book written by a Christian and addressed to Christians.  It is a Christian take on Muslim’s convictions, an account of how Christians should relate to Muslims, not  prescription for what Muslims should believe and how they should live.  Can a book addressed to Christians have any bearing on Muslim extremism?  It can.  Note that highly negative views of Islam are widespread among Christians.  True, I know of no Christian who acts on these views by using terrorist means, but many do so by inflammatory rhetoric and advocating an all-out clash between Muslim and Christian civilizations.  Extremism on one side often feeds extremism on the other side; negative views and negative actions often elicit corresponding and even augmented negative view and actions in return.  So combating highly negative – and importantly, inaccurate and prejudiced – Christian views of Muslims is a significant contribution to combating Muslim extremism.

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