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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bible vs. Qur'an on Violence.

Often, when discussing ferment in the Islamic world, people near anad dear to me say, "The Bible and Christian fundamentalists are just as bad as anything the Dar-ul-Islam can produce." It's a sentiment that grates on me, if only because it reveals a profound ignorance of both the Qur'an and the Bible. It reflects a profound, and even willfully studied, ignorance of the Biblical and Christian influences on Western legal, moral, and political thought and reflects a profound desire to find one's most dangerous enemies at hand (among fellow Americans of the Christian fundamentalist persuasion) rather than face, a long-term existential threat from abroad.
The moral equivalence game is a case of Christianity’s “cultured despisers” who since Marx and Freud have consistently declared all theisms to be equally false joining hands with those nominally Christian elements who lightly declare all theisms equally true, while ignoring the real gaps between Christianity and Islam.
Unfortunately, I have not seen many good blog postings addressing these differences. Worse, many Christians who attempt to do so often take a wrong approach and end up disparaging important parts of their own tradition and faith. Hence, Uncle Cephas takes up the gauntlet. This essay will focus on the question of violence in the scriptures of the two religions.
(I) Grace for Sinners
The first issue is the attitude which the two religions attempt (with or without success is another matter) to inculcate in their followers. Christianity values humility, Islam encourages pride.
As a Christian fundamentalist himself, Uncle Cephas readily admits that Christian fundamentalists can be as bad as any group of Muslims. But the reason for this is that it is a biblical "fundamental" of his creed that we are all conceived in sin (Psalm 51), sin from birth (Psalm 58), and that our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). Confession of sin and repentance are part of both daily personal worship and corporate worship on all Lord's Days for most who call themselves Christians. No wonder that one of the most common objections against Christianity that I have heard is that it doesn't let us think very highly of ourselves! Our salvation is not a careful balancing so our good deeds outweigh our bad, for in such a “balancing act”, our sins would invariably outweigh our supposed merits. We confess the necessity of Christ's coming, atonement, and resurrection for our salvation--precisely because God's grace has allowed us to see the deep-seated evil of all human hearts, including our own.
In contrast, if I have heard the Da'wa people correctly, Islam denies that there is any such thing as original sin; and Adam's transgression affects only himself. The Qur'an congratulates Muslims on being "the best of peoples" (Surah 3:110--Al'-Imran). If this is indeed the self-image that Islam inculcates, a serious Christian can only see it as flippant.
The Gospel is not a code, but news: news of the saving work which God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said of his work, “the Son of Man [a Messianic title taken from Daniel 7] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The death of Jesus Christ is necessary for our salvation in that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). This was why Adam and Eve covering themselves with leaves after their transgression did not suffice; and God made for them garments of skins (Gen. 3:21). This is why the laws of Moses have a detailed system of animal sacrifices described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers.
Further, the blood of sinful man atones for no sin. This, not a divine decision to outlaw human sacrifice per se, lies behind the test of Abraham found in Genesis 22. The atoning blood must come from one who is sinless—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ. When John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, declared “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was not calling Jesus a cute little animal, but calling attention to how the Messiah came to be the final sacrifice offered for sins; for the lamb was the animal most used in the Old Testament’s sacrificial system.
But the Gospel is not only about death. It is also about the victory Jesus won for us not only in bearing our sin and making atonement for us on the cross, but also in rising from the dead. If Jesus was not truly risen, writes the apostle Paul, our faith is in vain, and we are of all men the most to be pitied (I Corinthians 15:14). But Christ’s resurrection shows that he now has dominion over all things, for the sake of his people.
Yes, Christians are called to do the good works defined in the moral law. But this is not to accumulate merit; rather it is to express gratitude for what God has done.
It is in the light of this, the final revelation of God to man, that Christians read the whole of divine revelation given in the Old and New Testaments.
(I) Scriptural Violence: A wrong approach
The moral equivalence people are correct to note that both the Old Testament and the Qur'an include a plan for political and military conquest of lands. Much of the Octateuch (the biblical books from Genesis through Ruth) is taken up with a blueprint for the conquest of Canaan, including bone-chilling commands to thoroughly exterminate the Canaanites, which even John Calvin himself, that bugaboo of all liberals, theological or anti-theistic, spoke of this as a frightening decree. In these sexually liberated days, it is also popular to note that the Torah decrees death for such sexual sins such as adultery and homosexuality.
Usually, modern Christian apologists speak of a "higher morality" in the New Testament than in the Old, correctly noting that Jesus' final marching orders to his followers are to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20) rather than to march through the land on an extermination campaign. This is often accompanied by an appeal to some kind of spiritual evolution between the times of Moses and those of Christ.
Yet this disparages the only Bible Jesus ever read while he “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14) and was training his twelve disciples. In the Gospels, Jesus neither scorns nor disparages the Old Testament. The image of Jesus as a more highly evolved spirit or rebel against the Old Testament's "primitive" or "unworthy" character has nothing at all to do with what the apostles of Christ, the earliest church fathers, or Jesus himself had to say; but it does have a lot to do with a bacillus which the modern church caught from a number of often fiercely anti-Semitic German academic critics active in the 19th and early 20th centuries--and thank God that He preserved some "fundamentalists" who refused to accept the "assured findings" of such men!
The often unreflective acceptance of the New Testament as a "higher stage" than the Old in distinguishing Christian ethics and beliefs from those of Islam also serves to obscure profound differences between the Old Testament's theology, spirituality, anthropology, and ethics on the one hand and those of the Qur'an on the other.
Many portions of the Octateuch catalogue sins of the Canaanites, which the Israelites were forbidden to practice. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 lists sins of spritism, necromancy, and witchcraft; Leviticus 18 gives a list of forbidden marriages (generally defining the sin of incest), in the midst of which we also find a prohibition against burning one’s children in honor of Molech. It was for such sins that the Canaanites were to be dispossessed. Yet God, in his mercy, reserved a portion of the Canaanite nation for himself. Such, no doubt, was Melchizedek, to whom Abraham offered a tithe of the spoils of the war he waged against the kings of the east in order to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). When God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, he was told that he could not inherit it himself, “for the sins of the Amorites [also known as Canaanites] was not full (Genesis 15:16). This “filling up” of the sins of Canaan occurred some time later, shortly before the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
Yet a surprising lack of self-righteous self-congratulation appears in Hebrew Scripture. The land was not given to the Israelites on account of their own righteousness. Deuteronomy 6-9 reminds them that they were a stiff-necked people, and that God was remembering his promise to their forefathers. Further, should the conquest tempt Israel to boast of its own prowess and might, or should Israel fall into the selfsame sins of the Canaanites, Israel itself would perish from the land (Dt. 8:19).
Indeed, Israel is repeatedly warned in Numbers and Deuteronomy that it would be punished for the sins committed by the Canaanites. The sin is a sin regardless of who commits it; and not even those chosen by God are exempt from the curses of the moral law. This should always been considered whenever the ban on Canaan is read—for, potentially, Israel may also find itself under a similar ban.
(II) A Unique Event and the Flow of Biblical History
The following Old Testament history and prophecy reveals the unfolding of Israel’s apostasy and punishment. The prophets arose as God’s prosecuting attorneys, reminding the Israelites of their sins against the covenant which God had made with them. Yet throughout the history of the Hebrew kings, there is the depressing refrain that “he walked in the all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat …wherewith he made Israel to sin” (I Kings 16:26).
The end of all this was that the Assyrians and Babylonians came down on Israel and Judah, destroying their kingdoms and exiling their peoples. Isaiah spoke of the invading Assyrian as the “rod of God’s anger” (Isaiah 10:5 ff.). Covenant-breaking not only destroyed the people of Canaan, but destroyed ancient Israel and Judah as well, exactly as Moses had warned.
Thus, the horrific command to exterminate the Canaanites can be understood only in the context of the whole of Old Testament history; a sacred history inspired by the Holy Spirit himself. The ban on Canaan is not an eternal instruction on how to wage war, but a warning that certain nations and men can become so hardened in sin that they must be swept out of the way. Perhaps this is a judgment to be left to the Almighty, since we do not today possess prophets (and those who claim to be such in our time sooner or later tend to prove themselves false). It is not at all a call to put aside all compassion, but it does remind us that God does execute his judgments in time and space, and that today, as then, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7).
The ban against the Canaanites is a reminder that God is judge not only of individual souls, but over whole nations and peoples. Nor do God’s judgments spare his own people. This should remain a practical warning even to Christian peoples in the period since the coming of the Messiah Jesus. If we are careless or scoffing towards what God has revealed to us, our churches also may be destroyed, as Jesus himself warns in Revelation 1-3. Perhaps the blight of Islam over much territory that once was the cradle of Christianity, or the degeneration of once great churches in Europe in our own time may well be a more recent out-working of the same warnings which God gave to ancient Israel. The lesson is not to engage of a self-righteous love of war and punishment, but to seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing.
(III) Conlcusion
The extermination of the Canaanites was a unique event in Scripture; not the blueprint for just war in all ages. Indeed, the bulk of Scripture, Old Testament as well as New, praises the man of peace and calls us to seek it. Christians therefore are not to disparage the command to exterminate the Canaanites as “inferior” or “less evolved”, but to recognize in it the fearfulness of God’s wrath against sin, and to therefore rejoice that God chose to deal with us in mercy, through Jesus Christ, who bore the wrath and curse of the broken covenant in his own body on the tree.
Further, it is proclamation of the “good news” (evangellion in Greek), ethical example, and prayer that are the spiritual weapons which God gives his church for the subduing of nations; not sword and spear. The command to exterminate the Canaanites is to be remembered in humble recognition of divine justice; but the latest marching orders the church possesses call not for the extermination of nations, but that they may be made disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is a stark contrast to the place of violence in the Qur’an. It is true that many Muslims prefer to read the command to jihad as an inner struggle to purify oneself; but no school of Islamic thought rules out aggressive, violent jihad as a means to spread the faith and the subsequent humiliation, oppression, and exploitation of the conquered.
At most, the holy war ideal in the Bible and Qur’an are only superficially similar. But underneath, they reveal a very different understanding of the relationship of God and man. The Qur’an calls for pride and self-righteousness; the Scriptures—even in their “scariest” verses, call for humility.

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