Two months ago I began reading the Psalms at the pace of five a day. A revelation. Not so many “joyful noises,” not so much shepherding as I had remembered. Many of the Psalms are violent, disturbingly so. Just from yesterday’s read, for example:
“The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. . . . Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth. (Psalm 58)
“Deliver me from mine enemies, O my God: defend me from them that rise up against me. . . . Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be; and let them know that God ruleth in Jacob unto the ends of the earth. And at evening let them return; and let them make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.” (Psalm 59)
“But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.” (Psalm 63)
The Psalms unsettle a modern, western sensibility. Two months in, I find myself pushing back. What is this? I don’t have enemies. So okay I have a few. But please Lord don’t break their teeth. I just want us all to get along.
And now from one of the most beautiful suras of the Quran (Arberry’s translation):
“Behold, Gehenna has become an ambush, for the insolent a resort, therein to tarry for ages, tasting therein neither coolness nor any drink save boiling water and pus for a suitable recompense. They indeed hoped not for a reckoning, and they cried loud lies to Our signs; and everything We have numbered in a Book. Taste! We shall increase you not save in chastisement.”
The teleological world view of the Psalmist and the Mohammedan Poet are remarkably the same: There is one God, omniscient, all-powerful, creator of the universe. Man exists to glorify God and to serve Him, by keeping His commandments. For those who obey: divine protection and sustenance and a measure of wisdom. For the insolent: punishment, retribution and exile.
There is nothing here to suggest that either intimation of the divine, either religion, ever was or ever can be an instrument of peace. Individual human beings can be peacemakers, of course; and all the great religions have had them. But monotheism itself, by its very nature, brings, as Jesus said, “not peace but the sword.”
Much of the Quran is an acknowledgement of the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, as well as Jesus and his mother Mary, and a retelling of their stories. Mohammed honors and reveres them. But in one respect–and I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth about the merits of points of doctrine, so I will try to keep this observation grounded in history as well as text–Jesus and Mohammed had a most different view of the execution of God’s Will. Jesus said over and over again “My kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, over and over again Christians have not heard these words. (More here tomorrow.)
Mohammed, on the other hand, was very much a temporal, political leader, who fought in over seventy battles. In the century after the Prophet’s death, the Islamic caliphate extended its reach beyond Arabia to Spain in the West and India in the East. Central to the idea of the caliphate, moreover, is the realization of God’s Will through human governance and the establishment of that Will in law. The caliphate, whether the one that created a Golden Age in medieval Spain, or the one that fundamentalist Muslims envision now, is always the work of human governance in bringing to pass a society that abides by God’s Will as revealed in His commandments. It is the perfect union of the temporal and the divine. The Christian apologists, like Augustine, have also envisioned such a world–how could they not? for as Believers all of us are always yearning for and therefore imagining that City of God, that City on a Hill, here on earth. But in the end, the great Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Barth, have always drawn back, in the conviction that such a polity can never be.
This is the context in which I see President Obama struggling to deal with Islamic terrorism. Barack Obama has a searching and yet profoundly moral view of the universe–just look at his brief comment today on the earthquake deaths in Haiti, “Indeed for a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible.” But he has reduced the world’s religions, for obvious political reasons, to their more palatable beliefs. Perhaps he has done this in his inner thoughts, as well, for he always names the core belief of Christianity as “I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper.”
Here is some of what Obama said in Cairo last spring. “As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we all basically want the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families. . . . the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
These wistful comments are the apotheosis of post-Enlightenment culture, with its emphasis on the worth of the individual, on tolerance, on happiness as a goal in life, on home and hearth as a place to find fulfillment, as long as everybody else’s private space is respected. But in fact as the media shrinks the world, we see that we are not always all that similar. And certainly religion teaches us that we do not want the same things. The heart of every religion, furthermore, is the seeking of God not accommodation with other human beings. “In the name of God”–so begins every sura of the Quran. “This is the first and great commandment: love the Lord thy God,” Jesus instructed.
In Cairo, President Obama quoted the Quran: “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” This would seem to be good counsel. Telling untruths, even those of the politically-correct variety that have been prompted by good intentions–never seem to work out well in the end. In Cairo, Obama went on to say, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism–it is an important part of promoting peace.”
But the truth is that Islam is very much a part of the problem in combating violent extremism. In just the same way that Christianity has been and always has the potential to be. One of the mistakes the current administration is making on foreign policy is categorizing al Qaeda “and other terrorist groups” as if they were aberrations instead of along the spectrum and organic to Muslim belief. Not every Muslim would choose to wage jihad in its most extreme form; but all Muslims believe in jihad. In the same way, all Christians accept the truth of the Great Commission; but not all Christians are comfortable with proselytizing.
Tomorrow: more on jihad and the Great Commission. the asymmetrical problem in a war where religion is a force.