It has been a very intense week in the news, to say the least. While Obama and Boehner battle it out for the soul of the United States in the latest round of the American “culture wars,” the Norwegian tragedy draws our attention to what is truly the next great global conflict, what some are calling World War IV. The complicated, often violent encounter between the “Judeo-Christian” West and Islam is causing European Countries to question their decades-long commitment to multiculturalism and to more thoughtfully consider what it means to be European, even while they abandon the Christian heritage of their continent. Although this identity crisis has not yet truly reached American shores, 9/11 (which was, by most accounts, the Pearl Harbor of World War IV) and its aftermath (most notably the battle over the so-called “ground-zero mosque”) demonstrate that we are not far behind.
And so it seems a very appropriate time to consider the following question: what is or would be a genuinely Christian response to a growing Muslim influence in the Western World? This question is made all the more urgent amidst revelations that the Norwegian assailant was a self-proclaimed Christian. Furthermore, while experts seem unable to offer a clear, non-partisan response to the question of whether Islam is, by nature, a peaceful or violent religion – whether, at its heart, it seeks tolerance or dominion, Christians need to be prepared to respond to either possibility. As Islamic influence grows, what does it mean to be and to live as a Christian?
Any answer to this question must begin with Jesus. As Paul Zahl writes, “all theology is Christology.” Anything we seek to know about God, about what He has done and the life to which He calls us, begins with the Word made flesh. And although we here at Mockingbird are not huge WWJDers, the fact remains that, whenever Jesus encountered violence either real or potential, his response was to heal, forgive, escape and/or suffer.
Thus, when, in Luke 4 the crowd at Nazareth tried to throw Jesus from a cliff for his hard words, he “walked right through them and went on his way.” When, in Matthew 8, a centurion, an agent of the occupying, oppressive force in Israel, comes to Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus does it and praises the man’s faith. In John 18, when Peter cuts off the ear of a man in the party that has come to arrest Jesus, Christ heals the man and tells Peter to put away his sword. And, of course, when Jesus is brought before a succession or tribunals and, eventually, to the cross to suffer and die amid the mocking cries of the crowd, He perfectly fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah, who sees a suffering
servant “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
St. Paul, Jesus’ most faithful interpreter, writing to the Roman church in the midst of persecution, counsels submission, and as many arrests, imprisonments and beatings as he receives, never once advocates for violence of any kind. One also thinks of the Apostles in Acts 5, whom, after being arrested, flogged and released, are not consumed with anger and a thirst for revenge, but rather “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”(!)
Put bluntly, the New Testament is deeply pacifist. And although some have responded more virulently to the question of how faithful people ought to respond to evil (most notably Augustine, in the early church, with his “Just War” theory and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in the 20th century felt it his Christian duty to take part in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler), their case is more difficult to make based on the life of Jesus.
When one looks at the history of the early church, what is remarkable is the speed at which it grew, even in the midst of repeated, often brutal persecution. In fact, throughout history, the church seems to grow not so much in spite of persecution, but often because of it. As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Seen in this light, violence towards and marginalization of Christians should, perhaps, be welcomed (if not sought), rather than resisted, by those who would seek the spread of the Gospel. China seems an apt contemporary example.
It is also often true that the Gospel spreads through the subjugation of Christians. Not only were Paul and Silas’ prison guards converted in Acts 16, all of Ireland was converted through St. Patrick, whom, as a boy, was kidnapped and carried off into slavery by the then-pagan Irish.
Thus, seen through the lens of Jesus, Scripture and history, the place of the Christian in the West-meets-Islam culture war seems clear and consistent: love, healing, forgiveness, suffering, pacifism. In other words, the Way of the Cross. It may well be that we are living in the midst of World War IV, and it may also be that the West will lose this war, that the Europe and America of our children and our children’s children will be very different than it is today, but our response to this possibility, or eventuality, must be the response of Jesus, Paul, Tertullian, Patrick and countless other saints through the ages who suffered for the sake of the Gospel, and not of Anders Behring Breivik, who mistakenly believed it was his duty to kill for it.
Even so, we all fall on the mercy of Jesus, as we hope Breivik is, recognizing that we will never get this, or any question, “right”, and that our only hope is His grace in the midst of our sinful lives and fallen world.