When labels just confuse: 7-20/21-13
Churches helping public schools: 7-23-13

How religion and terrorism mix: 7-22-13

Late last week here on the blog I mentioned a number of new books with faith-related themes, and promised I'd get back to you with more commentary about one of them, Shaking Hands With the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology, by William J. Abraham.

Shaking-handsThis is a serious, engaging, enlightening and sometimes annoying book. But being annoyed here and there is well worth the price of admission.

Let me get my annoyances out of the way first:

* The father of dispensationalist theology is John Nelson Darby, not Derby. This along with several grammatical errors makes me wonder who was editing this work by a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

* Having carefully chosen to use the term "Islamist" and not "Islamic" to describe terrorists who draw on a radical version of their Muslim faith to justify the killing of innocents -- a clear violation of traditional Islam -- Abraham several times forgets himself and uses the term "Islamic terrorists," implying that those committing these outrageous acts are not part of a fringe (or "minority report," as he calls it) of Islam but, rather part of the mainstream.

* ". . .Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, for the Muslim vision of the unity of God rules out the Christian vision of God as also triune." This is more than annoying. It's just wrong and makes me wonder why he doesn't understand the Christian position that there is no conflict between the unity of God and the triune nature of God. The author would do well to figure out why he's wrong by reading Miroslav Volf's brilliant book Allah: A Christian Response. Volf, as usual, gets it right.

AbrahamThe author (pictured here) grew up in Ireland and draws on his personal experience of terrorism at the bloody hands of the Irish Republican Army in his own hometown. There's a lot of rich and disturbing history here, and Abraham uses it well to explore the ways in which religion sometimes moves people to terrorism, though he is careful to point out that religion does not automatically imply terrorism, nor does terrorism imply that religion was its cause.

That said, sometimes terrorists draw on religion "when it suits them for their own nefarious ends." In turn, he says, "we can genuinely deploy the resources of the Christian faith in order to tackle the challenge of terrorism."

Abraham's argument about 9/11 is that "religion and terrorism are intimately connected in the case of al-Qaida. . ." That's true even if the version of religion on which the followers of the late Osama bin Laden relied is rejected by a majority of Muslims in the world; it nonetheless is defended by those followers as the true faith. In other words, no matter how wrong they are, al-Qaida members are sincere in their belief that their religion justifies their actions.

He writes: "We are not dealing with nationalists or with radical activists who were using the faith and practice of Islam as a mechanism of rhetoric or self-deception; we are dealing with terrorists embedded in a form of Islam that is widespread, deep, informed, articulate, and fully conscious of its own piety and legitimacy. This is a startling and uncomfortable truth."

Abraham does not make this analogy, but I will. In some ways it is like saying that the Nazi followers of Adolf Hitler were not insane; rather, they were fully convinced that Hitler was right and that they would be doing the world a favor by ridding it of Jews. As revolting as that idea seems to us now -- and seemed to many in the world then -- our distate for the idea does not change the reality that many Germans sincerely adopted Hitler's twisted visions.

But Abraham asks how representative of the whole religion the bin Laden version of Islam is, and concludes: ". . .it is not representative of Islam as a whole; it is a minority report. The evidence for this crucial judgment is decisive."

Still, Abraham admires the robust nature of faith held by many mainstream Muslims, compared with what he calls the ways in which many Christians are "intellectually sloppy and uninformed; they barely know the first principles and practices of their religion."

He has found what I've found: Rampant theological and biblical illiteracy in the pews of Christian churches.

Abraham is more pessimistic than I am about whether Islam can find a true and permanent home in the democratic West. I think it is doing exactly that in the U.S. even now, though it's a slow process that goes by fits and starts.

Abraham writes on this point that "the jury is out. . .on how far mainstream Islam will adjust in its entry into the West and on how the West will adjust to its new visitors." (Just for the record, Muslims have been in the U.S. since the slave days, though of course the vast majority of them have come in the last 50 or 60 years and many are citizens, not "visitors.") To continue quoting Abraham: "It is not at all clear to me how Islam can find the theological and political resources to accept the distinction between religion and politics without which the West simply collapses into a theocracy or into a covert form of confessional atheism." (In many ways the same challenge faced the early Christians in the New World. They came seeking to establish a theocracy, though by the time the U.S. Constitution was written they had recognized that religious liberty required protection of all religions.)

Abraham offers good insight into the term "War on Terror" vs the term "Cold War," and suggests that "there cannot literally be a war on terror, for terror is simply one tactic in a network of tactics deployed to gain political ends."

And his section on forgiveness is well worth a read. In fact, I may draw on that when a colleague and I offer adult classes on forgiveness once a week for four weeks at our church, Second Presbyterian, beginning Oct. 2. E-mail me if you would like to attend.

I didn't agree with everything Abraham wrote, but in this small volume (180 pages) he offers plenty in the way of fresh insights to ponder.

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HAS GOD GONE SOFT ON US?

New figures show deaths by lightning have fallen significantly in the last four or five decades. And that has led the author of this piece to suggest that God is smiting fewer people. I'm not sure I'd write that -- for fear of getting hit by lightning.

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