President Obama fanned the flames of controversy when, at breakfast with Muslim leaders, he remarked that Christianity had a history of injustice that should be cautionary when characterizing movements such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The specific examples he cited were the Crusades, the Inquisition and slavery in America.
How does each of these examples relate to the effort to create an Islamic State in the Middle East?
The Crusades were a complex political effort. The laws of inheritance in Europe meant that all the younger sons of the nobility were unlanded, and thus unable to provide for a noble wife. As a result, Europe was embroiled in internecine strife, to a degree that the Papacy at one point threatened to excommunicate the nobility if the bloodshed did not cease.
In this context, the Emperor of Constantinople, in whom leadership of both Church and State were gathered, was facing Muslim aggression. Again, the politics was complex: the Emperor was a tyrant, and faced internal dissent both from Christian “heretics” and Jews. The Emperor pled to the Rome for assistance, and Urban, seeing the possibility of reuniting the two halves of Christendom, agreed. Of course, this was also an outlet for the unlanded nobility to attain honors and wealth.
The first of the Crusades was a successful military effort, but revealed its misconceived origins. The Jews fought against the Crusaders, which led to pogroms against the “elder brothers” that Europe had accepted as representatives of their nation. The castles gained were impossible to support logistically from Europe, and ruled by the most aggressive of the European knights, men who insisted on attacking passing Muslim caravans. When the Caliph refused, on Islamic grounds, to retaliate except when the raiders were attacking, he was overthrown by Saladdin, a military slave, who began a concerted effort to conquer all of Christendom.
Back in Europe, the organizational strength of the Catholic Church led to a fascination with Christian ceremony and piety among the nobility. This reached its peak in France, where King Philip decided to mount a crusade as a proof of piety. The logistics were poorly conceived, and the mission ended in disaster. The last of the Crusades, in complete contradiction of Urban’s original intent, ended with the sack of Constantinople itself.
So the lesson I see here is: don’t mix religion and politics.
The Inquisition is often spoken of as a single movement, but study reveals that the character of an “inquisition” depended upon the political context.
The worst excesses of inquisition occurred when political leaders began to challenge the organizational power of the Church. Again, this was a complex problem: the Church had benefited from the instability of the European nobility, and so had acquired huge amounts of land and wealth. They used religious authority to protect those lands. As the nobility began to establish independent systems of law and institutions of learning, the more aggressive among them focused on the practical opportunity of the weak Church military. The hypocrisy of many religious leaders also led them to question the authenticity of their claim to the lands held for Christ.
The most horrific inquisitions occurred in Spain and France. Following the Muslim invasion, the crown of Spain holed up in the Pyrenees. When the Islamic world rejected scientific thinking, advances in military technology eventually gave the king the upper hand in the struggle. Sweeping out of the mountains with the fire of religious purity, the king set out to purge Spanish civilization of Muslim collaborators. As in the Middle East, this included many Jewish nobles, who had benefited by Muslim occupation. The king forced them to Christianize their names and convert. Those that did not were stripped of their titles.
The mechanisms of this inquisition were horrific, and that was recognized by the Pope. A papal decree was issued warning the king to cease the program. The king responded with a threat to reform the church in Spain with himself as its head. Rome, for reasons among which should be considered to provide relief to those under indictment, choose to retract its decree and remain active in Spain. The king pushed his advantage by posting Borgia to Rome. The methods used by Borgia to obtain the papacy reflect more the guidance of Machiavelli than Christ.
The prior situation in France was similarly complicated. The French king was in a struggle against the independent southern nobility. The region was also distinguished by its Catharism, a schismatic sect that upheld feminine spirituality and the renunciation of worldly concerns. Rome was an active collaborator in the purge of the region, but was goaded by the murder of its legate by a rebellious noble, Raymond of Toulouse. I do remark that about this time the king invaded Rome and transferred the papacy to Avignon. Obviously, the balance of power in Europe was shifting. Most Cathars chose to convert to Catholicism: those that did not were hanged or burned at the stake.
The French and Spanish Inquisitions bracketed the Medieval Inquisition. Again, this was a complicated situation. Prosecution of heresy was performed under civil as well as Church law, and Rome often found that the proceedings were manipulated to benefit the civil authorities. In an attempt to prevent executions and to ensure that heretics received correct Christian teaching, the papacy attempted to take control of prosecution of heresy. Some assert that the mission saved thousands of lives.
So the lesson I see here is: don’t mix politics and religion.
Slavery in America
Obama made the claim that Christianity was used to “justify” slavery. While not having studied the matter deeply, I have never heard anyone claim that the slave masters looked into the Bible and found a command to subjugate the peoples of Africa to slavery. Yes, slavery was mentioned as a common practice in the Bible, but it also came with injunctions against mistreatment. Sympathy and counsel to the slave is given in a charming fashion in the story of Naaman [2 Kings 5], whose humble servants convinced their violence-prone master to accept the guidance of Elisha, and thus to receive healing.
This sense of slaves as part of the owner’s family is contradicted by the zeal and determination shown by God in freeing his people from Egypt. Though jilted by Joseph and his family, who became prominent political figures in Pharaoh’s circle, God heeds the cries of the Israelites under the foreman’s lash. Obviously, God acted in a way consistent with justice.
My sense, then, is that the Bible was used to rationalize the corrupt system of slavery in the American South by those that profited by it. They were eventually beaten down, just as Pharaoh was beaten down. Of course, racism is still strong among all the survivors of that system, but Obama did not mention racism – he spoke of slavery.
So the lesson that I see here is: don’t mix economics and religion.
The Lessons of Christ
The Republican Party likes to draw upon the authority of religion in its legislative program. This has led to some interesting policy contradictions in a party committed both the Christian action and laissez-faire economics. Indiana recently passed a law allowing the state to contract with organizations that require adherence from their employees. You would think that they would prefer those institutions to demonstrate the alignment of those precepts by succeeding against all comers in the open market, and so to be uninterested in government contracts.
To the discerning reader, the Bible gives clear testimony regarding the effects of the mixing of politics and religion. Samuel counsels against the anointing of a king, but relents in a “law of natural consequences” demonstration. While the wisdom and grace of God had guided the nation through trouble unscathed, with the creation of a monarchy, the nation was riven by internecine strife, forsook its covenant, and was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians.
With the return to Canaan, the process is repeated. Jesus finally comes along to counsel “render unto Caesar” and to demolish the authority of the law that had been perverted to make wealth a substitute for actual piety. Dashing the hopes of his Apostles, he renounces an earthly kingdom and submits to destruction at the hands of the authorities of his day. His resurrection was proof that the paternity of God promises greatness that no king can equal.
Christians should understand political systems as a temporary mechanism used to protect against exploitation. Such claims always have an aura of subjectivity: the rich man confident of his contributions to the general well-being may consider taxation to be a form of “exploitation.” Conflicting claims can only be resolved face-to-face, as happened to John McNamara in India. However, when the era of Christ’s reign occurs, the openness of Christ’s heart will make resolution of these claims immediate and obvious to those involved. That era will manifest only when we stop heeding the political philosophies of men, and trust the “still, quiet voice” that talks directly into our hearts.
So the lesson of Christ is that in the face of personal weakness, attempting to legislate justice is a fool’s errand. The Christian path is to expose corruption, and then to heal the victims, thereby disempowering those that use fear to exploit the weak.
So the lesson of Christ is: don’t mix politics and religion.
The Lessons of Islam
Following the death of Mohammed (pbuh), the Islamic Ummah went through a period of upheaval as it assumed the responsibilities of state management. Corruption was rampant. The Eleven Followers of Mohammed (pbuh) tried to restore the integrity of the Ummah, but were systematically destroyed. This is the essence of the Shia-Sunni split, with the Shias coming out on the losing end of the argument. It was the Sunni Muslims in Baghdad that mounted the era of Muslim conquest, although ultimately Islam proved to be a fig-leaf for a sequence of conquerors of diverse nationalities, including Ughurs and Turks.
In the service of celebrating the martial accomplishments of the conquerors, the state-supported Imams glorified and justified their atrocities (as can also be seen in the Bible, with the Babylonian Chronicles a re-write of the disparaging Kings). These nationalist paeans are now held by some as a higher authority than the Qur’an itself, in which Mohammed (pbuh) inveighs against violence unless under immediate attack.
In the modern era, we can see the disastrous consequences of mixing politics and religion in the extremism generated by Saudi Wahabbism and militancy throughout the world when Islamic practices are enforced by the state (as by the Taliban in Afghanistan).
So the lesson of Islam is: don’t mix politics and religion.
Wisdom from the Bully Pulpit?
I obviously find Obama’s comments to lack nuance. Religious history shows that religious states always yield to corruption. Worse, ISIS doesn’t appear to have ever been a manifestation of Mohammed’s (pbuh) moral principles. However, I would agree that nations that profess to be Christian have also failed to practice the moral principles of Christ.
As a moral imperative, I’d like the President to exhort Islamic leaders to renounce state-enforced religion. And I’d like him to remind Christians that legislation of morality has an ugly history in the Bible, not excluding the crucifixion of the man we hold as our Savior.
God granted us free will. In the exercise of that will, we will make mistakes, hurting ourselves and others. This is the path of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that we choose in Eden. The greatness of our God comes in patient forgiveness and healing.
For Christians hoping for the reign of Christ, this is not an idle matter. Jesus died for our sins, but his compassion does not stop there. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in our eternal souls. When Jesus returns, it will be for the healing. So long as we continue to attempt to prevent sin through the coercive power of the state, his power can only be manifested against the institutions of the state.
Yes, competent administration of the state is essential, but should not be linked to manifestation of his ultimate aims, for his spirit will unite all peoples, and wash away fear with healing. Provide private support for your church and its charitable efforts among the less fortunate, and let the spread of the Holy Spirit make the state irrelevant.