Religion in the Age of Religious Terrorism
“Religious terrorists are motivated by blind conviction based on a religious code. As a Christian, I am motivated by blind conviction based on a religious code.
Therefore, I am a terrorist.”
Logical fallacies aside, there is something bothersome about that thought, that Christianity and religious terrorism share a basic premise. After all, Christ calls us to follow him blindly, without second thoughts or doubts. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus even commands us to ignore our parents’ burial–a violation of the Ten Commandments! (Luke 9: 59-62 NIV)
Now, clearly a line is drawn somewhere between going to church and acts of terrorism, but is there a fundamental difference? If so, is the difference unique to Christianity? And how does one keep oneself in check and prevent a descent to religious fanaticism? After all, countless atrocities–the Inquisition comes to mind– have been committed in the name of Christianity.
More often than not, religious fanaticism is based on a small minority misinterpreting a religious text and projecting their own interpretations or expectations over the “objective” or commonly accepted understanding. Intra-Islamic violence is not exactly a pillar of Islam; however, the vast majority of Islamic terror is in Muslim countries, often Sunni-on- Shiite, or vice versa. Furthermore, according to a recent Pew study, a vast majority of Muslims disapprove of or are concerned about Islamic terrorist groups. Finally, Islam hardly has a monopoly of violent terrorism: groups such as the Army of God, Kahane Chai and Bodu Bala Sena have justified their actions respectively by Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism; not to mention groups such as the KKK.
Thus, terrorism and fanaticism tends to evolve on the fringes of religion, far from “mainstream” understanding. So fanaticism is easily avoided: maintain a conventional system of beliefs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work. Christians are called to be outsiders; after all, “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt 7:14). If we must exist on the fringe of society, outside of the mainstream, what keeps us from fanaticism? Suppose then that objective study of religious texts prevents fanaticism. If terrorists’ misguided views are based on misunderstanding then an in-depth study of the text they follow should correct their path. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case. Deep objective study of religious texts is simply not enough to prevent fringe groups. On the contrary, it can enable them–after all, Taliban is Arabic for “students”, and although, this is hardly the place for an in-depth interpretation of Qu’ranic justification of terror it is clear study of the Qu’ran did not stop the Taliban.
Instead, let us turn to the foundation of our faith– Christ. Religious terror as we know it was not a staple two thousand years ago, but its basis–religious zeal and an obsession over religious text–most certainly was. Furthermore, Christ had rather a lot to say about zealots, which allows the direct application of Biblical text to something as seemingly unrelated as terrorism.
Christ’s comments are on the Pharisees–the teachers of the law, men whose entire lives revolved around the study of the Torah. One would expect that Christ would approve of such behavior–focus on the law and on God’s will; however, we find the complete opposite. Jesus despised the Pharisees. In Matthew 23, Jesus presents a comprehensive list of their failures. He describes the “teachers of the law” as hypocrites overly focused on outward appearances without taking into account the spirit of the law:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices [to God] … But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)
Thus we find that there are key Pharisaical failures that are almost always found in extremists–hypocrisy, an obsession with literal interpretation of the law, and the leading of others astray. Terrorists and fanatics are always hypocritical, focusing on a particular aspect of the law to the detriment of many others, or using a particular element of the law to advance their own interests. Taliban insiders describe a culture of opportunism and corruption as well as sexual immorality. We find the same blatant hypocrisy in the Islamic State, as we would probably do in any other similar structure. As such, it is perfectly reasonable to say that Christ’s teaching is incredibly explicit about fanatics. Christ has no time for Pharisaical hypocrisy, and this applies perfectly to terrorist groups. To a degree this answers my question–Christ’s teachings fundamentally differ from the foundations of fanaticism and terrorism.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at our core as Christians we are not following a static code. Christ calls us to follow him as the fulfillment of the law. If one believes in a resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit living in us, one is no longer blindly following a religious code, but understands the exact opposite–that the law is not the be-all and end-all; rather, it is fulfilled by Christ and made complete (Matthew 5:17). Then, Christ’s violations of the law– miracles on the Sabbath, not fasting–make sense and we begin to understand that we are not following a static code at all, we are not blindly convicted in a religion; rather, we are followers of the living Christ (Matt 12:13, Mark 2:19). We are not blindly following a static code or obsessing over a ruleset, but have come to understand the basis of the ruleset, the fulfillment of the law–Christ Jesus. This is the fundamental difference I was looking for–the difference between following the law and following the fulfillment of the law.
Thomas Hale is a freshman concentrating in engineering or computer science.
history, Inquisition, Islam, law, legalism, Muslim, terrorism, violence