Following the atrocities in London and Manchester in recent weeks, many commentators have been quick to say ‘This violence has nothing to do with Islam.’ When that is claimed by a leader within the Muslim community, then it appears to mean something particular: ‘This violence is nothing to do with Islamic beliefs as I understand and teach them’. But when claimed by a ‘neutral’ commentator, it seems naive and implausible. How can someone wielding a knife and crying out ‘This is for Allah!’ have ‘nothing’ to do with Islam?
Perhaps the most important comment on this question came last week from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby when he was interviewed on Today on Radio 4. It is a long interview, of just under 10 minutes, and worth listening to in full. The Archbishop quickly sweeps away the nonsensical idea that religiously motivated violence has no connection with the religious traditions in which that violence is embedded, but he is also quite careful to note that, historically, there are few religious traditions which have never been touched by this. What is crucial in making sense of such violence is not just political and social but religious understanding.
There is a theology… and we need to counter that within our own tradition, and to stand up and say why it’s not acceptable… I think one of the problems in this country is a very high level of lack of religious literacy by those who have to take responsibility for countering these things… They often don’t understand the very basic doctrines of the faith they’re dealing with… They’re often people who are unable to put themselves in the shoes of religious believers and understand a way of looking at the world that says that this defines your whole life, every single aspect of who you are and what you are.
We have to say that if something is happening within our own faith tradition we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.
As the introduction to the interview makes clear, Welby is here reiterating something that he has said before, specifically in an address on a future vision for Europe, delivered in November 2016 at the Catholic Institute of Paris.
It is a legitimate to therefore ask: how can we expect to respond effectively to religiously-motivated violence across our continent if we don’t have the ability to understand it?…It’s very difficult to understand the things that impel people to some of the dreadful actions that we have seen over the last few years unless you have some sense of religious literacy. You may reject and condemn it – that’s fine – but you still need to understand what they’re talking about.
And in order to understand, religious people in Europe must regain the ability to share our religious vocabulary with the rest of the continent. If we treat religiously-motivated violence solely as a security issue, or a political issue, then it will be incredibly difficult – probably impossible – to overcome it. A theological voice needs to be part of the response, and we should not be bashful in offering that.
This requires a move away from the argument that has become increasingly popular, which is to say that ISIS is ‘nothing to do with Islam’, or that Christian militia in the Central African Republic are nothing to do with Christianity, or Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in South India is nothing to do with Hinduism. Until religious leaders stand up and take responsibility for the actions of those who do things in the name of their religion, we will see no resolution.
For the ‘religions of the book’, Christianity and Islam, these then must involve looking at the both the foundational texts of each religious tradition, and (as Colin Chapman highlights) the ways that those texts have been used. Gavin Ashenden offers a summary of both some key texts from the Quran and the way they are currently interpreted on Adrian Hilton’s blog, and it doesn’t make for easy reading.
Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those (who say this) are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! Does this mean that Muslims should sit back until they are devoured by (the unbelievers)? Islam says: Kill them (the non-Muslims), put them to the sword and scatter (their armies). (Ayatolla Khomeini)
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them (Quran Surah 8:12).
But, as Justin Welby is clear, the challenge is also for Christians to explore and explain violent texts within their own scriptures, and look at the way that these have been used to justify violent action. As Richard Dawkins has always been quick to point out, there are violent texts aplenty in the Old Testament, and the difficulty for Christians and Jews is the way that such violence is depicted as being sanctioned by God. But a Christian reading of its Scriptures must always be done through the person of Jesus, not simply as a theological move, but as a textual one, since the Christian scriptures add the gospels and letters of the New Testament to the Old, and insist that the two sections must be read together, because the New claims that its testimony to Jesus is the only way to make sense of the Old.
The most challenging New Testament text to deal with in relation to violence is the Book of Revelation. It has been sobering for me to have been immersed in this, and to read about the four horsemen of Rev 6 bringing conquest and famine and the violence of conflict to the world whilst also reading the headlines of violent atrocities on the streets of Britain. To make sense of Revelation, we need to do at least three things: understand the OT texts it makes use of; understand the way it makes use of these; and understand the theological focus of the book as a whole.
The most important OT text that Revelation uses is the Book of Daniel. Daniel’s own place in the canon is fascinating; it is a second century BC text looking back to the stories of the crisis of loyalty presented by the exile in Babylon to make sense of its own crisis precipitated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV and his desecration of the temple. The text appears to be saying ‘You might have returned geographically from exile, but you have not returned spiritually from exile until the promised kingdom of God comes to the one like a Son of Man’, which is of course what makes this such an important text for Jesus in the gospels. But the most important thing in relation to violence is Daniel’s place in the canon. There was an alternative response to the Antiochene crisis, that of Judas Maccabeus (‘Judas the Sledgehammer’) who led a military response. The Books of Maccabees which describe this have not found their way into the Protestant canon, and are not taken up by Revelation, whereas the ‘quietist’ approach of Daniel has. Daniel, in contrast to many later Jewish apocalypses, but in line with other OT apocalypses and Revelation, set out their visions to assure readers that God will take action and so they do not need to—expect to wait in trust and faithfulness for God to fulfil his purposes. This approach is made explicit in Jesus’ consistent, notable and repeated rejection of violence in the cause of the kingdom of God.
The detail of Revelation’s text also confirms this approach. A fascinating example is the depiction of the people of God as exercising the ministry of Moses and Elijah in chapter 11.
If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. (Rev 11.5)
The harm that is done to them appears to be real, at least if the language of martyrdom elsewhere is anything to go by. But the ‘fire that comes from their mouths’ is an image drawn from OT descriptions of the prophets. Jeremiah is told that ‘I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes’ (Jer 5.14), and Elijah (who is alluded to in the next verse) is described as a ‘prophet like fire’ whose ‘word burned like a torch’ in the second century BC Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach 48.1). Fire as a metaphor for powerful speech forms a parallel to Jesus, who conquers by the sword of his mouth as a metaphor for his true speech (1.16, 2.16, 19.15, 21) and as a contrast to the spirit-frogs that come from the mouth of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet, symbolizing their deceptive speech (16.13). This is a war of words between the Jesus’ adversaries and his followers, but a non-violent one for the latter; those who harm them will not be harmed in return, but convicted by their prophetic speech, just as Jesus will slay the kings of the earth with his speech in 19.21—though they later enter the New Jerusalem in 21.24. At the end of this section, the two witnesses experience death and defeat, followed by resurrection, just as Jesus ‘the lamb who was slain’, also does. The idea of a suffering saviour continues to be central, an idea that makes little sense to Islam.
One of the puzzles in the text, about which commentators disagree, is the ‘three woes’ introduced in 8.13. The puzzle is that the first two are enumerated, but the third isn’t—but we come across the word again in the central chapter of the book at 12.12. Although it is not numbered by John, this is the next proclamation of woe following the two which corresponded to the fifth and sixth trumpets (in 9.12 and 11.14). The declaration that ‘the third woe is coming soon’ (11.14) is followed immediately by this narrative and this warning of woe, which suggests that John understands the present era, between Jesus’ exaltation and his return, as the third ‘woe’. The first two woes constitute the threats from the north and the east to the empire itself, and any other kind of threat to human peace and well-being—but the third woe is the threat that the empire itself presents as an instrument of the dragon in the oppression of the people of God.
In becomes clear that the violent images in chapters 8 and 9 and not some future, divinely-inflicted gore-fest reflecting God’s salacious addiction to violence, but a description of the way the world actually is. The locust army of the fifth trumpet and the army from the Euphrates of the sixth trumpet in chapter 9 look very much like the military threats to the Empire from the North and East respectively, reimagined using OT imagery and the Greco-Roman mythology of the manticore and the chimera. And the destruction they bring is not something God wills, but which God will bring to an end when he ‘destroys the destroyers of the earth’ (11.18).
If Christian readers use these texts to justify violence or militarism—which continues to happen through the influence of dispensationalist readings of Revelation on American foreign policy—then careful readings of this text contradict this use. Revelation has at its theological centre the same Jesus we find in the gospels: one who does not repay violence with violence, or sanction the use of violence to further the purposes of God, but instead has violence meted out on him, and takes it into himself in order to bring peace to the world.
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22 thoughts on “Violence in Christianity and Islam”
Must admit I have never thought of analysing Revelation to inform my views on war and violence – I need to have a more careful look. Because of my reading of the gospel narratives I have come to the view that Jesus remarkably. if not uniquely, amongst the founders of religious movements calls on his would-be followers not to take up arms! This has not made me a pacifist because I believe I might be willing to take life to defend or protect the lives of others but not necessarily to save my own.
Selected quotes from Quran:
2:191 “Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them”
3:21 “Muslims must not take the infidels as friends”
5:33 “Maim and crucify the infidels, if they criticize Islam”
8:12 “Terrorize and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Quran”
8:60 ” Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorize the infidels”
8:65 “The unbelievers are stupid, urge all Muslims to fight them”
9:5 “When the opportunity arises, kill the infidels wherever you find them”
9:123 “Make war on the infidels living in your neighborhood”
22:19 “Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water,
melt their skin and bellies”
47:4 “Do not hanker for peace with the infidels, behead them when you catch them”
“In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are
so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages.”
(Cardinal Pell 2006)
“They’re often people who are unable to put themselves in the shoes of religious believers and understand a way of looking at the world that says that this defines your whole life, every single aspect of who you are and what you are.
We have to say that if something is happening within our own faith tradition we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.”
These are words which, I suspect, are too easily said and much less easily achieved. What, for example, is he doing to counter the anger/abuse emanating from Jesmond and Gafcon?
Ian, Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I enjoyed reading until at the end you implied that dispensationalism leads to militarism. The fact that SOME dispensationalists in the USA may also have militarist attitudes does not prove a causal connection. Some cabbages may be green but not everything green is a cabbage. Certainly the dispensationalist churches in which I grew up were far from that; in fact pacifism was very strong and my own father was a conscientious objector during WW2. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord”, was very much the position taken.
‘But a Christian reading of its Scriptures must always be done through the person of Jesus, not simply as a theological move, but as a textual one, since the Christian scriptures add the gospels and letters of the New Testament to the Old, and insist that the two sections must be read together, because the New claims that its testimony to Jesus is the only way to make sense of the Old’.
I repeat a post I made on the ‘old’ Fulcrum in 2011:
“Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
He (Jesus) answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13)
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24).
Did the LORD Almighty command the destruction of the Amalekites? In other words, is this part of the Bible true?
Jesus clearly believed that the Flood happened. Didn’t it involve the death of children, infants and animals? Do you agree that Jesus believed the Flood was the work of God?
The Matthew 13 passage links the Son of Man’s judgment with the sin of those who are judged. Surely it is the same with the Amalekites, the inhabitants of Jericho, the people destroyed by the Flood, whose sin grieved God at his heart, and those who will face God’s judgment at the Last Day?
We are back to the doctrines of the Trustworthiness of the Bible, the Fall, Original Sin and the Wrath of God. Speak up, Fulcrum Leadership Team!”
But nowhere does the New Testament command or encourage Christians to act violently towards non-Christians or towards those who are hostile towards Christians or to Christianity, but rather to pray for them. That is the difference. ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’.
I wasn’t aware that Revelation was a common recourse to defend Christian use of violence, though can see how it could be used in that way.
I believe that the main text cited in defence of persecution historically was Luke’s Parable of the Feast (‘Compel them to come in’). The main counter was Matthew’s Parable of the Tares (‘Let both grow together until the harvest’). (See https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/excursions/notes-persecution-toleration-history-christianity.) Augustine would also use the account of Saul’s conversion as an instance of Jesus using coercive means. These were to prevent the growth of ‘heretical’ sects, however. They weren’t to spread the faith.
For the wider proper use of violence, Romans 13 is surely the standard text: the governing authorities bear the sword to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Government (whether exercised by Christians or otherwise) may use force for the common good and to promote justice and good conduct.
There are also the principles of just war set out by Augustine, though these aren’t expressly in scripture.
It’s interesting that Welby cites the example of Christian militia in the Central African Republic. Are there many Christian militia and terrorist groups around at the moment? Why are they fighting, what is their history, and what is their theological justification? I ask because Islamic terrorism is now such a tragically and wearyingly familiar phenomenon that it seems strange to compare it to something so unusual as a Christian militia, suggesting a false parity.
There is a helpful list from which to branch out and explore the links here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_terrorism
“I wasn’t aware that Revelation was a common recourse to defend Christian use of violence, though can see how it could be used in that way.” It is, but it is uniquely(?) or at least primarily, a north American phenomenon associated strongly with rapture and dispensationalist theologies. Ian and I were commenting briefly on this under the Facebook link.
Generally speaking I agree with you.
“It is, but it is uniquely(?) or at least primarily, a north American phenomenon associated strongly with rapture and dispensationalist theologies.”
That’s not the impression I get from Johannes Brahms’s ‘Triumphlied” (Op. 55), setting (parts of) verses from chapter 19 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Indeed, if the Wikipedia articles are to be trusted, here, “Ursprünglich hatte der Bismarck-Verehrer Brahms sogar geplant, das Werk Kaiser und Kanzler gemeinsam zu widmen und den Untertitel „Auf den Sieg der deutschen Waffen“ vorgesehen” (in the German one, with, in the English one, ” Originally Brahms, who admired Otto von Bismarck, had intended to dedicate the work to both the emperor and the chancellor exalting the ‘victory of German arms’.”).
It is totally dishonest to lump A, B, C together as equivalents when the propensity to violence may be different by thousands of percent. Anyone can play the game of being selective; but honest people can’t do that in conscience.
And even then the propensity to violence often emerges only where territory and tribalism/nominalism is involved.
Jainism is violent? The first I heard. The same applies to the vast majority of Christianity.
About violence in the book of revelation?
“How to Read the Book of Revelation, by Ian Paul” puts it into a good perspective. On page 29 he wrote:
“ But a ‘contemporary historical’ reading (…) which sees Revelation 12 as a depiction of Jesus’ death, resurrection and victory over the spiritual forces that oppose God, …. It is a depiction of the world as it already is, and the cross shows God’s response of love and judgement to this world and is ultimately the means by which God’s perfect future will come about. The violence in the text is a reflection of the violence in the world.”
The violence in the text is I think of two types. In the first takes the form of persecution directed against the Church or those who hold to the testimony of Jesus. In the second type, the violence of God’s judgment is directed the powers of oppression and evil in the world. In Revelation, as in the world, there is a lot of concomitant damage with the innocent suffering along with the wicked.
In the real-politiek perspective of Revelation, our lives on earth are not important, but the saint’s faithfulness to Christ is an act that resonates in eternity.
The sort of enduring response required of Christians in their churches is described in chapters 2 and 3.
The use of terror by the evil forces of oppression is described in chapter 13. It describes how each manifestation of the powers of oppression is given magnetic appeal and irresistible power for a limited time, power to conquer the saints. All will worship the Beast except those who belong to Christ. But if anyone is to be slain with the sword, God will have the final word on violence.
[ESVS] Gen. 9:6 ¶ “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
The passage 13:1-11 ends with the exhortation, repeated in 14:12,
“Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”
One consideration which appears to be frequently overlooked by commentators is the simple fact that Jesus neither practiced nor condoned violence, whereas Mohammed both practiced it and taught it, especially in his later years.
Any Christian group which embraces violence does so in direct contradiction of its founder. An Islamic group which embraces violence is acting in congruence with its founder.
Agreed – with this qualification to avoid misunderstanding, knowing the increasing rejection in the Church of the truth of the wrath of God: the terrible pictures of the Day of Judgment are expressed in violent terms which should be given their full weight as the judgment/punishment of God and Christ on sinners. But the command to Christians is: ‘If possible, as far as it rests with you, with all men seeking peace; not avenging yourselves beloved but give place to wrath; for it has been written, To me vengeance (=Vengeance is mine), I will repay, says the Lord’.
You need to qualify that citation from Romans 12 further with Romans 13: Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
There is a temporal aspect to God’s (violent) judgement exercised by governing authorities, and that authority can be exercised by Christians, and is justified under Christian theology. This is why Christianity is not pacifist.
You’re use of Roman’s 13 as a general temporal invocation of governmental authorities doesn’t do justice to the text. Paul was not writing to Christians in every age and urging obedience to authorities – his was a local text (to the house churches of Rome) during a specific time when the Jewish Christians had been kicked out of Rome and had just been allowed to return – this was an urging for the local Christian community to make nice with each other and to not bring the pain of government intervention down upon their heads once again! It is also interesting to understand Roman’s 13 as being what Paul wanted the authorities (who required Emperor Cult obedience) to think he was saying whilst he was actually urging the Roman Christians to do entirely the opposite – Roman’s 1 is the key here –
Ibadi Muslims, originating from Oman, are the third orthodox school of Islam, alongside the more numerous Sunni and Shia Muslims. For Ibadis, the more violent texts in the Qur’an refer to when the small community of Muslims was being persecuted by the polytheistic Quraish, and should not be pulled out of their historical context, and do not contradict the other Quranic passages that insist on peaceful coexistence between the diverse nations and peoples God has created.
Please pray Abraham’s prayer to God, especially for Ibadis: ‘O that Ishmael might live before thee (Genesis 17:18) Just maybe, they can be persuaded that the Quran does not deny the cross.
I think I can see two potential difficulties with your argument:
(1) Following on from Paul Sokes valid point above, Muhammad himself acted in increasingly barbaric and violent ways towards the end of his life and not just when he was part of the small community of muslims being persecuted by the Quraish. It is therefore implausible that Muhammad’s violent instructions in the Qur’an were intended to be limited to that obsolete historical context.
(2) It could be argued that muslims living in the West today constitute a minority who are being persecuted (vicariously in the form of the West’s interference in Libya, Syria, Iraq, etc. and anti-muslim discrimination in western society) and that therefore the terror attacks at the Manchester pop concert and London Bridge were warranted according to the Qur’an.
I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about this please.
Violence and Islam: “Perhaps the most important comment on this question came …from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby”
The most important comment? Really? Has he anything useful to say on this?
It is a pity that religions’ office holders and functionaries so often vie with each other for the moral high-ground by pointing out another’s failings. It is all too easy to point the finger at Islam and its offending texts. But the finger can be pointed at Christianity too: it has a history full of violence, exploitation and greed. From its early days, and for centuries after, those who counted themselves as Christians murdered, persecuted and enslaved thousands of those of different faiths, as well as those who happened to have a different Christian beliefs. Christians, and some of its most revered leaders, have justified these horrors by reference to the Old Testament, and to a lesser extent the New.
In the light of this, Welby’s entreaty that “religious leaders stand up and take responsibility for the actions of those who do things in the name of religion” looks a little lame, and like many other roads paved with good intentions. Has the Church of England itself ever really stood up and taken responsibility for its actions? Where for example were the religious leaders when the Church of England owned plantations and exploited and maltreated thousands of slaves? What were they doing – apart from denying it – when sex abuse was rampant in the church? And more recently, what were they doing ever having shares in Wonga? Yes, they are part of the Establishment, but from what moral high-ground have they earned the right to speak? And when did they earn the right to pontificate about what should be done in relation to Islam and violence? Justin Welby’s supposedly wise counsel has little to offer apart from asking, and not being able to answer, the questions we all ask.
Too often the Church is talking to itself and ‘virtue signalling’. Too much time is spent pointing out what should or ought to be the case, whilst forgetting their own innumerable failings. And whilst doing so, the fundamentals of the faith are handily forgotten, eg John 8:7, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” or Jesus’s “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”.
Ian Paul’s PhD explanations of what is ‘really meant’ in Revelations doesn’t help much either: it may be interesting to academics and fellow travellers to know that this NT book is really eschewing violence, but most of the population, and many Christians, will never read it, and if they did, would think it alarming, or incomprehensible.
Perhaps a more reliable guide than Justin Welby, in terms of how to conduct ourselves, is Albert Schweitzer, who ‘finally encountered in Jesus the end of theology and the beginning of practical action’. Better to live by example and take on board the radical call in Jesus’s message, including its essential pacifism and humility, rather than pontificating about what other people should do, or talking too much about what other faiths mean or say. It would be great to see less verbiage, remembering the words (sometimes) attributed to St Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”.
Sorry Steve B, but that simply isn’t true.
Today far too many people make the mistake of pretending Israel couldn’t have an army and every “violent statement” from God applies to the individual. It does not. Jesus Christ was not violent at all to anyone, thereby showing us that Christians should not be violent.
Even in the O.T. “Thou shalt not kill” is a commandment with no ifs or buts about it.
Yet nowhere in the Bible does it say that a state cannot have an army. Nor does it say armys are always perfect.
The irony of this, and it is deep, deep irony, is that the UK has one of the largest armies in the world. Yet it is British people writing as if Israel wasn’t allowed an army when Britain is!!!!.
Thanks Phil for the invitation.
1). I think it is the case, that most Muslims accept that while their prophet Jesus was sinless, they make no such claim for Muhammad. They would object if I said the violent instructions in the Qur’an were his. Christians of course have the problem of explaining violent instructions from God in the Old Testament. We can argue from abrogation (over centuries), while Muslims can’t (within Muhammad’s lifetime).
2) Yes, if argued by Muslims who say the violent instructions in the Qur’an are for all time. Most of course are uncomfortable with that, whether in London, or the Middle/Far East, only ‘Muslim extremists’ (not that I like that phrase). The fact is, all Ibadis argue against that when they say the Qur’an’s violent instructions were only for Islam’s first century.
‘Christians of course have the problem of explaining violent instructions from God in the Old Testament’.
See my post on June 12 re this. Did God say these things or not? Did Jesus say these things or not?
Amen to your post!
Glad you agree!