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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