Goodness. A few weeks ago, it was Stephen Fry. Last week it was President Obama. Everyone seems to be beating up on Christianity these days.
Of course, that’s not quite true. Neither man was attacking anyone’s faith, despite what the clickbaity headlines would have us think.
In addition to having a cooler accent and more colorful taste in neckties, Fry is an atheist. He pulled no punches as he denounced a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” he doesn’t believe exists. Obama, on the other hand, is a Christian. In his remarks at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, he took pains to distinguish between distortions of faith and the real thing:
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity—but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs… So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
Both men’s statements were met with protestations of innocence. Who is this God you denounce, Stephen? some Christians wondered aloud—despite the fact that many imagine God pretty much exactly as Fry described. Obama’s remarks were greeted with a similar defense: Slavery and the Inquisition? They were distortions of true Christianity, Obama! (Which was sort of his whole point to begin with.)
It should be noted the president could’ve pressed his case further. He could have mentioned Rwanda, where the church was complicit in one of the worst acts of genocide since the Holocaust. He could have mentioned Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. He could have brought up the colonization of Africa, which was steeped in an imperialistic, racist brand of Christendom.
Obama’s goal was not to pick on Christianity but to point out how “religious faiths of all types” are vulnerable to distortion—particularly when they’re used to justify violence or discrimination against those who differ from us in some way.
A rather less gray Obama at the 2009 Prayer Breakfast (credit: whitehouse.gov)
Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on those who can’t pass up the chance to be seen being outraged on TV. A former Virginia governor called Obama’s remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.” Catholic League president Bill Donohue undertook to rewrite history, claiming—and you’ve got to admire his ambition here—that the Crusades were all justified and the Inquisition was something the Church was barely involved in.
Ravi Zacharias, a widely respected Christian apologist, called Obama’s remarks a “presidential blunder” representing an “absence of wisdom” the likes of which he’s never before seen. “The president obviously does not understand the primary sources of [Christianity or Islam] to make such a tendentious parallel,” he concluded. (My friend Nathan Smith has a thoughtful take on Zacharias’ response.)
So how about those primary sources then? Tell you what, let’s make a game of it. Read the quotes below and see if you can guess which come from the Bible and which are from the Quran. (Note: For the sake of the exercise, I’ve generalized references to God and/or specific people where necessary.)
1. We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.
2. When we resolve to raze a city, we first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgment is irrevocably passed, and we destroy it utterly.
3. So he made a vow to God, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” God listened to his voice.
4. When God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.
5. Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.
6. You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.
7. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.
8. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and he will say, “Destroy!”
9. He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.
10. Do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
11. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you.
12. True believers fight for the cause of God.
13. This charge I commit to you, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.
14. Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God.
Yes, context matters when reading the Bible’s more violent passages. Various Christian traditions have different ways of handling these passages, but the vast majority agree on at least one point: we cannot use these texts to justify acts of violence today. Christians can account for the presence of these statements in our Bible without believing they’re somehow normative for us.
And that’s the point.
Muslims can make the same argument about their “problem texts,” if they like. I don’t get to decide what someone else’s holy book teaches—especially if, like most Christians, I’ve read even less of the Quran than I’ve read of the Bible. I don’t get to decide what the Quran says based on what a handful of extremists do with it—any more so than others get to decide what the Bible teaches based on how the KKK has abused it.
None of which is to fall back onto some kind of squishy religious relativism. I believe the Bible. It’s my holy book. Rather, this is about simple human respect. Or, as the president put it, “basic humility.” Yes, we should push back when others try to distort our faith. But we should be also avoid the temptation to disparage or misrepresent someone else’s faith.
Who knows? If we showed a little more respect for each other, it might be the start of a more peaceful world.
1. Bible (Deuteronomy 2:34)
2. Quran (17:16)
3. Bible (Numbers 21:2-3)
4. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:2)
5. Quran (9:5)
6. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:16)
7. Quran (2:190)
8. Bible (Deuteronomy 33:27)
9. Bible (Joshua 10:40)
10. Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
11. Quran (2:191)
12. Quran (4:76)
13. Bible (1 Timothy 1:18)
14. Quran (4:74)
By the way, if you’re into this sort of thing more than, say, a BuzzFeed quiz on which animal from Lord of the Rings you are, check out this post comparing things complementarian Christians have said to excerpts from ISIS’ manifesto on women.
What struck you about these quotes from the Bible and the Quran? How did they seem similar to you? How did they seem different?