Name that quote: the Bible vs. the Quran

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.

Barack_Obama_National_Prayer_Breakfast_20090205

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.

—//—

Answers:

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?

How Islam is no more a “religion of violence” than is my faith

Muslims for peace

Sometimes a single Facebook post can restore your faith in humanity just a little bit.

Like when a friend who’s a Boston-area church leader shared that she was engaging in a dialogue with her Muslim counterparts, reflecting together on the Boston bombings and the days ahead.

What a concept.

Talking WITH people of the Islamic faith instead of just talking ABOUT them or, worse, listening to Bill O’Reilly talk about them.

On his show, O’Reilly complains that too many Muslims are “silent” about violence perpetrated in the name of their religion. Yet as my friend pointed out after actually spending time with Muslim leaders, they have condemned these acts repeatedly. They see them — and denounce them — as heretical distortions of their faith.

But they feel like their voice gets ignored by a 24-hour news cycle which prefers a simpler narrative.

O’Reilly says he can’t hear any Muslim voices denouncing violence. Maybe if he stopped pontificating for two minutes and tried listening…

The truth is, we all see and hear what we want to. And we’re all blind to that which we just don’t want to see.

“Islam is a religion of violence.”

That’s the prevailing notion among many Christians, most of whom don’t know a single Muslim person.

Perhaps these Christians heard a fragment of the Quran that sounds like it’s promoting violence. Usually quoted without any context.

Sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes it’s just what we think the Quran says — because, let’s be honest: most of us (myself included) couldn’t quote a single word of Islam’s holy book if we had to.

Sure. Islam has its “problem texts.”

But I’m a Christian, and that means I’ve got my share of problem texts to deal with too.

Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns. (Numbers 21:2-3)

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” [Moses] asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys [Heb. taf, or “little children”]. (Numbers 31:15-18)

At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women and children. We left no survivors… the Lord our God gave us all of them. (Deuteronomy 2:34-36)

You must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. (Deuteronomy 13:15)

In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

The church has various ways of dealing with these and other violent texts in the Bible. Some Christians suggest they’re no longer applicable because they’re Old Testament, as if genocide was all well and good for Israel but not so much for us today.

Some traditions read these texts allegorically. Others question their historicity, noting that archaeologists have unearthed scant evidence for any wholesale extermination of Canaan’s indigenous population during the second millennium BC.

Still others have pointed out similarities between the Old Testament’s violent imagery and that of other ancient Near Eastern religions, suggesting the Israelites borrowed some less-than-ideal notions about God and violence from their neighbors.

And some of us would note that whatever path you take to get there, eventually you end up with Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount puts a categorical stop to the whole “death to our enemies” business.

So yes, we have ways of dealing with our problem texts. But they’re still in the Bible. They’re still etched into parchment, there for anyone to read. Seemingly legitimizing violence, warfare, genocide.

The thing is, if someone used these texts to typecast Christianity as a religion of violence (as some indeed have), I wouldn’t be too happy about it. I’d probably say they were proof-texting my holy book. That they hadn’t considered the full scope of Christian thought and the various options for interpreting these problem texts.

I would probably suggest that as outsiders who are evidently hostile to Christianity, they probably aren’t the best ones to judge whether Christianity is, in fact, a religion of violence.

So why do we think it’s OK for us to read a handful of verses from the Quran and conclude that Islam is a religion of violence?

I don’t want someone demonizing my faith on the basis of a few “problem texts.” So maybe I should treat people of other faiths with the same courtesy. Maybe I should give my Muslim neighbors the same benefit of the doubt that I want them to give me.