by Ergun Mehmet Caner
Emir Fethi Caner,
192 pp.; $12.99
In a recent online commentary, I asked, "Is Islam a religion of peace?" After evaluating the violent history and teachings of Islam, as well as some encouraging recent developments, I answered (charitably, I thought), Not yet.
I didn't get any arguments about my conclusion, but I did get some pointed responses from Christians about an unspoken premise: that Christianity is a more pacific faith than is Islam. Pointing to violence perpetrated in the name of Christ down through the last two millennia, they asked whether Christianity is any better.
A new book, Christian Jihad (Kregel, 2004), by Ergun Mehmet Caner, of Liberty University, and Emir Fethi Caner, of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, examines this uncomfortable question. The authors bring an unusual perspective to the task. Two former Muslims who now follow Christ, the Caners have drawn international attention for their tough critiques of Islam in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Now, in a clear attempt at intellectual balance, they have exposed to the light what many Christians would no doubt prefer to be left in darkness: the propensity of professed followers of the Prince of Peace to advance and maintain the faith through brutality. In a day in which Islamic extremism terrorizes millions, the Caners have issued a call for Christian humility, knowing that we have traveled much the same violent path. The Muslims' impulse to holy war is doubly horrible for ushorrible because of the slaughter done in the name of God, and horrible because of the self-recognition it ought to produce.
"True authenticity demands that we denounce acts in history in which innocent non-believers were slaughtered for the sole crime of being a non-believer," they write in the introduction. "True authenticity demands that we confront and learn from dark chapters in the past."
The book scans the gamut of ecclesiastical history, from the days of the early church, when Christians were persecuted as dangerous sects or ignored as theological oddballs, through the merging of temporal and spiritual power that began with Constantine. The authors survey the gradual evolution of Christian involvement in war from pacifism (A.D. 30-300) to participation (150-325), from Augustine's Just War doctrine to Christian jihad in the Crusades, from Catholic inquisitions of "heretics" to persecutions of the Anabaptists endorsed by the Protestant Reformers.
Indeed, the saddest and most painful chapter in the book for evangelicals must be the one entitled "Magisterial Mayhem: When a State-run Church Leads to Blood in the Streets." When I was a new Christian, I sloughed off the usual diatribes against Christianity that used the Inquisition and the Crusades as clubs with which to batter the reputation of the faith. After all, I reasoned, these admittedly dark deeds were carried out by Roman Catholics, who did not have much of the Spirit; they had so encrusted the Bible with man-made interpretations that it is no wonder they descended into barbarity.
But what can we say of the barbarity of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, who cracked down mercilessly on the radical Anabaptists and other dissenters after risking their own lives for religious liberty? Remember, the Reformers were men who recovered the primacy of Spirit-inspired Scripture for the church, yet, disturbingly, their more pure faith did not inoculate them from the virus of Christian jihad.
For the Caners, the issue is not any inherently violent core in Christianity, but the inherently dangerous mixing of church and state, combined with the inherent violence residing in the human heart. They say whenever the state and the church get married, it is not an equal partnership. Instead, the state uses the church to enhance its own power before eventually discarding the church as just another whore.
One particularly intriguing part of Christian Jihad is the eerie juxtaposition of the rhetoric of Pope Urban II, who launched the First Crusade, with the 1998 "Call to Crusade" from Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden. Both statements describe the threat of an unholy enemy, the slaughters allegedly perpetrated by that enemy, the obligation to fight against the infidels, and the promise of forgiveness of sins for those who join the holy war.
Even more disconcerting are their horrific descriptions of church-sanctioned violence. Let's just say that the Muslims who behead civilians in Iraq would no doubt admire the brutal work of their Christian predecessors.
While jihad is by no means the whole story of the Christian faith, far too often Christiansseeking to inaugurate heaven on earthhave instead brought a taste of hell. Like Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheist utopians before and since, Christians too have been corrupted by state power.
The American experience suggests a better and safer course. Eschewing both a godless state and a state church, the United States was built on the foundation of Judeo-Christian virtues, but not on a state religion. Yet while church and state may be legally separate here, they are not enemies. Rather, they are partners for the good of the republic. This experiment has worked, for over two centuries.
Today, however, there are some clear signs of wobbling in this delicate tightrope dance. While some of the rhetoric emanating from the Christian camp about secularization of the nation's institutions and culture may be overheated (such as the title of David Limbaugh's otherwise fine 2003 book, Persecution), clearly there are efforts under way in the courts and elsewhere to marginalize the influence of Christians in an irony-laden attempt at enforcing "tolerance." Many Christians, claiming that America is or was a Christian nation, are on the offensive, rightly fighting such creeping secularization in the courts of law and public opinion. However, the Caners' volume counsels caution that we not seek too close a union of church and state.
While the Caners deserve much credit for documenting a theological descent into darkness, one could wish for more prescription to accompany their description. Mention of contemporary efforts at interfaith understanding and bridge-building is mostly lacking, although the 1996-1998 Reconciliation Walks do appear. Discussion of recent attempts by moderate Muslims to seek a harmony of democracy and Islam would have been helpful, especially by two former Muslims. The recent prominence by evangelicals in international religious liberty issues also would have been worth exploring.
Aside from these matters of substance, the style of Christian Jihad leaves something to be desired. Quoting series after series of long passages taken from primary sources, followed by the Caners' summations, at times the going gets tedious. Once you get past the book's central thesisthat the problem lies not in Christianity per se but in an unholy intertwining of church and stateChristian Jihad is mostly a compilation of quotes supplemented by author commentary.
THE FIRST CRUSADE
by Thomas Asbridge
408 pp.; $35.00
Excelling Christian Jihad in matters of both style and substancebut not in scopeis Thomas Asbridge's engaging volume, The First Crusade (Oxford, 2004). Asbridge, a lecturer in early medieval history at the University of London, sets out to debunk misconceptions about the First Crusade, which ended in July 1099 with the improbable capture of Jerusalem. It was the only crusade to meet its military objectives.
Asbridge's secular history lacks the self-conscious moral judgments of the Caners. Noting Asbridge's evident sympathy for both the religious devotion and martial audacity of the crusaders, some reviewers (including Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker piece) have accused Asbridge of being an apologist of holy war (and, by implication, the Iraq war). Such is not the case, but Asbridge's appreciation for the motives and exertions of the Franks is clearly evident in this book.
Indeed, Asbridge makes clear that the venture succeeded against all odds. Facing a formidable enemy, a dangerous journey, uncertain aid from erstwhile allies, a novel command structure, and a thin supply of trained troops, the First Crusade was the military equivalent of the Hail Mary pass in football. Reading about the horrible trials these devoted men (and women) faced on the road to Jerusalem, I couldn't help but cheer for them, in spite of my moral horror for what they did. The detailed descriptions of intrigue in palace and cloister, military strategy, and the clash of arms make this an innately interesting journey for readers. It reads kind of like The Lord of the Ringsbut without the Lord.
Asbridge says that, contrary to the conclusions of earlier histories, the First Crusaders were motivated not primarily by avarice (the expedition was too dangerous and expensive). Urban II, the instigator, was seeking to establish the primacy of the papacy after years of humiliation from secular authorities. Urban sought to rally Christendom under his banner and, bringing together various theological and sociological strands, lit a powder keg at the Council of Clermont in November 1095.
This period was already violent, with knights trained to kill and yet condemned by the church for their brutal profession. Knights were men of the church who had, as we would say today, no assurance they would get to heaven. But now, Urban's call made sanctified violence a penitential act, electrifying all crusaders. For Christian killers, this was a twisted case of Finding a Job You Can Love, if ever there was one. The unholy task allowed them to kill not fellow Christians, but "infidels," with a promise of eternal salvation to boot.
Urban's call, however, went out to all Christians, not just the warrior class, and was echoed by "unofficial preachers," such as Peter the Hermit, across Europe. It was billed as a voluntary, penitential act, "making it all but impossible to control recruitment." (It was also all but impossible to control the base impulses and anti-Semitism of the poorly trained rabble crusaders, as unsuspecting Jews in the Rhineland found to their horror.)
Yet earning God's favor was the main motive, Asbridge writes: "They suffered the horrors of the crusade to fulfil an intimate and ultimately self-serving need: to overcome their desperate fear of damnation and emerge, purified, at the gates of heaven."
One can certainly see a parallel with today's Islamic radicals, who promise Paradise and 72 virgins to jihadists, who desperately want to get to heaven but have no guarantee in Islam of making the grade, no matter how diligently they follow the Five Pillars. As Brother Andrew, who has turned his attention to Muslims, told me recently, "When they decide to blow themselves up and die, it's not because they're politically motivated or want to attack the West. It's because they have not found a reason for living." This suggests that Muslims will remain susceptible to the call for holy war, because there is no assurance of God's acceptance in the Muslim system.
Christian crusaders of the 11th century, too, were attempting not to secure the salvation of others, but their own. What you believe about heaven profoundly affects how you act on earth. Vishal Mangalwadi has said, "A people cannot be better than their gods." The implications for evangelism and discipleship are obvious. Giving people a solid theological foundation of God's love in Christ has practical implications for daily life. Perhaps this is one reason why evangelicals, who trust in the finished work of Christ rather than in their own works, have launched no crusades.
Still, remembering the disastrous actions of the Reformers, we had better decline all offers to take the keys of any earthly kingdom. As Lord Acton reportedly said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Christian Jihad and The First Crusade document the fact that even Christians are not immune from this deadly corruption.
Stan Guthrieis senior associate news editor for Christianity Today and author of Missions in the Third Millennium. His website is www.stanguthrie.com.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christian Jihad is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
Ergun Caner and Emir Caner are also the authors of Unveiling Islam.
More about Ergun Caner is available from his website.
More about Emir Caner is available from his website.
The First Crusade: A New History is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
More about Tom Asbridge is available from his page at Queen Mary University of London.
Our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, devoted an issue to the crusades.
Thomas F. Madden wrote a cover story on the crusades for Crisis magazine.