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On Differentiating Between Christian Violence and Islamic Violence


On Differentiating Between Christian Violence and Islamic Violence

Thomas Whitley

Two days ago I wrote about the criticism of President Obama for his reluctance to say that the US is fighting a "religious war" with ISIS. Yesterday he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and again addressed the topic of religious violence.

Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, among others, took issue with parts of the speech. In discussing those who "hijack" religions "for their own murderous ends," Obama attempts to say, in a sense, we've all been there.

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.

Obama was apparently not very successful because the backlash was swift. Ingraham does not like Obama's invitation to "weigh very different forms of violence and suffering against each other, which is not typically a smart idea." I am unclear as to why this is "typically" a bad idea. I am clear, though, on how differentiating between the Crusades and modern Islamic violence benefits many Christians. Ingraham lays it out for us.

Of course, if you think about this for a bit you start to see the problems with the comparison. Some slave traders may indeed have sought justification for their actions in the Christian faith, but much of the trade was driven by economic reasons (a demand for cheap labor) and racism. The Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion.

And so, Obama’s drawing parallels between today’s acts of violence in the name of Islam and acts of violence through history in the name of Christ omits a key nuance.

The key nuance that Ingraham wants us to believe is missing is that the Crusades, slavery, etc. were all really about power or economics, but modern Islamic violence really is about religion. Such a distinction serves the dominant Christian ideology in two ways. First, it allows that some Christians did some terrible things, and they may have even said it was in the name of Christ, but it was really about politics, power, and cheap labor. In other words, "Christianity" is not tainted by these acts of violence. The implication is that since we can see "non-religious" motivations behind or benefits from these acts of violence, the religion is not implicated in the violence (besides, true Christianity isn't violent anyway, amiright?) Second, this distinction allows Christians to ignore the "non-religious" motivations and benefits of modern Islamic violence so that they can continue to believe that Islam really is violent. Issues of land, western imperialism, economics, and theories of governance can be ignored if the violence carried out in the name of Allah really should be connected to Allah.

When Ingraham says that "the Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion" he is missing that such a statement is true about every act that is ostensibly "religious." Christian bishops cutting off the grain trade to another city in order to starve that city and that city's bishop into (theological) submission was "just as much about political power as [it was] about religion." So, the problem is not that Obama did not pick an apropos enough comparison nor is it that Ingraham has misread the Crusades, but rather that Ingraham has read the acts of violence perpetrated by Christians as really being about power and politics and has failed to realize that the same is true for all acts carried out "in the name of" any religion.

P.S. Might I suggest that this is why the Washington Post and other news organizations should employ scholars of religion to write about religion (and why Religious Studies is a worthwhile major in college). Completely unrelatedly, you can always contact me here.

Image: Charles Dharapak, AP