At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama denounced the barbaric acts of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In this context, he warned against blaming Islam and Muslims in general:
“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.”
This statement ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian leaders and conservative politicians. In hindsight, it was probably unwise to use a complex and divisive example like the Crusade in a short speech that precludes historical and theological nuance.
I agree with Ross Douthat, “The deep problem with [President Obama’s] Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” For this reason, his exhortation “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought, but rather [to] think of [ourselves] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3), instead comes across as a self-righteous criticism of the “rest” of America.
This fact does not, however, justify the harsh reactions of many conservative Christians. President Obama’s illustration was infelicitous, but what he said was, nonetheless, true. Christianity is not immune to radicalization, nor is Islam incapable of civility.
Admitting this is not the same thing as conceding that Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent or equally valid. I believe wholeheartedly that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. Nevertheless, I recognize, as Obama said, that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Sin is the real issue here.
The fact that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does not endorse violence is not the point. It does not matter whether the Qur’an, rightly interpreted, promotes violence or not (I address this issue in another post). We know from the very beginning of human history that Satan is capable of distorting even God’s Word for his depraved purposes (Genesis 3:1-5). He can incite Muslims to violence even if the word “jihad” never appears in the Qur’an.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Islam is not the enemy, sin is, Satan is, and he is an equal opportunity offender.
If we single out and categorically denounce Muslims as our adversaries, we will be fundamentally impaired from loving them. We will become fearful of Muslims and feel threatened by them. We will harden ourselves against them and relinquish our ability to love and bless them.
We must not let that happen. Muslims are the Samaritans of our generation (Luke 10:25-37). We must love them, pray for them, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.
Precisely because the real battle is spiritual, precisely because the real battle ground is the sinful human heart, Christ crucified for our redemption is the only ultimate solution to our universal, human problem.