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If Islam Is a Religion of Violence, So Is Christianity
The world’s oldest religions all have troubling histories of bloodshed. Singling out Islam is just Trump’s latest, hateful hypocrisy.
Speaking after “appreciating the congrats” on the Orlando shootings, Donald Trump again insisted that what mowed people down at Pulse was not an assault rifle but radical Islam, because in Trump Tower, it cannot be both. Trump’s world is binary. It is zero-sum: Either guns kill people or radical Islam kills people. In that world, only one religion can be bad, and so Christianity is good and Islam is bad. Christianity is peaceful and Islam violent. Christianity is tolerant and Islam intolerant. Both are inherently one thing or the other, immutable blueprints etched in stone for the behavior of their respective adherents.
This is a worldview that is shared by people who are Trump supporters and not Trump supporters. In the secular vernacular, we might call this view “Manichean,” that is, a binary between light and darkness, good and evil.
But it’s worth noting that “Manichean” was originally used to describe a religion that spread from Persia to the eastern and northern African parts of the Roman Empire in the third century, one that influenced many early Christians. If the word “Manichean” has negative connotations today, it might be because it was deemed a heresy by the early Catholic Church, one that needed to be ruthlessly rooted out of the Christian universe. And I mean ruthlessly: Adherents of a Manichean-tinged Christianity had their goods confiscated and were put to death, even if they converted to proper Christianity but still kept in touch with their Manichean contacts. Even St. Augustine called for their energetic persecution.
The reason I bring up the Manicheans is because I am tired of hearing, from Bill Maher and from Donald Trump, that Islam is inherently violent. I am even more tired of hearing that Christianity is inherently peaceful. I have witnessed this debate play out many times over, including at one dinner party when Laura Ingraham turned to the other guests and took a poll: Raise your hands if you think Islam is a death cult. Most of the (politically conservative) guests raised their hands and then took pains to explain to me how, unlike Islam, Christianity is inherently a religion of love.
With all due respect to my many Christian friends, I seriously beg to differ.
Conservatives roll their eyes when you mention the Crusades — oh, that old thing? — and I’m sure they will when they see the reference to the Manicheans, but they both matter, especially if you’re trying to argue that religions have inherent characteristics. If that was a perversion of Christianity, as many argue, or a fluke, then why can we not extend the same thinking toward, say, the Muslim conquests of the Middle East, or, dare I say it, the Islamic State? You cannot argue that one religion is inherently violent because of the following historical examples, and then wave away the violent history of Christianity and say the exception proves the rule.
The Crusades are still a sore subject in the Muslim world, but it’s easy to forget the havoc they wreaked on the Jews of Europe. Time after time, as Crusaders slogged southeast on their umpteenth trip to the Holy Land, they slaughtered the Jews in their path. They herded them into synagogues and set the buildings alight. The Crusaders killed so many Jews in the name of their Christian faith that it was the most stunning demographic blow to European Jewry until the Holocaust. Which, just a friendly reminder, happened in Christian, civilized Europe only 70-some years ago.
And if you don’t believe me about the brutal repression of Manichean Christians, you can read about it here in the Catholic Encyclopedia (a publication that “chronicles what Catholic artists, educators, poets, scientists and men of action have achieved in their several provinces”). The Christian Church was ruthless with people whose faith was in any way a deviation from the canon, torturing and burning heretics at the stake. After Martin Luther pinned his theses to a church door, unintentionally spawning a new wing of Christianity, it led to hundreds of years of on-and-off religious warfare between Christians, spilling each other’s blood in the fervent belief that their vision of Christ was the truest. And it’s not ancient history: Violence between Protestants and Catholics continued in Christian Ireland until the very end of the 20th century.
“Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-American,” Donald Trump said on Monday. “I refuse to allow America to become a place where gay people, Christian people, and Jewish people are the targets of persecution and intimidation by radical Islamic preachers of hate and violence.”
The point he was trying to make was that the adherents of radical Islam (whatever that is) are so uncomfortable with those who don’t share their beliefs that they can’t help but turn violent against them. Radical Islam may be all those things and more, but Christianity’s record isn’t much better.
Let’s take Trump’s concern for Jewish people being “the targets of persecution and intimidation.” It is a wonderful sentiment, but, for the past 2,000 years, until Muslim countries expelled their Jewish populations in 1948, Jews have been targets of persecution and intimidation — to put it mildly — at the hands of Christians. Jewish life in Muslim countries, though still saddled with all kinds of restrictions and orders to wear funny clothing and sporadic violence, was far less bloody than in the civilized Christian West. There are so many historical examples I could mention — Christians killing Jews because they blamed them for the plague; the fact that the word “ghetto” comes from the enclosures in which Jews were forced to live in medieval Venice; the pogroms in which the Russian Orthodox Church encouraged their flocks to kill the non-believing Jews. If that’s too far back in time for you, consider July 1988, the thousandth anniversary of the baptism of Russia: Rumors flew in Moscow that there would be a pogrom to celebrate the day Christianity came to Russia, and that the police were handing out addresses of Jews to the public. (That’s when my family decided to flee Holy Rus.)
And if you want to get a list of Christian countries that expelled the Jews but are daunted by the historical dust, look no further than the Trump supporters who regularly tweet those lists at me as proof that Jews deserve the violence they’ve gotten over the years. Then there’s the very modern phenomenon that is the Trump troll, frequently blasting me as a “Christ killer” who deserves anti-Semitism for “mocking the Gospel.” All this punctuated by exhortations to get back in the oven and people thoughtfully ordering coffins on my behalf.
And though Trump’s concern is for Jewish people being the subjects of persecution by “radical Islamic preachers,” it is not the radical Muslims I’m worried about as a Jew living in America. There’s plenty of hatred and anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, but the kind I receive around the clock doesn’t come from Muslims. It comes from Trump’s white, Christian supporters. I would much rather he address the persecution of Jewish journalists by his own followers, some of whom freely interweave Christian symbols, white power references, and violent threats in their communications. But Trump doesn’t address them and he certainly doesn’t disavow them. He said he has “no message” for them. Just for the radical Muslims.
Watching Trump and the Christian right go after Islam for being homophobic is, frankly, jaw-dropping. If any community in this country has shown itself to be anti-gay, it is conservative Christians and their decades of peddling hatred for gay people, comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, claiming AIDS is divine punishment, pushing “cures” for homosexuality, and blocking laws that prevent gays not just from marrying but from being discriminated against. A Christian pastor, who has enjoyed the company of Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz, recently said that, according to the Bible, homosexuals “deserve the death penalty.” Now the very same people who, just last month, were comparing trans people to predators who would use the wrong bathroom to hunt for child victims are suddenly lining up to defend gays from radical Islam.
And yet, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, some Christians came out to say what they really thought of those gays in that club. One Christian preacher posted a video sermon in which he praised the Orlando shootings, saying, “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.”
And then there are the ardent American Christians who explicitly link Christianity and guns, who buy up weapons like there’s no tomorrow, but who nonetheless marvel at the warlike Saracens. In fact, the unbelievable vitriol with which conservative Christians have insisted on maligning not just radicals but an entire religion looks a lot like the kind of violence and intolerance of which they accuse Muslims.
Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of Dylann Roof killing nine people in the middle of a Bible study in Charleston, S.C. Before his rampage, he wrote a manifesto declaring his allegiance to the white supremacist cause and pointing to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which claims to adhere to “Christian beliefs and values,” as a major source of information and inspiration. By some accounts, Roof came from a church-going family and attended Christian summer camp. Did Roof kill his fellow Christians because he was deranged or because Christianity is violent?”
The answer is neither. They are not exceptions, nor do they speak to a violence inherent in Christianity. Because my point is not that Christianity is evil. It isn’t. But neither is it inherently peaceful and loving. And neither is Islam. Nor Judaism nor Hinduism nor Buddhism. No religion is inherently peaceful or violent, nor is it inherently anything other than what its followers make it out to be. People are violent, and people can dress their violence up in any number of justifying causes that seek to relieve people of their personal responsibility because the cause or religion, be it Communism or Catholicism or Islam, is simply bigger than themselves. It’s very convenient for both the perpetrator of violence and his accuser, and yet totally useless: Something can be done with a person who has transgressed, but what can you do with an amorphous concept?
Christianity, as I have seen it practiced by my friends or by Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, can be beautiful and peaceful and loving. Islam, as it was practiced in medieval Spain, was beautiful and peaceful, too. It can also be hideous and violent, as we’ve seen in many parts of the Middle East, in Europe, and in America in recent decades. Judaism, which people either equate with consumptive erudition or insularity, can wax violent, too. Hanukkah, every secular Jew’s favorite holiday, celebrates in part the victory of the radical, purist Jews over their assimilated, Hellenized brethren. And for my co-religionists piling onto Muslims for their homophobia, let’s remember Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed six at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem — and that was his second attack on the LGBT event. And, heck, let’s throw in Baruch Goldstein, too. Remember him, the guy who killed 29 Muslims as they prayed? Is he an exception, or does his act define Judaism’s inherent characteristics?
Even Buddhism, which many imagine to be the very definition of peace, can be bloody. Just look at Sri Lanka, where a Buddhist majority fought a vicious civil war against the Hindu north, or Myanmar, where Buddhists have violently persecuted the Muslim Rohingya.
No religion is inherently violent. No religion is inherently peaceful. Religion, any religion, is a matter of interpretation, and it is often in that interpretation that we see either beauty or ugliness — or, more often, if we are mature enough to think nuanced thoughts, something in between.
Photo credit: ERIC ANTHONY JOHNSON/Getty Images