A Christian response to Paris & the problem of religion

Australians (and the West at large)  don’t know what to do with religion. We don’t want to say that one religion is better or worse than another, but how do we deal with aspects of religion that are unacceptable? While ISIL are not supported by most Muslims, adherents are nonetheless practicing a devotion to Islam that finds support in the Koran. However because their ideology does not conform to the accepted pluralist world-view that all religions are valid, we hear political and religious leaders being forced to explain them away.

I don’t claim to speak for everyone and I don’t want to suggest that what I’ve written isn’t without bias. What I have written is a list of criteria that I try to practice when I’m talking with people about my Christian beliefs.

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1. Show grace. Pride is not a Christian virtue. The very nature of Christian faith is that knowing God is a gift from God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, as we engage in conversation with people from different religions we avoid arrogance and pride, both in what we say and in the manner we speak.

2. Be gentle and respectful. When we talk to men and women we are speaking with people who are God’s image-bearers. That imago Dei, like in ourselves, is broken, but we maintain that they have value and ought to be treated with dignity. Therefore we don’t support graffiti on Mosques or other buildings, and we don’t support verbal or physical abuse toward people of other religions

3. Be honest about differences, and recognise that some contrarieties really do matter. One of the great weaknesses in current religious discourse is the unwillingness to call a spade a spade. Where there is commonality and agreement it should be recognised, but the pretend game of sameness is intellectually dishonest and shows disrespect to the many who hold to those points of difference.

There is no value in diminishing, ignoring or lying about differences in theology, ethics, or politics. For example, Christians and Muslims must not pretend that they share the same view of Jesus: Muslims do not believe that Jesus is fully and eternally God, Christians do. Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, Christians do. Muslims do not accept that the Bible is God’s authoritative, sufficient and final word, Christians do. In the same way Christians don’t accept the Koran as a holy book, whereas Muslims do.

There exists an epistemological crisis in the world right now. The current crisis is not merely  a moral one, but it is about how we understand truth. September 11 2001 shocked the world, not only because of the scale of evil perpetrated, but because it exposed the foolishness of our deference to the philosophical liberalism in the West; we were reminded that not every world-view is equally good or valid. Despite the warning, 14 years have now past and most of us in the West continue to walk the line of relativism. Will the recent and appalling rise of ISIL rouse us from the age of the post-critical conscience or will we keep popping our everyone-is-right pills?

4. Don’t excuse or protect the sins of your family. Sin is sin, whether it is perpetrated by someone else or by me. Christians can be guilty of wrongdoing: sometimes they break the law, other times they act lawfully but in ways that are unloving and therefore spurious. In the name of Christ, men and women have committed acts of cruelty and hate, not because of the Christian Bible but because they have abused the Bible in the pursuit of personal agendas. Where and when we are wrong we need to confess and repent, and repentance includes accepting the cost of restitution.

5. Aim to persuade. Coercion, threats, insults, violence – such things don’t help anyone. Beating someone down with a string of rapid rhetorical assaults does little more than create more distance between people, making genuine communication even more difficult. Persuasion, however, is healthy because it gives due weight to the subject at hand and it shows respect for the person with whom you are dialoguing. Persuasion says that people matter and the topic of dispute is too important for flippant dismissal or violent suppression. Persuasion includes using considered argument, showing coherence in your reasoning and providing evidence, using story and testimony, appealing to peoples hopes and desires, pointing out the weaknesses and untruths in alternative beliefs, and speaking with clarity and conviction.

6. Don’t caricature people or their beliefs. Not all atheists are like Richard Dawkins. Not all Muslims support ISIL. Not all Arabs are Muslim. Not all politicians are self-seeking egomaniacs. Not all Baptists are tee-totalling anti-fun facebook club members!

7. Seek to understand. Too often we assume what other people  think and believe. Let’s not ignore the power of attentive listening, and of asking questions and taking time to research what other religions believe, teach and practice.

8. Live what you believe. Christianity doesn’t begin or end on the blog or at the public meeting, it continues through every encounter in all of life. If what Christians believe is true and good then it will influence every aspect of our interactions, both private and public.

When was the last time we smiled at and said hello to someone who was Muslim or Hindu? When was the last time we invited into our home for a meal someone who practices another religion? When was the last time we shared the good news of Jesus with someone from another religion? Why not put these things on our agenda?

9. The State and not the Church has the role to exercise civil and military authority. Unlike Muslim Scriptures, the Christian Bible recognises a distinction between the Church and the State. Throughout history not everyone has properly practiced this, but that has been due to a rejection of the Bible’s teaching, not adherence. However, in Islam there is no such distinction between religious and civil law and Government, hence Saudi Arabia and some of nations, as well as the theology underpinning ISIL. Having said that, other Muslim majority nations such as Turkey, have managed to move away from this orthodox Islamic worldview. (This article in The Atlantic about “What ISIL Really Wants” is worth reading)

“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:3-5)

My point here, is that  Governments have responsibility to protect its citizens and to punish those who harm its people. It is not wrong for the French people to desire justice, and we must recognise that issues surrounding a response are complex. Doing nothing is hardly going to stop ISIL and engaging militarily seems to play into their agenda. Recognising them as a legitimate state is out of the question, given their propensity to abuse and kill thousands under their the control, and they are clearly not content to limit their borders at their current places. What we can do is pray for our Governments.

Below is a diagram that represents various approaches to viewing difference:

 the way we view difference
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This article has been adapted from a piece I published last year at Engaging with Religions
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