Most Western Christians find it difficult to see the present conflict between America and her allies and certain radical religious fundamentalist groups as a religious war. But Andrew Sullivan, has said "this surely is a religious war."1 While this characterization is not all that significant in itself, it is Sullivan's next step that is significant to Christian clergy.
He contends that the present conflict "has . . . gentler echoes in America's own religious conflicts between newer, more virulent strands of Christian fundamentalism"2 that battle against other expressions of Christianity. Sullivan sees this kind of religious combat to be burgeoning significantly in America and elsewhere.
Osama bin Laden has said that this present conflict is a religious war waged against unbelief and unbelievers. Anyone who has been around Christian churches for any length of time knows that this rhetoric certainly has its "gentler echoes" in the sanctuaries and hallways of contemporary Christian communities. Many well-meaning Christians have a way of establishing standards of belief and behavior that they use to judge and question other Christians, often in painful ways.
It is increasingly plausible to believe that these "new wars of religion [in which the] victims are in all likelihood going to mount with each passing year,"3 portend certain significant events in the not so distant future. In other words, maybe now it will be easier to believe, as Seventh-day Adventists and others do, that in the eschatological throes of life on this planet there will be climactic manifestations of religious repression with their roots in the prides and prejudices of groups such as bin Laden's and in their gentler, and thus more subtle Christian counterparts.
What is it that happens among us when we begin to assume this rather warlike stance? Here are a few observations:
- It begins when, often quite unwittingly, we make religion and the church, rather than God Himself, the defacto center of our faith. When we do this we become preoccupied with the word of the church what the church values, believes, proclaims and orders rather than the transcendent word of God. Among other things, this tendency usu ally leads us to concentrate on dubious, quasi-biblical customs and traditions that quickly become systematized into avowed mechanisms used to judge the validity of the faith and behavior of other human beings.
- It happens when, rather than living to proclaim truth, we become preoccupied with identifying error. When we allow this negative orientation to dominate our religious experience, our primary purpose becomes one of rooting out all the unsightly evils threatening the purity of the church or the world, rather than actually lifting up the glorious Christ as both the Savior and the Standard. Our predominant imperative becomes one of keeping others straight, regardless of how destructive we feel justified in becoming as we do so.
- It happens when we believe we alone have truth, and that because of our superior way of life and conviction we are the exclusive apple of God's eye.
I must say clearly that I am not equating either "conservatism" or even "fundamentalism" per se, with this war like, combative attitude that rises so quickly to the surface these days, for the same spirit can by all means find nurture in the soul of the "liberal" also. I am rather trying to identify that aggressive, repressive outlook or disposition that ends up treating people with a potent brand of spiritual or ecclesiastical "violence."
When we come to believe we must have our own standardized version of a purified church or world, indeed that it is the only proper option, we are not far from feeling justified in using ecclesiastical or political power in God's name, to make it happen. We have in a real sense set ourselves up next to God upon the throne of rectitude.
Walking this road, we also have serious trouble dealing with nuance or imperfection of any kind. We tend to see everything in all or nothing terms and this inevitably leads us to seriously exaggerate the evils we see in those with whom we disagree.
But isn't it critical to our duty as healthy people of faith, to lead, to reprove, and to discipline? Hasn't God told us not to mute the prophetic voice among us, and above all to keep the faith pure? Of course!
What, then, are we supposed to do?
It is perhaps hardest for us to embrace the ultimate message of the Bible: that there is no law, not even God's, that can cure us of the heavily destructive impulses that lurk within as we seek to be faithful in proclaiming the will of God when it is being ignored or trampled, and that our only viable option, therefore, is most truly to be heart-and-soul disciples of the living Christ.
Jesus expressed in Himself the profoundest model for dealing with wrong. He was uncompromising in His rebukes (see Matt. 23 ), but most significantly, His attitudes were unsullied. Jesus was magnificent in the way He melded law and grace. He embodied both (John 1:17).
So much is said of Jesus and of us in the highly suggestive story of James, John and the Samaritan village that spurned them as they traveled through it. In the face of this prejudice charged rejection, the disciples suggested that they call down fire on the people of the town! "Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village" (Luke 9:55, 56, NIV).
It is said that Abraham Lincoln was once criticized for being too solicitous to his enemies and was reminded that it was his duty, in fact, to destroy them. His reply deserves its immortalized endurance: "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
True, not even Jesus could always do that, but so very much more of the time, it is most veritably our highest calling to try!4
1 Andrew Sullivan. "This Is a Religious War." The New York Times Magazine (October 7, 2001): 45.
4 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972), 132.