In the wake of the death threats and rioting that ensued as a result of last week's university lecture by Pope Benedict XVI, there has been quite a bit of good blog writing on the subjects of Islam, Christianity, and holy war.
Blogging at Brutally Honest, Tim Chesterton penned a good explanation of the pacifist tradition within Christianity. I think it's pretty accurate. This appears to be the first in a series of posts that will discuss non-violent and violent responses to evil, so mark this blog and check out the rest of the series.
Bryan Preston wrote a lengthy piece attempting to explain some fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam by citing the orthodox Christian belief that Christ's teachings and his death on the cross abrogated the ceremonial and judicial aspects of Mosaic law, specifically the instructions for those who commit certain kinds of sins to be punished by death, and the divine authorization of warfare against earthly enemies. We still keep the Torah in our canon of scripture because it is fundamental to our understanding of the nature of God's relationship with man, but the Mosaic law is no longer the focal point of Christianity:
By contrast, the Islamic Suras quoted by Robert Spencer and others that promote violence by Muslims against non-Muslims come from the second half of the Koran. They have not been abrogated by later scripture, because there is no later scripture. Spencer’s argument is that if any Koranic verses have abrogated any others, then the weight has to be given to the later verses–and they’re the violent ones. But if you don’t understand the principle of abrogation or the fact that not all scriptures hold equal weight in any faith, and it’s clear those who don’t hold to any faith at all probably don’t since they keep quoting Old Testament civil Law to slam Christians, then you’re ill-equipped to make the distinctions that mark Leviticus less authoritative on behavior than the Gospels for the Christian, and earlier verses less authoritative than later ones for the Muslim. The position of the violent Suras in the Koran is both a fact and a problem, one Spencer attempts to engage on its own terms, and one secularists consistently misunderstand because they don’t understand how a given text relates to a given faith and to other texts within that faith.
I am not versed enough in the Koran to make judgements as to whether or not the violence and warfare endorsed by the teachers of radical Islam indeed stems from a general understanding of the Koran shared by average Muslims. But Preston's piece seems to outline a reasonable argument as to why this could be so. In response, Robert Spencer himself added more to Preston's piece by explaining many of his points in detail.
I was additionally reminded of some comments made many months ago by Fr. Joseph Fessio, a student of Pope Benedict XVI and a Roman Catholic scholar. Fr. Fession was relaying the Pope's eloquent explanation of the Christian understanding of the divine inspiration of the Bible, versus Islam's understanding that the Koran reflects the actual words of Allah:
[H]e said in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to His followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations ... But Islam is stuck. It’s stuck with a text that cannot be adapted, or even be interpreted properly.
The Protestant Reformation and subsequent schools of Christian theology sufficiently purged mainstream Christianity of any authoritative teaching that sought to justify the use of warfare or torture or other violent means as a Biblically sound method of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Crusades were over by the beginning of the 14th century. The last heresy trials conducted by the Roman Catholic church that were facilitated through the royal house of Spain took place two hundred years ago. And since that time, the Christian church has voluntarily recused itself from its traditional role as an overseer of Western governments.
Until the current situation within the Muslim ummah changes, there can be no Muslim Reformation.