On a cold November day in 1095, Pope Urban II roused a Christendom plagued by internal wars to take up the cause of holy war against Islam. "If you must have blood," he exhorted, "bathe in the blood of infidels." With the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Christian leaders had gone from being dipped in wax to their necks as candles in Nero's garden to being seated in regal splendor for imperial feasts. Increasingly, the kingdom of Christ—expanding by Word and Spirit—was identified with a civilization—expanding by sword and shield.
In many ways, the imperial church's misunderstanding of the nature of Christ's kingdom echoed that of our Lord's own disciples. Many Jews in Jesus' day expected a replay of the old covenant: exodus from exile followed by conquest through holy war. To the very last, they imagined that the Messiah would drive out the Romans and reestablish a theocracy that would be everlasting. Their last question before Jesus' ascension was, "Now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?" Our Lord's answer is telling: The new covenant conquest is not of a sliver of real estate in the Middle East, but the whole earth ("from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth"); yet it expands in the power of the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel. So they are to go to Jerusalem and wait for the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, to be made witnesses of Christ. With Christ's ascension to the seat of all authority, and the Spirit leading the ground campaign, his kingdom of grace would conquer by preaching and sacrament. Only when Christ returned in glory would the announcement ring out, "Now the kingdoms of this age have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever."
"Christendom" is the result of jumping the eschatological gun. Ironically, Christ's bodily absence on earth was filled by a newly converted Caesar. Concerning his patron Constantine, the church father Eusebius explained, "Our divinely favored emperor, receiving, as it were, a transcript of the divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God himself, the administration of this world's affairs." With divine mandate, therefore, the emperor "subdues and chastens the open adversaries of the truth in accordance with the usages of war." The medieval imagination was fed by an allegorization of Europe as Israel of old. Monarchs fancied themselves King David reborn, driving out the Canaanites with their holy knights, although there were lively debates as to whether the pope or the emperor was the visible head.
In spite of the Reformation's insistence on the distinction between the kingdoms of this age (entrusted with the sword) and the kingdom of grace (expanding through the Word and Spirit), Protestant nations were just as eager to cast themselves in the role of Israel's royal emissaries of holy war.
Secularized, the myth of a revived holy nation played in the imagination of the new American republic. It even generated a political doctrine: manifest destiny, with the "lesser peoples"—barbarous idolaters—being driven out by God's command from the land that Providence had given to Western settlers. Both the theology of colonialism and anticolonial liberation theologies have invoked the exodus-conquest pattern of the old covenant in their own fusion of Christ and culture, preaching and violence, baptism and political coercion. Confusion of the kingdom of Christ with the theocratic kingdom of the old covenant, and then with whatever secular kingdom chooses to elect itself into divine favor, has provided the script for history's most atrocious performances in Christ's name. Focusing on the challenges of secularism and Islam, evangelicals and Roman Catholics increasingly congeal around salvaging "Judeo-Christian" culture. In a 2006 Time article on the relation of Pope Benedict and Islam, conservative Catholic scholar Michael Novak explained concerning the pontiff: "His role is to represent Western civilization."
At least in the United States, the culture wars—not to mention the "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam—provoke nostalgia for this parody of the body of Christ. For millions of conservative Protestants in America today, biblical prophecy coalesces around the events unfolding in the Middle East more than around the events that transpired there in the first century. Writing as "a Muslim to Muslims," Vincent J. Cornell has correctly observed, "Extremists on both sides feed on America's moral and eschatological obsession with the Holy Land. Both sides exploit the memory of the crusades." He further notes that "Islam," for its own part, means "submission," not "peace." (1) Holy lands inevitably provoke holy wars.
Through a combination of Reformation and Enlightenment influences, liberal democracy has become the West's dominant polity. To be sure, it has its critics—including Christian ones. However, the fact of bewildering religious diversity makes any alternative to liberal democracy implausible. Religious communities may still build distinct traditions and webs of socialization for their members, but the idea of a shared cultural worldview is receding quickly even in the United States. I believe that this, on balance, is a far safer environment for the genuinely apostolic mission than the nostalgic appeals to a revived "Christendom" recommended by some critics of liberal democracy.
The West—particularly the United States—seems only slowly to be realizing that democracy doesn't equal religious toleration. On the heels of the Arab Spring a scorching Islamist summer has arrived. As bad as things were for Christians—and others— under dictators, they will be worse wherever bare democracy ensures the triumph of consistent Islamists and their flagrant persecution of minorities. The only thing that can distract Islamists from religious civil war within is a cobelligerent spirit of jihad against Christians. In spite of ancient and indigenous roots in these countries, Christianity is spun as "Western" and, as we have seen, there is often too much in our own history (and current rhetoric) to lend plausibility to that caricature.
When Christians do "Christendom," they are dangerously misinterpreting the whole character of Christ's teaching concerning his kingdom. They must interpret the Old Testament allegorically, as if it were a pattern that any modern nation could invoke. They must confuse the old and new covenants—the geopolitical theocracy established at Mount Sinai with Christ's reign from Mount Zion. They must ignore Christ's explicit statements that his kingdom is distinct from Caesar's, that instead of holy war believers are to suffer persecution for their witness and pray for their enemies, and that by no means are they to prosecute his peace treaty by physical coercion. They must ignore the explicit statements in the New Testament that the old covenant, having been fulfilled by Christ, is now "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13). In declaring any nation or land holy (thus justifying holy wars), interpreters must contradict the clear New Testament teaching that the true Israel is Christ together with all who, with Abraham, place their faith in him alone. Jesus is the temple, his worldwide body is the holy land, and the war we wage is not with temporal swords.
In sharp contrast, when Islamists regard all non-Muslims as apostates from their natural birth who must be converted or eradicated, make no distinction between mosque and state, and insist that every aspect of cultural, legal, dietary, economic, political, and social life conform to sharia law, they are faithful interpreters of their religious texts. They do not need any allegorizing hermeneutic. No scripture-twisting or self-justifying misinterpretations are required for this fusion of cult and culture. What we call "radical Islamism" is simply a consistent and straightforward application of Mohammed's teachings and example, interpreted in the ordinary and natural sense of the texts.
To be sure, there have been periods in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews have coexisted in relative peace. However, Islam has a very patient process of coercion. It begins with peaceful coexistence among a non-Muslim majority, allowed even to relax certain sharia obligations in the long-term service of jihad. Next, there is the gradual organization of Islamic communities petitioning for allowing sharia to take precedence over civil laws for Muslims. As a nation-within-a-nation emerges, the expectation is that the host country will eventually collapse from within and succumb to Islamic pressure from without. The history of the Islamization of once Christian-majority countries proves the point. And the point is still being made.
For example, here is a memo entered into evidence for a 2007 trial involving American Islamist leader Ismail Elbarasse, explaining the methodology of the Muslim Brotherhood:
The process of settlement is a "Civilization- Jihadist Process" with all the word means. The Ikhwan [brothers in arms] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and "sabotaging" its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions.…It is a Muslim's destiny to perform Jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny except for those who choose to slack. (2)
Furthermore, there is no example of a nation under sharia law that can be considered "moderate" by the standard of human rights. Among Arab nations, Jordan alone is non-sharia, and in every other Arab country non-Muslims are repressed in varying degrees. Although it has a Muslim majority, the modern republic of Turkey was founded by Ataturk in defiance of sharia rule, preferring more Western-style models. A recent Newsweek cover story announces "The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World." The writer, Ayann Hirsi Ali, fled her native Somalia and served in the Dutch Parliament before taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. As the article points out, widespread anti-Christian violence is exploding even in countries with Muslim minorities. Increasingly, Western nations—and courts—are expanding the realms of alternative Muslim self-government, and seem far more accommodating of Muslim scruples (for example, demands that Mohammed not be ridiculed) even while aggressively prosecuting some forms of Christian conviction as hate crimes.
In the face of such challenges, there will be growing pressure for Christians to take one of two positions: either to capitulate to Islamic ambitions out of a naive assumption that Islam is a religion of peace, or to try to match these ambitions by implicitly or even explicitly digging up the deeply flawed and failed policies of Christendom: "If it's holy war you want, it's holy war you'll get!"
The much more difficult but, I believe, faithful way of moving forward, at least for Christians in the U.S., involves: (1) a deeper commitment on the part of churches to help Christians know what they believe and why, and to see that faith and practice shape Christian communities of "faithful presence" in the world; (2) helping Christians understand the teachings and history of Islam; and (3) being engaged citizens in defense of a political system that recognizes no basis for its temporal organization and laws other than the Constitution.
All kingdoms of this age are flawed, but some are better than others. By God's common grace, we live in a nation that—for all of its relativism and dogmatic resistance to ultimate truth-claims—allows them to be made freely. While God grants it, let's use our freedom with wisdom and vigor.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "The Cross and the Crescent" July/August 2012 Vol. 21 No. 4 Page number(s): 40-45
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