OCTOBER 15, 2001
Words to War By
-- Martin E. Marty
In the desperate search for clarity, some find it where it is not. These are the words of columnist Linda Chavez, published in the 10 October edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Despite what our leaders keep telling us, Islam is not inherently a peaceful religion. Unlike Christianity, in whose name wars have been fought but without any Scriptural basis to support those wars to be found in the teaching of Jesus Christ, Islam can find explicit justification for jihad or 'holy war' within its sacred text." The Qur'an instructs believers to "slay the idolaters. . . . make war on the leaders of unbelief . . .Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them."
She writes some moderating comments about most Muslims, but her main point remains: "Unlike Christianity, . . . " What are we to say about such a depiction of the "contrast" between our "sacred texts."
The first thing that Christians should be is honest. This honesty must extend to Christian sacred texts. Chavez's reading is dishonest. She is right about Jesus, but if Christians wanted to be literalists, they would not only not have found justification for their myriad wars but for any wars "in the teachings of Jesus." Jesus is not, however, the whole of Christianity. Our canon stretches from Genesis to Revelation, and includes all of the books in between. It was and is heretical to exclude the "Old Testament" or Hebrew Bible from the Christian canon.
My biblical bookshelf, holds a long row of titles such as God the Warrior, Holy War in Ancient Israel [which, some say, should read 'Yahweh War,'] and A Time for War. During the Revolutionary War, American colonists constantly appealed to those many Christian-canonical texts in which God justified our side and impelled colonists into battle. Each side in the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln astutely observed, cited the same texts against the other see Henry Ward Beecher's The Battle Set in Array and Benjamin Morgan Palmer's National Responsibility Before God for an eerie comparison. Our side pulled out the Bible again to explain our entrance into World War I.
We have some homework for Ms. Chavez and others in the "unlike Islam. . . scriptural basis" camp. Sit down with your Bibles and read Joshua, Judges, and I Samuel, including the commands from God for his army and its leaders to kill all the men, women, children, even animals in a conquest. Read Exodus 15:3 with its joyful discovery that "Yahweh is a man of war." Read Deuteronomy 7, 20, and many pages in the prophets. Yes, there are passages commending and celebrating peace (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). The Qur'an contains similar passages. Using both we can build a scriptural case for peace.
What has happened in the United States to moderate the "Yahweh War" theme? Christianity has had help from its ambiguous friends, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, rationalism, philosophical calls for tolerance, the rise of liberal republicanism. In many cases these gifts came from non-Christians. In many cases since receiving them, they have been tucked away to make way for "Yahweh War." When kept in mind, they have helped Christians to find the peaceful side of the "sacred texts," and to support religious freedom and peace.
Thank the Yahweh of peace for them.