My dear friend, as well as colleague, Lee C. Camp has recently released a new book entitled: Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam–and Themselves. Lee is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville (TN) where I also teach.
Lee uses a line from a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a hermeneutical principle: “Grant that we may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” He focuses this principle in the light of Mirosalv Volf’s call for “double vision” in his book Exclusion and Embrace, that is, to look at any question from the other’s point of view, especially our enemies. To love our neighbors is to understand their point of view even if we might not agree with it.
Consequently, Lee attempts to understand Islam’s presumed orientation to war-making, and at the same time compare it with the Just War tradition in the history of Christianity. The results are stimulating and disconcerting.
The Jesus story, Lee claims, is nonviolent, and the leading theologians of the early church until the fourth century were also nonviolent. They opposed violence and war-making. Following his teacher and mentor John Howard Yoder, Lee suggests that a Jesus politic generates “a distinctive community that has its own particular, if sometimes peculiar, ways of life together” (p. 32). This community loves its enemies, seeks peace, rejects violence, and pursues justice. The Christian politic is a “politics of suffering, nonretaliatory love” (p. 37).
Interestingly, Lee suggests that Muhammad initially employed a similar hermeneutic. He “counseled nonretaliation” in his early years, but this changed due to excessive persecution in Mecca against his followers and the rise of his power in Medina. Muhammad now permitted his followers to defend themselves and even aggressively attack representatives of the persecuting power. Muhammad, at this time, was an advocate of self-defense.
This is the difference between the Jesus and Muhammad stories. Jesus rejected the use of violence but Muhammad employed violence and “war-making in his administration of justice” (p. 45). Muhammad sought a just society and used force to secure it. Jesus sought a just society and used suffering love to secure it.
Lee suggests that what developed in Islam after Muhammad was a classical tradition of war-making that is similar if not morally equivalent to the Just War tradition within historic Christendom. The “criteria and limits upon war…paralleled in many ways the Christian Just War tradition” (p. 59). Islam, like Christianity (using Greco-Roman resources), developed the need for a just cause, declared intent, a legitimate authority, and limits for how to conduct war. The formal logic, Camp contends, of historic (e.g., Constantinian and Augustinian) Christian and Islamic war-making criteria is essentially the same.
But war is not always conducted on the basis of what are regarded as “just criteria.” Indeed, war-making in the European Christian tradition seems to arrogate to itself the right to transcend those criteria as needed. Whether it is the Crusades, or Puritan assaults on Native Americans in “New England,” or Sherman’s march to the sea, the Just War tradition failed to hinder unjust war-making. Lee recounts some of these stories; they are horrific. These ventures have at least one thing in common–violence against non-combatants or the redefinition of combatants so that it includes everyone living in the city (Jerusalem), village (Pequot), state (Georgia), or nation (Germany and Japan). As Lee states, the West likes the Just War tradition’s “formal logic–that war can be justified–but [it] does not like its constraints” (p. 95). These stories should be told in the West so that our national narratives might hear and take account of Western abuses of the Just War tradition.
The logic that extends transcends the constraints of just war-making in some situations in the West is the same logic that is utilized by Muslim terrorists. “Total war” in Western practice (whether “Christian” or the Enlightenment politics of liberal Western democracies) is similar to a terrorist “holy war”–they both violate “just war” criteria, particularly the death of non-combatants (including women and children). “Moral equivalency” is the contention and is thus the justification articulated by terrorists (whether some Muslims or some right-wing American militia). The logic that burned crops in Georgia in order to make the South “beg for mercy,” that firebombed German and Japanese cities in order to subvert civilian morale, and that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force surrender is formally the same logic as Muslim or American (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing) terrorism (p. 101). That is a chilling conclusion but one that Lee argues convincingly.
At this point in the book, Lee “takes stock” (chapter 14) and it is important to hear him carefully. First, “the founding narratives of Christianity and Islam are different.” While Muhammad used the sword to end the conflicts on the Arabian peninsula, Jesus “employed the way of the cross to deal with” conflict (p. 105).
Second, “the mainstream of Christian tradition looks more like the Muhammad story than the Jesus story” as it has rejected the basic narrative of peace-making in the Jesus narrative. He states this clearly: “I simply mean that the formal shape, the basic logic, of the church’s understanding of the employment of force on behalf of justice was more like the subsequent teaching of Muhammad than the teaching of Jesus” (p. 106).
Do we believe the peace-making ethic of Jesus is realistic? Jesus lived it; he is our model. He is a peacemaker, and they killed him. That is realistic. When we advocate peace-making, it will upset some…especially when we advocate it on Veterans Day. But it is, as Lee argues and I believe, the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of Jesus.