Who is My Enemy? New Book from Lee C. Camp

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.

8 Responses to “Who is My Enemy? New Book from Lee C. Camp”

  1.   Kelly King Walden Says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve thought for many years that personal self-defense is indefensible in Christianity. How can I kill someone who is about to kill me when I’m confident of my salvation but certainly not his? This can extend to warfare. (Now I’m not saying I would never kill in self-defense; it’s such an instinctive survival response I might do it. But I couldn’t excuse it.)

  2.   riverwindfire Says:

    Brilliant review, John Mark, thank you for posting it. I realize that your timing will not be appreciated by everyone. But perhaps even that will bring the matter “closer to home,” and less “up in the clouds” of abstract discussion.

  3.   Joe Don Ridgell Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and perspective. I share many of the same viewpoints but struggle with having the right amount of respect and appreciation for the protection and liberties I am afforded while at the same time advocating peace and non-violence. I believe it has more to do with perception and understanding of the hearer but I struggle to find a way to express similar points of views without coming across as unappreciative for the legitimate uses of police/military. Constructive thoughts are appreciated…

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      That is a thorny problem. We certainly love our veterans (as my father was one himself from WWII) as they are our neighbors and we can appreciate their intentions to serve in honor and out of a sense of justice. We can honor those intentions though we might disagree with their methods. Can we speak positively in the sense of loving our neighbors, honoring their intentions, and grateful for their willingness to sacrifice for others without sanctioning their method of pursuing justice? I think so, but–of course–it may not be heard that way. I am blessed with liberties…blessed by God.

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      I understand the struggle and find it difficult to juggle. Like most Americans, there are a lot of veterans in my family, including a father who was drafted into the Army at the end of the Korean conflict and a grandfather who served in the Army as a WW1 vet. Both of them served with pure and noble motives (my dad actually tried avoiding his fire-arms training because he could barely stomach the idea of learning to do something that was intended to kill another person). I appreciate their selfless service as well as that of all the other vets but if I express that, it sounds like I am just one of the many other nationalistic voices out there. When I try to proclaim the “peace-making ethic” of Jesus, I’m accused of being just another educated liberal exercising the first amendment of constitution that been afforded me because of the sacrifice made by other (others who inevitably are criticized somewhat by the affirmation of peace-making).

      So it is to live between a rock and a hard place.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I’ve not read the book yet (it’s on my Amazon wish-list) but I am looking forward to reading it. Nevertheless, I have appreciated reading the reviews, yours included, but have yet to run across any disagreeing reviews. Perhaps an alternative to the nationalistic/militaristic Christian faith is taking root. If so, praise be to God!

  5.   Jerry Starling Says:

    John Mark,

    Thanks for a perceptive and insightful post. To put ourselves into the “skin” of the Islamist is difficult, but is necessary. I have wondered what would have happened had we sent a thousand missionaries to the Islamic world instead of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. I suggested this to a young man, who was evidently recently returned from the wars. His response was to dismiss it by saying they would all be beheaded. That may well be – but would any more die under that strategy than have died in the wars? Especially if we “count” the civilian casualties in the war areas. Yes, we would have had to send others to replace those who fell – but would loving kindness win out over bullets and bombs?

    It is good to see men like you and Tim Archer returning to the pacifist roots of the churches of Christ – roots we left behind in a rush on December 7, 1941. I have talked with men who served in CO detention camps during WWII who spoke of how blood-thirsty so many in the church became that fateful Sunday. I have also read the story of an American woman missionary who lived safely in Japan throughout the war – who was loved by the people she served.

    Yet, I see little hope of a pacifist view for the leadership of our nation. Even the anti-war president we now enjoy has been diligently singling out individuals to “take out” with missiles launched from drones or by special forces sent in to execute malefactors.

    I am encouraged that some are beginning to think again about how the Christian is to relate to all of this.


  6.   eirenetheou Says:

    For disciples of Jesus, the problem of “just war” and “pacifism” is that both require identification with, participation in, and service to the human political order as “citizens.” Disciples of Jesus are called to make peace and to live at peace with all humankind. Our Lord Jesus teaches that those who make peace “shall be called sons of God.” Jesus does not say whose sons those who make war shall be called, but in the Gospels it is the Slanderer who claims authority over the kingdoms of this world and their glory. In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls those who make war on him “sons of the Slanderer.”

    “Pacifism” and “just war” are political ideologies that assume that the human political order, in any place, at any time, can be persuaded to serve the will of God or some “higher ethical ideal” rather than its own immediate interests and self-preservation. That assumption is a delusion. Let us resolve, rather, to learn to love our enemies and to forgive them, and to live at peace with all humankind. The human political order will do what it does. Let us call all humankind to turn to Jesus.

    Thank for your measured review of Brother Lee’s good work.

    God’s Peace to you.



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