So on Thursday, the President spoke at a National Prayer breakfast. In the speech he said these words:
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
This, of course, sent the right wing crazy, but also several on the left. They scream that the President was making a moral equivalency between ISIS and Christianity. They said it was an attack on all Christians. They said he was ignorant of the Crusades and mentioned that they were efforts to fight Muslims terrorists. It was quite remarkable. But what they are missing is the simple fact that the President was right. The simple fact is that the actions of ISIS are a perversion of Islam that is not unlike perversions of other faith traditions that led to atrocities throughout history and up to very recently. To paint all of Islam with the brush dipped in the blood shed by ISIS is silly and as silly as holding today’s Christian’s responsible for the Crusades. But let’s be clear. Even if you could make the argument that the Crusades were about fighting to take back land in the Middle East considered Holy to the European Christians who went to fight the Arabs there, one cannot explain how the killing of Jews along the way was justifiable and not a Christian mob who saw themselves doing God’s work. The President is simply pointing out in this speech that we must be cautious of how we see groups like ISIS and how we generalize them to all of Islam, or even argue that Islam somehow supports this kind of brutality.
But the noise machine and others will have none of it. They will tell you what the President thought and how he hates Christianity and how he is making an excuse for ISIS. But that is not the truth. But truth and the noise machine are not friends. In fact they conveniently ignore that he brought up civil rights in the equation so that they can so easily dismiss the clear evil that was part of the Crusades or the Inquisition as being over 600 years ago. But what they won’t address is that it was Christian teaching that led many to not question slavery or even Jim Crowe in our nation’s history. A history that is troubled and rarely fully addressed. Funny story, at the same time there were preachers in pulpits saying things like enslaving savage Africans will break their will and they will find salvation, there were many in the pulpit using the same text to condemn the institution of slavery. And that is what the President was alluding to in his speech. That religion can be the lever to move people and that is can be manipulated to do evil and justify it as sacred.
Ta-Nehesi Coates, writing today in The Atlantic says:
Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, any more than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.
Mr. Coates points out correctly that the analogy is not only solid, but important to any discussion about religions role in defeating the evil that is ISIS. Going back to the imagery of the Crusades and frankly the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, it was often Christian leaders who called for mass killings and their followers who would carry it out. Jews were slaughtered in many places simply for being Jews, this time of year, near Purim and Pesach that almost always coincides with Lent and Easter, priests would rile up crowds to descend on the Jews in a town to punish them simply for a different faith. It used made up stories of Jews murdering Christian children, known as the blood libel, to make Matzah or Hamantaschen and the murderers truly felt they were making the world better through purging of the infidels in their midst. Sound familiar?
But we need not look back 600 years. Near where I grew up in Massena, NY in 1928, a young girl went missing a few days before Yom Kippur and the city officials were convinced the Jews had ritually sacrificed her. When it was later discovered that she got lost and fell asleep in the woods (easy to do in the region even today when you get outside of town) people still believed this. But this blood libel is alive and well today in many places including among the Christians of Poland according to a 2008 study.
Christian actions and words have led to horrors in the past that can’t simply be ignored while holding all of Islam responsible for the actions of the lunatic death cult called ISIS.
The President was simply pointing out these Middle East thugs are not a novel invention in human history and we must be careful of how much we draw from their invoking the name of God in their actions. We can so easily generalize their actions to all Muslims or think that this is the definition of Islam and that somehow that is waiting for us from all Muslim. So instead of being outraged that the President addressed the issue in a strong way, perhaps you should use this to open up dialogue to address the real issues. That religion can be used to commit horrors beyond imagine in the name of God, and that this must be stopped. The best way is to promote freedom and take religion out of the hands of civil authority and to focus on not trying to demonize an entire faith, but understand the struggle that faith is going through as the radical members have created such a powerful profile. Want to screw with an Islamic radical, invite a Muslim to your seder or your child’s baptism. Each and every faith evolves as it matures and goes through its own form of enlightenment. We are living in the time of that struggle in Islam. But what we must understand that while the words are different and the prayers have another language this is not new and that is what the President was saying. It may be hard to hear, but it will help in the long run to combat the radicals. But that will only happen if we recognize them for what they are, and that they are not unique in the grand scheme of things.