The last twelve months has in many ways been defined by the rising tide of 'religious' violence across the globe, and in particular the violence perpetrated by those who claim Islam as their religion.
While the growth of ISIS's self-proclaimed Caliphate in Iraq and Syria has perhaps been the focal point of the world's attention, there has been a seemingly endless string of religiously motivated terrorist attacks taking place all over the globe.
Inevitably, these incidents have brought to the forefront of many people's minds the questions as to why people are prepared to kill and be killed in the name of God. From my own personal conversations, observations from the media, and trawling through discussions (in the broad sense of the term!) on social media, I see one argument come up again and again: that it is not one particular religion that is responsible for religious violence, but rather it is a trait common to all those who are fundamentalist or extremist in their beliefs, regardless of what their religion is.
From a cursory glance, this indeed appears to be a strong argument. Islam may have more pressing problems with extremists within its ranks at this point in history, but if we turn back the pages of history a few chapters, we'll find that Christianity has dished out more than its fair share of death and destruction in the name of God as well.
What about the Spanish Inquisition? What about the Crusades? Is Christianity just as susceptible as Islam to producing religious militants? That question is beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to explore in a little detail the precedent set by Jesus and Muhammad for their followers to live by.
For Muslims, Muhammad (b. 570 A.D. in Mecca) is seen as the last and most esteemed prophet sent by God to mankind. However, throughout the course of his ministry, Muhammad did far more than just simply preach. As well as a spiritual leader to his followers, he was also a political and military leader. From humble beginnings as the leader of a confederation of tribes in Medina, Muhammad's community of believers (the umma) expanded to encompass almost the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula by the time of his death in 632.
Much like Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament, the umma was a political entity – with a constitution, a legal system, and a military to defend and further its political interests. However, the umma was not confined just to one particular ethnic group, but rather it was God's community for people from all nations to belong to. To some degree then, the umma had a mandate to spread their influence beyond their immediate community, and under the right circumstances warfare was considered a legitimate means of doing so.
Like Muhammad (570 years after Jesus), when Jesus began his ministry he set about proclaiming the arrival of a kingdom as well. Like Muhammad, this was no ordinary kingdom. It was the Kingdom of God, an eternal kingdom with dominion over all peoples, of which Jesus himself claimed to be the king. Like Muhammad, Jesus is a political leader. However, unlike Muhammad, Jesus' polis is of an altogether different nature than Muhammad's umma. His kingdom is not of this world.
Because it does not belong to this world, it does not operate in a way the other kingdoms of the world operate. In his ministry, Jesus did not run for political office, he did not draw up borders for his kingdom, and he did not recruit an army to defend it. Jesus fought battles, but his enemies were not Roman armies, but rather were Sin and Death itself, which he triumphed over at the cross.
Looking back at the history of Christianity over the last two thousand years, we will regrettably find examples of Christians committing acts of violence in the name of God. However, this does not lead us to automatically conclude that Christians who take God's Word seriously are inherently prone to violence. Rather, it reveals an errant understanding of what the Kingdom of God is about.
As Christians in the world, we belong to a variety of different communities, nations and states. Ultimately though, these identities pale in comparison to the identity we have in Christ and as citizens in his kingdom. We may be at war, but "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians chapter 6, verse12).
First published February 11, 2015
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html