| Religion: Cause or
a World of
During a visit to Seattle Pacific University in February,
Indian theologian Vinay Samuel posed a provocative question to
faculty, staff, community members and area pastors: “Had
Muslim pilgrims set sail for America in the 1600s, would they have
been welcomed in what became the United States? Was the Christianity
of the Puritan fathers broad enough, big enough to say, ‘Oh,
yes, we believe in religious freedom. You can be a part of our
As religious intolerance and religiously inspired violence
increase around the world, American Christians have a particular
to address the problem, said Samuel. “Your country was founded
in part on the virtue of tolerance. This is an arena in which you
have had much success and an issue about which you have something
important to say.”
At the heart of America’s success in demonstrating religious tolerance,
emphasized Samuel, has been the Christian church and the gospel. He challenged
listeners to become full citizens of God’s world and active agents of his
will in responding to the scourge of religiously inspired terrorism.
RELIGIOUSLY INSPIRIED VIOLENCE is not merely a topic
me; it is extremely urgent and real in my life as a Christian and world citizen.
In India last November, I was called to pray with a Christian pastor who had
been beaten very badly by Hindu fundamentalists. His plight was unexpected,
and I asked my friend if he had preached some wild thing about Hindus. He said
no, that he had merely visited a new Christian in a nearby village. But he had
been watched. tHe Jeep in which he was traveling was burned; he was beaten;
the police did nothing. India! The world’s largest democracy and a tolerant
nation. Hinduism! A tolerant religion. What is happening?
I was just in Washington, D.C., meeting with Christian leaders from Pakistan.
They told me about the burning by Muslim fanatics of hospitals that have cared
for the poor for more than 100 years. Nurses were killed and doctors intimidated.
So this is not an academic topic for me. It has to do with people I know being
pressured, imprisoned and murdered.
This is the reality of religiously inspired violence, and it is what
we are seeing increasingly across the world, from Oklahoma City to
Christians in America have a significant responsibility not only
to understand, but to respond to such violence. For me, the struggle
is between religious fanaticism and extremism on the one hand, and
the ability to live in peace beside those with whom we disagree on
the other hand. You have a responsibility to address that struggle
because of what God has given you for more than 400 years: a free
society built on the idea of embracing difference.
What Is a Religious Fanatic?
Let’s try and understand the nature of a religious fanatic.
Some of them have been my neighbors and friends for years. Now suddenly
they are fanatics. They possess an absolute sense of certitude, and
it violently propels them. They think they alone have the authority
to interpret the true meaning of the sacred texts they use. They
are not on any road to truth; they have arrived.
Religious fanatics feel called to take the world by its neck and
conform it to their vision of what the world should be like. To do
that, they will sacrifice everything, including self. Who they are,
where they were born, their life plan — these are absolutely
meaningless. Have you wondered how young men and women can fill their
pockets with bombs and blow themselves up? Because they have no sense
of self; it’s all erased.
In the eyes of religious fanatics, those who ignore, reject or combat
their cause must be destroyed. It gives them intense pleasure to
destroy what others hold sacred and precious. To them, the present
ruling order — whatever it may be — is imperfect, impure
and corrupt, and must be reduced to rubble.
If you think I am describing Islam, let me assure you that this description
has also been true of Christianity. For example, during the Protestant
Reformation in Europe, some Christians sought to destroy all traces
of Roman Catholicism, including churches and priests. They believed
that to abolish the “earthly city” would usher in the “city
of God” and perfection would follow. Even Martin Luther, while
he came to abhor the violence against Catholics, advocated the burning
of Jewish schools and synagogues.
So when we point a finger at others, we are also pointing at ourselves.
Such fanaticism penetrates and is a part of all forms of modern society
and infects both religious and secular ideologies.
Church, State and Religious Freedom
It was the tension between church and state that produced the idea
and practice of tolerance in Western society. For 300 years, Europe
struggled with the question of how to live in the interval between
the “earthly city” and the “heavenly city,” how
to have a religion that is able to shape the public sphere without
producing fanaticism. Out of this struggle developed a separation
of church and state that fostered a tolerance for different groups
of people and different beliefs. For Spinoza, for Liebnitz and for
Locke, tolerance was the defining virtue of modern Western society.
Then was added the economic dimension of free markets, helping further
define what Western society is all about.
Fanaticism refuses to accept this separation between the state and
the religious order. In Europe, fanatics continued to confuse church
and state until the Pilgrims had had enough and left to create a
new society on the North American continent — a society where
church and state were separate, yet lived together in constructive
tension, based on the ideal of religious freedom. As someone who
is not an American, I want to say that the experiment has been a
great success. I think it is the best success story of the last 400
But today America faces a completely new situation, the same situation
being experienced worldwide. What America has not had to deal with
until now is the close proximity of religions that are altogether
different from Christianity — with a cosmic view, a vision
of the world, which is not Christian. Is America diverse enough,
open enough, free enough and strong enough to accept the diversity
we face in the renewed religious identities of today? Does America,
for instance, have a vision that can embrace Muslims and Hindus?
The answers are important, because you represent the grand experiment
of religious freedom.
A Contest of Identities
The reasons for the rise in religiously inspired violence are much
more complex than a rise in religious fundamentalism. The spread
of fanaticism in today’s world is due in large part to the
transition taking place from traditional to modern societies. In
individual expectations increase. Communities mobilize to gain benefits
and advantages. Groups jostle and conflict with each other. How can
this process possibly continue without implosion and explosion?
That is the context of violence in and between societies today. As
groups of people are moving and changing, they are also saying, “We
want our identity to be affirmed.” They are in a contest of
identities, and if there are no arrangements and procedures for
public discourse about their place in the modern world — as,
for example, in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia — chaos results. And
so a country like Saudi Arabia crushes even the smallest discussion.
What is it that young Pakistanis or Saudis want? Like most of the
youth in transitional societies, they want to live like Americans.
But if there is no way for them to express themselves and live out
their dreams in their own countries, it produces enormous tension.
It’s as if someone has placed a lid on them. The pressure builds
until it implodes or explodes.
Like other religious fanatics, Islamic radicals “instrumentalize” religion,
using it as a tool to gain political power in the face of chaos.
It is also used as a way to activate the community for reasons of
solidarity and identity. It is not a common moral vision or plan
for the future of a modern, developed nation that motivates such
fanatics. What will unite them, they think, is to go back in time
to their traditional customs and religious practices.
In Hinduism — seen as a tolerant religion — there are
no doctrines, traditions and rituals common to all Hindus, no system
that unites like Islam. So why do we see Hindu fanaticism also growing
rapidly? I suggest that this is happening once again because of a
drive to recover a suppressed identity. Hindus feel they have been
suppressed by Islam, and then by British colonial rule and Christianity,
for the last 1,300 years. Now they want to recover Hindu pride, Hindu
culture and Hindu religion.
With this comes a rejection of the old
idea of India as a secular state. To build a strong nation, many
Hindus say, “We need Hinduism to empower us.” Is that so different,
they ask, than what some groups of Christians advocate about America?
Islam and the Closed Society
For Americans, Islamic religious fanaticism
became all too real on September 11, 2001. Why, Americans ask, do
radical Muslims hate us?
Today’s Islamic religious fanatics identify their enemy as “the Western devil.” The
pluralism and diversity of modern Western societies are labeled the core problems
in the world, the sign and expression of moral decadence. Islam, they believe,
is God’s corrective to that ignorance and moral rottenness. The Arab people of
Muhammad’s day had embraced pluralism and diversity, and even worshipped many
gods. So radical Muslims believe Islam was divinely given to reverse the effects
of modern times. In their way of thinking, religion becomes the essential thing;
followers appeal to religion only, not reason, in all things.
The result is a
closed, rather than open, society. The people are oriented collectively rather
than individually. God-given orders and a sense of duty prevail over a concern
for the rights of the individual. You start with the sovereignty of God and
deny the sovereignty of people. You understand differences of values
as an expression
of moral confusion and not the inevitable result of a pluralizing society
and world. There are no safety nets for difference and diversity.
To agree that there
can be two positions on anything is immoral. This results in a hegemonic doctrine
of purity that leads to persecution and violence. That is fanaticism. Not all
of Islam, certainly, but fanatical Islam.
Can that kind of Islam adjust to modernity? Can closed societies ever become
open societies? Is plurality possible there? In principle it seems impossible,
but in practice might it be possible?
Western societies have learned how to manage conflict between groups and different
identities through a long process of institution-building and procedural arrangements.
But many Muslims have rejected the Western model, both because they find the
competing ideology of the West unacceptable, and because those Islamic societies
that have copied the West have experienced authoritarianism and a greater gap
between the rich and the poor. Consequently, much of Islam has maneuvered
itself into a blind alley of sorts, rejecting the Western example of plurality
interests of moral clarity and uniformity in all aspects of life.
So what of the future of Islamic societies? The average person in these societies — not
the few fanatics who make a lot of noise, but the vast number of ordinary people — know
there is no going back to traditional Islam. They’ve got to move forward.
And that is the challenge faced by the United States and the church today.
What should we who live in open, liberal and plural societies, especially as
be doing regarding the struggle of people in closed societies? They are not
the enemy bent on nuking our cities and killing us. Their primary drive is
to become modern, to retain their identity and to cope with their internal
violence and conflicts. These internal clashes are far more urgent to them
an Al Qaeda group to harm America.
A Christian Response
Again I ask, what is our responsibility to transitional societies? Should we
just simply pray? Should we hope they’ll implode and all become Christian?
How should we respond?
First, Christians need to demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God in
the present — in our own communities, churches and colleges. We need
to practice kingdom principles and values. For instance, we must promote covenantal
that take people and their futures very, very seriously. Can we conceive of
a covenant relationship between nations to respect each other’s sovereignty
and to build each other up? That was the original vision of the League of Nations,
and it broke down. Yet the League of Nations and the United Nations were ideas
that came out of the United States. Where is that idea of covenant now? What
are Christians doing to promote covenantal relationships that build people
Second, Christians need to be good global stewards — stewards, not rulers.
God calls human beings to be stewards of the earth, stewards of each other,
stewards of human life. Thus, the greater challenge to the United States is
rather than global hegemony and global rule. As the only superpower on earth,
it has to be a good steward of that power. This does not mean just managerial
ability; it means nothing less than restoring justice and peace. How many American
Christians accept this responsibility in anticipation of the kingdom of God?
Third, Christians need to practice the kingdom value of reconciliation. We
must embrace difference, not erase difference. That’s the hardest thing
to do. How can people embrace difference unless they have experienced the
love of God in their families, in their own lives and with those who are completely
different from themselves? This is the problem with churches, because they
are so socially and culturally the same. They do not experience difference,
embrace it. Yet the world desperately needs people with the ability to embrace
difference, people who have learned to reconcile its complexities, tensions,
contests and conflicts.
This is a very big picture and a very big challenge.
But to ignore it is to deny the very basis upon which your nation was founded.
The United States was
to demonstrate the triumph of religious freedom over religious fanaticism,
the possibility of people living with difference and out of it creating a new
Is that still possible? We need those who have inherited and who will inherit
this nation to continue the Christian vision with which it began — not
just for the sake of this country, but also for the sake of the whole world.
— BY VINAY SAMUEL | Director of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians
— ILLUSTRATIONS BY
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