So You Want Christian Law but Not Shari’a?

Don’t forge that Christians can be as threatening to non-Christians as Muslims to Christians (and we’re barely talking about Old Testament law):

So with all other great movements in malignant morals. For example, that of the Lord’s Day Alliance. There are plenty of members of the alliance, I venture to opine, who devote at least a part of Sunday to recreation–perhaps automobiling, or piano-playing, or gastronomy, or novel-reading, or the beating of children. But that doesn’t take anything from their noble passion to destroy and prohibit the recreations of the common people. That doesn’t detract from their gallant effort to make the average man’s Sunday a day of tedium and horror, of sullenness and gloom. That doesn’t make the less laudable their vicious and violent attack upon the poor fellows who go to Back River on their one day of rest to sit under the trees and drink a few bottles of beer and hear a happy song or two and get a breath of fresh air.

The Anti-Cigarette League follows the examples of these elder lodges of chemical purity. It does not ask its members to stop smoking themselves; it merely asks them to advocate laws putting heavy penalties upon smoking by others. Its funds will be divided fairly into two parts. One part I shall keep myself, as a modest recompense for my laborious shaking down of the pious. The other part will be devoted to the propaganda. Rabble-rousers will be supplied to Sunday-schools and Chautauquas. Horrible examples will be exhibited to trembling children. Eminent cigarette manufacturers will be denounced by name. Candidates for public office will be browbeaten into line. Literature will be distributed showing that the cigarette is the mother and father of crime, that every cigarette smoker is a potential pirate and murderer, that all the sorrows of the world are caused by the abhorrent coffin-nail.

Why I Love the Modern State

It helps me keep straight the difference between the city of God and the city of man, at a time when so many Christians want Christianity to define “ALL of me.”

Mark Oppenheimer thinks it possible to distinguish Christian as a noun and adjective:

And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.

For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.

And what about James Bratt’s suggestion that politicized evangelicals should own the moniker, “Christianist“?

Whatever the label, believers have trouble (without the help of modern politics) sorting out their Christian and non-Christian aspects. Just consider the confusion in this response to yesterday’s bombings in Belgium:

I’ll leave it to people who know what they’re talking about to expound further on the radical nature of what Christ is demanding of us when he says this. Suffice it to say for now that it’s clear and direct and we don’t have any choice if we call ourselves Christians: we have to forgive our enemies.

And that includes the terrorists who killed 34 people in Brussels on Tuesday. We have to forgive them.

BUT…But…but it is also written, “thou shalt not kill.” And that means that we need to kill all the other terrorists who are still out there.

Why? Because justice and reason and the teaching of the Church. The Fifth Commandment (don’t kill) imparts on Christians a duty to protect and defend innocent human life. Sooooo…it is morally just to use lethal force to prevent the killing of innocent people. Self-defense, just war, etc. etc. etc.

So kill ISIS.

First, I thought God through the ministry of the church forgives sins. It’s not up to me to forgive people who have not wronged me. Do I even have authority as an elder to forgive sins that are crimes against humanity? The Book of Church Order doesn’t say so.

Second, I don’t have the power to kill anyone legally unless I become part of the executive branch of our constitutional order. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I could legitimately kill someone. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I am also carrying out orders of someone else. As a Christian policeman, executioner, or solder I am carrying out the duties of my vocation. But I am not acting “merely” as a Christian since non-Christian police and soldiers carry out similar orders.

So as a 2k Christian I don’t have to forgive or kill. I defer to those with higher pay grades, which includes — piety alert! — praying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Jihad If You Do, Holy War If You Don't

I continue to scratch my head over Christian reactions to Islam. Granted, I would not be so itchy had a three-week journey in Turkey not raised a host of questions through which I am still sorting. Even so, the Christian (and especially neo-Calvinist inspired) criticisms of Muslims for rejecting secularity are richly ironic.

Take, for instance, this plug for the new Trinity Institute to be led by theonomists-turned-Federal Visionaries, James Jordan and Peter Leithart, which talks about the all encompassing claims of Christianity, even on those areas of life considered by secularists to be not religious but secular (i.e., temporal):

When I first came to Japan in 1981, I was a premillennial dispensationalist struggling to plant a church in a pagan culture. Jordan’s The Law of the Covenant, which I read in 1984, showed me how the Bible could and must be read to apply to cultural issues today. Jordan’s various writings on Biblical symbolism, especially Through New Eyes fundamentally changed the way I read and taught the Bible. Our local church here now practices paedobaptism and paedocommunion, employs a liturgy we learned from Jeff Meyers, Jordan, and Leithart, and relies extensively on the voluminous writings of Jordan and Leithart in the research institute that supports our Christian education program. Faithfulness to the Scriptures and love for the Triune God exude from their wide ranging works that address questions and problems in Biblical exegesis, theology, liturgy, history, politics, philosophy, literature, music, and even popular entertainment. When young pastors ask me for book recommendations, I tell them to buy and read everything they can get by Jordan and Leithart.

Note that “faithfulness to Scriptures” involves politics, the arts and sciences, and movies. Note as well that Leithart himself has defended the political theology of Constantine precisely because it is a worthy alternative to secularity.

So what makes Muslims different aside from a different sacred text?

But the irony is all the more apparent in Bill Evans’ recent post about Islam. I won’t go into all of Evans’ points but a couple of paragraphs stand out. The first is the standard line about Islam lacking any room for secularity, despite the examples of Turkey and Dearborn, Michigan:

Islam is a religio-cultural-political package. There is no ultimate distinction in Islam between the sacred and the secular, and thus none between mosque and state. All of life is understood as a matter of submission to Allah. For this reason, while there has sometimes been religious toleration under Islamic governments, there can be no real religious pluralism in the practical political sense of the term. That is to say, adherents of other religions will not be viewed as equal members of society in a context governed by Islamic principles.

Don’t lots of neo-Calvinists also say this about Christianity? Substitute God for Allah and you have a fairly close resemblance, though neo-Calvinists, at least in their Dutch iteration, were never able to rid the Netherlands of the incredible toleration that the nation practiced.

Later in his piece, Evans invokes Richard John Neuhaus’ brief against a Naked Public Scqure, or an overly narrow conception of secularity:

Western secular liberal democracy no longer takes the question of religious truth seriously. In fact, it largely lacks even the vocabulary to discuss religious truth claims, and this places it at a distinct disadvantage when deals with groups for whom such truth claims are central. We in the West are the heirs of the post-Enlightenment fact/value dichotomy—on the one hand there are empirical, scientific facts; on the other hand there are values which cannot be rationally confirmed. Such values are matters of opinion, and religious beliefs and convictions are, on this reading of things, merely values. Along with this comes the inevitable privatization of religion. Religious belief is simply a matter of personal opinion that is acceptable only so long as it remains private and unobtrusive.

The public square, as the late Richard John Neuhaus aptly observed, has thus become “naked” or stripped of religious expression. When Barack Obama claims that Muslims will have a different opinion of America because he “understands their point of view,” Muslims know full well that he is not taking them as believers or their truth claims seriously, and they are not impressed. But we really cannot expect a Western secularist like Obama to respond in any other way, and hence the persistent disconnect between Islam and the West.

This may be a plausible construction of secular society, though if Christ himself introduced the notion when he distinguished between what is Caesar’s and God’s, Christians may actually embrace secularity as part and parcel of their religion. But if Evans is right about secular society in the West, can he really blame Muslims for objecting to secularism?

If Christians are going to portray the struggle between Islam and the West as a clash of civilizations, and then take shots at the West for abandoning Christianity, they will need to give a fuller account of the differences between Islam and Christianity on secular politics. Without that, they sound a tad whiney and a whole lot inconsistent.

Comparing J. Gresham Machen and Mustafa Kemal

I did in fact compare Machen’s effort to purge Christian political activism from American Protestantism to Ataturk’s secularization of Islam in last night’s lecture. Here is an excerpt, well before the comparison:

The intervening history of Enlightenment and secularization is what makes the Religious Right and political Islam stand out. Both groups in different ways oppose secularization. Both also do so by appealing to the sacred texts of their faith. These similarities are what invite comparisons of activist evangelicals and political Muslims, no matter how unflattering or inflammatory. In fact, although born-again Protestants have not blown-up any buildings – wrong headed associations with the Christian militia and Timothy McVeigh notwithstanding – evangelicals’ continued reliance on older religious foundations for civil authority may look odder than political Islam considering that American Christians have so much more experience with alternatives to confessional states (or theocracy) than Muslims do. The United States, a secular nation hallowed by evangelicals, has almost 250 years under its belt and it stands as one of the chief alternatives to Christendom’s political theology. In contrast, the break up of the Ottoman Empire is still less than a century old and places like the Republic of Turkey are still trying to figure out the nature of secular democracy in a Muslim society. Evangelicals’ experience with secular politics may explain their reluctance to use violence. But it makes all the more unusual born-again Protestants’ appeal to the Bible as the norm for politics and social order. To unpack this anomaly a brief comparison of Christian and Muslim understandings of secularity may be useful.

As Bernard Lewis, among many others, has written, secularity in its modern sense – “the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian.” The locus classicus of this idea is Christ’s own instruction, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” [Matt. 22:21]. This was directly the opposite of Roman and Jewish conceptions where either Caesar was God or God was the monarch. For Muslims, God was the supreme authority with the caliph as his vice-regent. What makes the contrast with Islam all the more poignant is that Christianity stood between Judaism and Islam chronologically such that Muslims could well have appropriated Christian notions of secularity. As it happened, Islam followed theocratic models of the ancient near east. Christianity, of course, made social order a lot more complicated as later disputes between popes and emperors demonstrated. Indeed, discomfort with secularity often arises from a legitimate desire for greater moral and political coherence. But for whatever reason, Christ himself apparently favored a social arrangement that differentiated spiritual matters from temporal ones.

No tomatoes thrown, but the ones served during a pleasant meal with UTC faculty were appetizing.

Muslims Have Their Scarves, Christians Their Sandwiches

Political religion takes different forms. For political Islam, a women wearing a head scarf is a symbol of devotion and of defiance against western secularism. For American Christians, it looks like eating a chicken sandwich is a signal of a citizen’s belief, morality, and politics.

All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.

Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there.

Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are situated, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries next week on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

The rest of the news story is here.

As theatrical as the controversy over Chick-fil-A may be (and the company may actually do well from the adverse publicity which is still publicity), one point stands out, though by now it may be a little stale. According to this news story, the mayors of Boston and Chicago have said that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in those cities. According to Rahm Emanuel, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” The mayor likely said this thinking that he was taking a courageous stand for diversity and tolerance. But he was also expressing great intolerance in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That may be the intellectual hobgoblin that haunts everyone living in a liberal democracy, though usually only libertarians see that tolerance means toleration even for groups or persons whose views are nutty or objectionable. But it is odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct.

What Emanuel also fails to see is truth that Thomas Jefferson recognized as basic to living in a free republic. The president’s line about the irrelevance of religion would seem to apply here: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does Chick-fil-A actually hurt Emanuel or other residents of Chicago just because the owner objects to gay marriage? Ideas are supposed to be freely held in America, as long as they don’t hurt others. (Hurt feelings don’t count since we all face people, ideas, and acts in the United States that don’t empower and affirm us.) Since Chick-fil-A provides a service that many use, and creates jobs that produce tax-payers, why does Emanuel actually care about Dan Cathy’s ideas?

Yes, liberals can be hypocritical. But so are conservatives. What’s surprising is that liberals can be as dumb as (they think) their political opposition.

Postscript: Matthew Lee Anderson makes a good point when he distinguishes “tolerant” (i.e., liberal) from “intolerant” (i.e. Religious Right) consumer boycotts. The latter objects to specific products, the former to ideas. So it’s not the chicken sandwich that offends, but the ideas of the guy who makes it. Perfectionism lives.

What a Turkey! Part 5: Another Parallel between Islam and Contemporary Calvinism

If Ohran Pamuk’s setting of northeastern Turkey reveals how the simple religious act of a woman donning a scarf becomes a vigorous expression of political Islam, Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, shows the extent to which political Islam in an Iranian setting will go for the sake of covering women, whether Muslim or not. Her memoir follows her experience as the daughter of the mayor of Tehran before the Islamic revolution, her education in the United States for graduate training in literature, and her return to teach in Tehran, first at the university and then privately. Along the way, Nafisi, whose religious identity is unclear, has to go from wearing jeans and T-shirts as a graduate student, to blouses and slacks as a professor, and then to a chador under Iran’s Muslim republic.

The book is less about politics and more about the way zealous believers read (or misread) literature. Hence Reading Lolita in Tehran is of use once again for Reformed Protestants who advocate w-w and Christian education. This is not meant to be a cheap shot. It is rather a way of considering parallels between totalistic claims upon knowledge and ways of understanding. If w-wists do not want to look like a Christian version of political Islam’s reading of Western literature, they could well learn from Nafisi and consider whether the reach of a w-w needs to be as entire as neo-Calvinists sometimes claim.

One particular passage from Nafisi struck and moved me. The book, thankfully, is not entirely about Nabokov’s very dark novel about a middle-aged man’s illicit relationship with a girl. Nafisi also uses discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James to explore her experience within Iran. Since I am an inveterate romantic (all about me), I am also a sucker for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I consider to be arguably the greatest American novel and the teaching of which was crucial to my budding intellectual awareness. Nafisi’s reading of the novel is as persuasive as it is arresting and comes in the context of a university classroom trial where dedicated Muslim students wanted to prosecute the novel for its immorality and decadence, thus, embodying the evil United States’ secularism and materialism.

Here is one part of the prosecution’s case against Gatsby:

“Okay,” he conceded, “but the values were such that adultery went unpunished. This book preaches illicit relations between a man and a woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment, even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn like their lies, but he has no objection to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and those parties at Gatsby’s . . . remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book – and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar . . . this is the man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” . . . . “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of that Great Satan!”

Nafisi (as well as one of her sharp students) will have nothing of such a surface and pietistic reading of either Gatsby’s longing for Daisy or the American Dream:

The reality of Gatsby’s life is that he is a charlatan. But the truth is that he is a romantic and tragic dreamer, who become heroic because of his belief in his own romantic delusion.
Gatsby cannot tolerate the shabbiness of his life. He has an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He cannot change the world, so he re-creates himself according to his dream. . . . Gatsby’s loyalty was to his reinvented self, which saw its fulfillment in Daisy’s voice. It was to the promises of that self that he remained faithful, to the green light at the end of the dock, not a shabby dream of wealth and prosperity.

The city is the link between Gatsby’s dream and the American dream. The dream is not about money but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving the dream. There is nothing crass here, or the crassness is so mingled with the dream that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two. In the end, the best ideals and the most sordid of realities all come together. . . .

Nafisi then quotes from Gatsby’s final pages:

“‘And as the moon rose higher the in essential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island where that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplating he neither understood nor desire, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’”

Part of Nafisi’s point is that religious zeal misses the higher and even spiritual dimensions of Gatsby and his quest. If viewed only from the standpoint of the antithesis between belief and unbelief, or between obedience to God or sinful disobedience, the political Islamic reading of Gatsby has merit. But applying the antithesis in this way also misses what could plausibly be Gatsby’s own quest, as deformed as it may be, for spiritual fulfillment and even for a new heaven and new earth. Someone might even argue that Gatsby’s condition is what all persons experience this side of paradise lost.

Still, the point here is not about the best reading of Fitzgerald but the limits of w-w thinking that relies so heavily on the antithesis. That division between believers and unbelievers, between the city of God and the city of man, is a spiritual reality that goes all the way down to a person’s inclinations and final destiny. But it is not the last word on human beings even if it is the ultimate one. Persons are bodies as much as they are souls, and while inhabiting planet earth between the advents of Christ, people are still capable of remarkable accomplishments and aspirations. The reason is not because they are free from sin or unbelief but because they are created in the image of God and the residue of that image is responsible for those noble even if unholy longings that sent Jay Gatsby to his soggy death.

If w-wers can produce that kind of intellectual agility – if they can recognize the doubleness of human existence and the dance among spiritual longings, human ingenuity, and the imperviousness of original sin – then we need to pay them more attention. If not, then they sound like just one more version of identity politics to be shelved near the section with political Islamists who also rely overwhelmingly on the antithesis.

What A Turkey! Part 4: When Christianity Imitates Islam

For this trip I brought along reading that might give me some acquaintance with Turkey and its culture and history. This meant including a novel by the Nobel Prize author, Orhan Pamuk, who has set most of his stories in Turkey or the Ottoman Empire. I also brought along a book about Turkey’s political predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, just to get an overview of that regime. And because I wanted to consider the character of contemporary Islam, and because I have wanted to read the book for some time, I included in my bags Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. I trust any readers of Turkish descent will not take offense that somehow I have equated Turkey with Iran. I brought along Nafisi precisely to see the difference between Turkey, a secular state that is demographically Muslim, and Iran, a republic ruled by Muslims. (In this sense, the U.S. is closer to Turkey than to Iran — a secular state that is demographically Christian.)

While reading these books I can’t help but notice parallels between political Islam and those Reformed Protestants who most emphasize the antithesis – to the point where it goes all the way down to every square inch. Pamuk’s novel, Snow, is all about the tension and sometimes conflict between radical Muslims who hate the West (i.e. Europe) for its its secularity and therefore its rejection of God. The following is an exchange from the novel between a Turkish official and a proponent of political Islam:

. . . because I happen to be a free man who can do as he pleases, I sometimes end up getting on a bus and traveling to the other end of Turkey to track down the perpetrator, wherever he is, and have it out with him face-to-face. So please, sir, answer my question. What’s more important, a decree from Ankara or a decree from God?

– This discussion is going nowhere, son. What hotel are you staying at?

– What, are you thinking of turning me int to the police? Don’t be afraid of me, sir. I don’t belong to any religious organizations. I despise terrorism. I believe in the love of God and the free exchange of ideas. That’s why I never end a free exchange of ideas by hitting anyone, even though I have a quick temper. Al I want is for you to answer this question. So please excuse me, sir, but when you think about the cruel way you treated those poor girls in front of your institute – when you remember that these girls were only obeying the word of God as set out so clearly in the Confederate Tribe and Heavenly Light chapters of the Holy Koran – doesn’t your conscience trouble you at all?

– My son, the Koran also says that thieves should have their hands chopped off, but the state doesn’t do that. Why aren’t you opposing this?

– That’s an excellent answer, sir. Allow me to kiss your hand. But how can you equate the hand of a thief with the honor of our women? According to statistics released by the American Black Muslim professor, Marvin King, the incidence of rape in Islamic countries where women cover themselves is so low as to be nonexistent and harassment is virtually unheard of. This is because a woman who has covered herself is making a statement. Through her choice of clothing, she is saying, Don’t harass me. So please, sir, do you really want to push our covered women to the margins of society by denying them the right to an education? If we continue to worship women who take off their head scarves (and just about everything else too), don’t we run the risk of degrading them as we have seen so many women in Europe degraded in the wake of the sexual revolution? And if we succeed in degrading our women, aren’t we also running the risk of – pardon my language – turning ourselves into pimps?

Of course, radical American Calvinists who detest what the West does to male and female relations and roles, don’t advocate that women wear scarves. But they do insist on female subordination to men, and some also speak favorably of Old Testament penalties being carried over to places like sixteenth-century Geneva. Why I have had exchanges in the blogosphere that resemble this one. A theonomist brings up the death penalty for adultery. I respond by mentioning that the state does not outlaw blasphemy and idolatry, a situation that works well for theonomist’s Roman Catholic or Mormon neighbors. But rather than trying to kiss my hand, this theonomist interprets my response as a form of infidelity, as if I don’t love the Lord.

Thankfully, political Christianity in the United States has imbibed enough of the West and its differentiation between religion and politics not to try to enforce their religious convictions with physical violence or political treason. The worst they do is defame other Christians and excoriate certain public officials — always in the name of God and his law.

As welcome as the pacifism of political Christianity in the United States is, I do wonder if the Calvinists who hate secularism and its cultural consequences ever ponder their resemblances to political Islam. (Not to wind up the neo-Calvinists too much, but have they ever considered how intoleranttheir views of the French Revolution and political liberalism are.) Of course, Islam is not wrong simply because of its political embodiments like those in Iran. It could be that Christians should imitate regimes like Iran with imprisonment and execution of political dissidents and intolerance of deviations from orthodox practices. But since Jesus and his apostles left no traces of the political profile exhibited either by Joshua, David, or Mohammad, it could be that Christians pining for a regime that enforces their faith and practice is actually an alien notion among Christ’s followers. To prove the point, just imagine the Baptist Republic of South Carolina where Presbyterians are forced to dunk their adolescent children and Episcopalian men are required to wear white patent leather shoes.