My next door neighbour is a devout Muslim and he is the best neighbour that it is possible to have. He recently replaced the fence between our gardens. Not only did he refuse to accept any contribution from us for the cost of the new fence, but while we were away he came round and coated our side of the fence too.
Over the years, I have got to know him and we have talked about our different faiths and what they mean to us. There is no way that his generosity, kindness and essential decency can be separated from his faith. His beliefs and action are integral to each other.
Religion that leads to violence
In an attempt to stem the flow of anti-Muslim sentiment after atrocities such as 9/11, or the murders of Lee Rigby or the Charlie Hebdo staff, it is common to hear people say ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’. However, just as my neighbour’s kindness is a positive expression of faith, we cannot pretend that the horrific violence that we have seen again unleashed yesterday has nothing to do with religion.
It is well-meaning but dangerous. History shows us that religion often leads to violence. And however twisted and warped, it is theology that has helped form the worldview of these killers. Thomas Merton wrote about the power of this kind of violence:
“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit.”
Religion as a private matter
In contemporary Western culture there is a strong liberal desire to respect all forms religion but essentially to domesticate them within a private sphere. Faith is fine, as long as it’s between you and God. It has no place in the public realm.
But Islam and Christianity will always resist being domesticated in such a way. Both faiths believe in a God who created all things, who is sovereign over all people, not just those who acknowledge Him. They are faiths which have universal claims at their core and these lead to public witness and a myriad of social and political action. And throughout history, both religions have contributed to the some of the most beautiful achievements of humanity, but also to the most blood-soaked.
No one could deny the European Church’s involvement in the brutal imperial opportunism in Africa and Latin America in 18th and 19th century. And however twisted and barbaric it was, it makes no sense to say that Islamist extremism, and especially suicide attacks are not religious acts. They were intrinsically faith-related because they involved self-sacrifice motivated through belief in a reward beyond the grave. These acts are carried out by believers who don’t acknowledge the liberal dichotomy between the political and the theological.
Religion will always be vulnerable to corruption because humans are involved. The exposing of corrupt religion is a major theme in the Bible, especially in the prophets such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah:
‘Even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood’ (Isaiah 1:15)
The true role of faith
Most people want a society built on justice and compassion, which is hallmarked by reconciliation, forgiveness, love and generosity. But these virtues will not be generated simply by our own goodwill or our innate qualities, as optimistic humanists believe. Faith and religion will always have a major role to play in public and community life because of the need for a deeper basis to these values than what is offered by contemporary moralism.
For me that basis, the clue to history, the cornerstone on which society can find meaning and unity is in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In him, we find the deepest resources.
Christians, now more than ever, need to make sure that our religion is continually shaped and re-shaped by this truth and grace, and is expressed in costly generosity, reconciliation and love. ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6).
When we do, our faith, like that of my Muslim neighbour, stands in deepest contrast to the warped and twisted expressions of religion which perpetuate violence and destruction.