In the past few weeks, I have been asked regularly what lessons we learned from the experience of September 11, and I have despaired of finding much new to say about the terrorist themes because I’ve lived with these issues for so long. I was teaching courses and seminars on terrorism back in the mid-1980s, and in my last offering — in 1996 —our major class project was to assess the likely political and social implications of bringing down the World Trade Center.
On reflection, the greatest lesson I learned from the 9/11 horror concerned religion, and specifically how we in the West viewed the great world faiths. And the lessons are as much about Us as about Them. After 9/11, many commentators went beyond focusing on the particular ideology of the perpetrators to speak in terms of a broad clash of cultures and civilizations. They focused intensely on Islam, trying to determine just what features of that faith led its adherents to violence and bloodshed. Many writers have presented Islam as a stark contrast to Christianity and Judaism, and portrayed a struggle of darkness against light.
The Qur’an, in this view, is something like a terrorist manifesto: the book oozes violence, with so many verses about battles, swords and blood. Fanaticism seems hard-wired into the faith. Are the core texts of Islam so repulsive that they will prevent Muslim societies ever evolving to civilized and democratic communities? Why can’t they learn to be like us?
Reversing the gaze
What’s so startling about this approach is what it says about how little Christians and Jews seem to know about their own scriptures, and their own history. Absent from such discussions is any sense of the extraordinarily violent and unforgiving passages that litter the Hebrew Bible, which is also the Christian Old Testament.
The Bible is an extraordinarily violent book: many passages quote God as commanding acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and racially-based mass murder. To take just one example of many, when God orders the conquest of Canaan, he supposedly commands his followers to exterminate the native inhabitants: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” One passage in Exodus tells how the Amalekite tribe ambushed the children of Israel migrating through the wilderness. In response, the Bible’s God commands eternal war against that people, to annihilate them and blot out their memory. And God showed no patience for those who resisted commands to slay. According to the first book of Samuel, God orders King Saul to strike at the Amalekite people, killing every man, woman, child, and animal. When Saul fails to annihilate the enemy, he earns a scolding from the prophet Samuel, who himself slaughters and dismembers the Amalekite king. Saul’s sin was failing to be sufficiently thorough in genocide, and his reluctance led to his own destruction.
The striking fact here is not that such passages exist, but that they have been so utterly forgotten by so many devoted Bible-readers. So equally have the actual real world consequences of these texts. When we compare the Qur’an and the Bible, we might be tempted to see a critical difference between the texts. While the Bible reports violence in the distant past, the Qur’an commands violence here and now. The Bible, in this view, records ancient campaigns against forgotten peoples, which are of interest only to archaeologists, while the Qur’an commands “Fight infidels!”, an order valid in any age.
Biblical texts of terror: not just ancient history
But such a contrast is false. However later commentators have read it, it is not obvious that the Qur’an was commanding violence without end against unbelievers, as opposed to warfare against specific Arabian tribes or factions in the seventh century CE. On the other hand, many generations of Christian and Jewish readers have found no difficulty in applying the Biblical commands in their own day.
If the Bible aims its harshest words at ancient peoples who no longer exist as identifiable ethnic groups — Amalekites or Canaanites — plenty of later commentators, Christian and Jewish, have had no problem in applying those imprecations to modern races and nations. Protestants have seen Catholics as Amalekites, and killed them accordingly (and vice versa); White Americans used the story against Native peoples; modern-day Hutus in Rwanda used the Amalekite tale to justify killing Tutsis. The last Christian who will seek to exterminate another nation on the pretense of killing Amalekites and Canaanites has not yet been born. In 1994, the Amalekite command sparked one of the worst massacres in the history of modern Israel, when a Jewish terrorist slaughtered dozens of Muslims worshipping in a Hebron mosque.
In comparing the Bible and the Qur’an, I stress that I am discussing the scriptures, rather than the historical experience either of Islam, or of Christianity and Judaism. Islam has a long history of conquest and religious warfare, in which Muslim armies and regimes subjugated or slaughtered members of other faiths: armed military jihad in the name of God is no myth. From the seventh century through the seventeenth, Muslim rulers cited religious justifications for their wars of conquest and imperial expansion, just as Christian Western powers would from the Renaissance onwards.
Only a wide-ranging historian with a truly global vision could comment plausibly as to whether, across the centuries, more aggression and destruction has been undertaken in the name of Islam than of Christianity. I have no idea how you might measure the body count. But in terms of the violent and unacceptable faces of their fundamental scriptures, differences between the faiths are minimal.
Understanding our sacred texts, understanding each other…
I draw two lessons from this. One, of course, is about the relationship of scriptures to real-world behavior. To say that terrorists or extremists can find religious texts to justify their acts (as the 9/11 hijackers did) does not mean that their violence actually grows from those scriptural roots.
Such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture — or, conversely, that the mere existence of a scriptural text means that its doctrines must shape later history. When Christians or Jews point to violent parts of the Qur’an (or the Hadith) and suggest that those elements taint the whole religion, they open themselves to the obvious question: what about their own faiths? If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.
It’s also instructive to see how so many Bible readers fail to see these violent passages, and what that says about the nature of faith. When I write something about these topics, I can usually rely on receiving an outraged email from someone who quotes a gruesome passage attributed to the Qur’an, and then asks, roughly, “So where does Jesus say anything like this? Where does the New Testament say anything like this?” When I respond by pointing out texts in Joshua or Deuteronomy, I know I’ll get a response on the lines of “Oh, that’s not the Bible, it’s just the Old Testament.” That’s an alarming indication of a Christianity that has gone far astray from its Old Testament roots.
…and strengthening faith
It would be easy to cite these gruesome Biblical stories as a foundation for a New Atheist rant, and that’s absolutely not my intent. Paradoxically, what I have been trying to do in recent years, especially in my book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, is to show that Christians need not just to acknowledge the worst and grimmest scriptural texts, but even to use them as a means of strengthening faith and understanding. Christianity only makes sense as the culmination of the whole Hebrew Bible, including its most unsettling portions.
Jesus was Yeshua, Yesu, whose name echoed Joshua, and it commemorated that great and deeply flawed warrior. In the Greek text, both names appear as Iesous: one Iesous slaughtered Canaanites, another healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. Also, according to the New Testament, Jesus was immersed in the Hebrew Bible and, specifically, in the book of Deuteronomy, which contains so many stumbling blocks for modern-day believers. Paul was no less fascinated. If you take Deuteronomy out of the New Testament, that later work loses much of its structure and rationale. Christians need to be reading the whole Bible, including those tales of Canaanites and Amalekites, and comprehending them, not pretending they don’t exist.
The more Westerners probe the unacceptable portions of the Quran, the more urgent becomes the need to confront the texts of terror in their own heritage.
Philip Jenkins is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. His book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses will be released by HarperCollins in October. Among his more than twenty previously published titles are The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity (2002), Decade of Nightmares: The End of the 1960s and the Making of Eighties America (2006), The Lost History of Christianity (2008), and Jesus Wars (2010).