If you read my first post on Miroslav Volf’s new book, you may have thought to yourself, “This Trinity stuff is all very interesting, but what about the things that Christians and Muslims really fight about?” Volf doesn’t get into all of those, but he does explore several issues.
One point that I have seen brought up, which Volf addresses, is the idea that Islam is a harshly legalist and moralist religion while Christianity is about love and grace. I had already suspected that was an overly schematic way of looking at things, because Christians themselves have such a hard time sorting out the Law and the Gospel. I would say from anecdotal experience that a non-trivial portion of American Christians have no idea why they don’t follow the detailed legal codes in the Pentateuch, or even that there are detailed legal codes in the Pentateuch. But even the more biblically literate have a tendency to think of grace and forgiveness as inventions of the New Testament, contrasted against a theoretical Judaism where people think they earn favor with God based on how strictly they follow the Law. More recently, that contrast has been applied to Islam.
Whether this is a fair assessment of Judaism is a subject for another day, but Volf does not think it’s a fair assessment of Christianity and Islam. Both religions believe God is both just and merciful, he says. And their moral standards for human beings also include both aspects. Both advocate the Golden Rule and loving your neighbor. Islam, he admits, is not big on loving enemies, but he tells a couple of Sufi stories that illustrate the general idea. One tells of a man who, after his clothes are stolen, chases after the thief and tells him he may have them. The idea is that since he’s given the thief the clothes as a gift, the thief will not have this crime on him at the Day of Judgment. The other tells of a tailor who knows a client is paying him with counterfeit money, but who simply throws it down a well and keeps doing business with him anyway.
These stories are indeed about doing good to those who do bad to you, but it’s interesting how they differ from the depictions of loving enemies in the New Testament. The Sufi tales are both about covering up sins; in fact, the first of them seems to presume a legalistic God who cares more about technicalities than intent. This is quite different from, say, the stoning of Stephen, where the dying saint appeals directly to God not to hold his killers’ sin against them. But, since such heroic martyrs are rare enough, I expect that Volf is right that the average Christian and the average Muslim live their daily lives according to similar principles. I think any society that can accommodate actual human life would have to combine justice, forgiveness, and just letting things slide. I don’t know of a society that doesn’t.
Volf uses these commonalities to argue that Christians and Muslims ought to be able to live together in a state of political pluralism. Monotheism, he says, decoupled religion from the state. He traces this all the way back to Moses taking the Hebrews out of Egypt, and setting up a state that came to be ruled by humans rather than god-kings. The Golden Rule, he says, argues against using the coercive powers of the state in matters of religion. Somewhat more stickily, this leads him to tell the Muslim majority that they’re just wrong to think that apostasy is a crime. He admits that historically most Christians thought this too, but says such behavior is “more appropriate to armies at war and how they treat defectors and spies than to religious communities committed to worshipping the one and common God who commands love of all human beings.”
This, in my humble opinion, is just way too facile. The relationship between church and state has been one of my pet interests for some years now, and I don’t think their historic entanglement came from people just kind of forgetting the Golden Rule. Raising Exodus as the point of decoupling religion and state is pretty strange, given that the new country operated by a set of laws handed down directly from God. I don’t know a lot about Shari’a, but it does seem to be pretty similar to Mosaic law, including in its prescribed punishments. In fact, elsewhere in the book Volf quotes the infamous bit about cutting the hands off thieves. But the draconian nature of the punishments isn’t my point so much as that the whole existence of the punishments assumes someone is using the coercive power of the state to enforce these laws. Even Americans with such casual acquaintance with Islam as myself know this. Yet the most assurance Volf can offer is that Muslim scholars have differing opinions on the subject.
This points to a larger problem with Volf’s argument. The behavior that he considers a sin for people to do as Christians, seem to be OK for them to do as citizens. The coercive powers of the state are pretty much assumed. That includes such basic matters as choosing to belong to it. No one asked me if I wanted to be an American, and if I wanted to stop being an American, it could get complicated. Unless you’re an anarchist, there’s no outrage in this, because you figure it’s good for people to be born into communities under the rule of law. It’s even a way of loving your neighbor. So why is that unfit for religion to do? There are Christian rejoinders to that, and Muslim ones too for all I know. But this throws into relief again how the current Western configuration of religion and state reflects a very particular standpoint on both religion and the state, and I felt that Volf didn’t acknowledge the fact.
The issue of apostasy also brings up a point about inter-communal relations that I wish Volf had explored. When I think of the controversies that flare up in the West over Islam, very often apostates, or at least dissenters, are involved. Volf mentions his opposition to threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but only vaguely alludes to the fact that she has been publicly supporting efforts to destroy her former religion. Some other immigrants, frequently abused women, have not gone that far but seek help from outside their communities, sparking arguments about the right of Western governments to intervene in Muslim affairs. This sort of thing is a repeating pattern not just in religion but in communal politics in general: a factional dispute leads the weaker party to seek an ally from outside, calling on some shared interest or moral imperative. It was an important factor leading to the U.S. civil war — all those slave narratives — and has factored into virtually every foreign entanglement the U.S. has got into in my lifetime. I was reminded of this again recently when an Iraqi defector admitted that he’d lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to get the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein, but said that it was totally worth it.
It’s hard to blame any of these people for doing these things. Who wouldn’t be tempted to lie to get out from under Saddam? But it does present a conflict in the Golden Rule. If you were an oppressed, abused person, you’d certainly want somebody to rescue you. But on a communal level, you wouldn’t want other communities to come charging in because of every story one of your own malcontents went and told them. After all, some of the Muslim terrorists who’ve been arrested for attempted attacks were American converts. Every community with flaws produces apostates, which is to say, every community produces them.
Like I said, there’s nothing new in this phenomenon, but our age of media and mobility surely enables more apostates and dissenters to attract more attention. To react with, “That’s not in our national interest” is not a very Christian response (or a very humanist one, for that matter). Somehow this makes John Howard Yoder’s concept of “revolutionary subordination” seem almost practical; certainly more practical than trying to rectify all the world’s injustices. But I gather that what Volf is trying to do here is connect Christians to Muslims with sympathetic views, so that every dispute over the stoning of an adulteress doesn’t appear to turn into a West vs. Islam debate. And that would certainly be a good start.