As everyone knows, President Obama made comments at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5 that were heavily criticized.
It goes with the job. As President, he is criticized for just about everything he says or does. Before the breakfast was even over, critics from all over the world pounced on him: the nation of India did not like his reference to them, Chinese officials did not like his praise for the Dalai Lama, Oscar de la Renta did not like his tie.
But the most newsworthy backlash came from those who objected to his implicit comparison of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and slavery to the current terrorist activities of ISIS.
Let’s leave the criticisms about the historical and chronological parallels and other matters to the hundreds (thousands?) of pundits who have already filed their analyses weeks ago. I want to express thanks that the President brought up the issues of the Crusades and slavery.
So why am I thankful? Because the President’s remarks give us a great opportunity to think through how we think about our own faith and how we are to answer those who have questions. The President’s words reflect what many opponents of Christianity say when they attack the faith. More importantly, seekers are troubled by the history of apparent Christian-sponsored terrorism and as a result will question the truthfulness of Christianity. Church supported slavery and racial discrimination are truths that we cannot deny. Even Christians feel a level of discomfort.
The response to President’s remarks has resulted in dozens of carefully thought-out responses. Where else would you hear these responses unless they were front page news? It is time to get equipped to respond thoughtfully in a way that not only honors what is true but answers the deeply felt yearnings that these issues bring forth.
A World Gone Wrong
The reality of evil in the world is the most often cited challenge to the existence of God. If God is so good and powerful, why does he allow continued evil and suffering? As actor Stephen Fry said recently, if God exists, “he is monstrous.”
Three major versions of evil challenge belief in God. The first is “natural evil,” or evil that presents itself as indiscriminant and undeserved. Disease, accident, birth defects, and natural disasters comprise this evil. Some of these are called “acts of God.”
The second version of evil is “moral evil,” that is, evil that is the result of the moral choices of another person. Someone chooses to physically abuse, inflict pain, steal or otherwise hurt others.
The third is “religious evil,” which is a form of moral evil but the motives to cause suffering or loss are religious: people inflicting the pain and suffering in the name of “God” or their religious beliefs.
It is to this last evil that President Obama referred in his comments.
He was right.
A World Gone Mad
Usually, Christians know very little about the Crusades or the Inquisitions (there was more than just the Spanish Inquisition, in spite of Monty Python’s rendition).
The Crusades were a series of at least nine expeditions over two hundred years (AD 1095-1291) by European Christians to recapture the Christian Holy Lands that had been lost to the Muslims.
We sometimes make the mistake of adding qualifications to historical events to make them palatable. The Crusades were a mixed bag of causes and events. Some of them justified and some of them horrifically wrong.
Many true Christians did get swept up in the fervor of reclaiming Jerusalem from the Muslims. But the political agendas and the promise from the Pope that those who went to fight would “have all of your sins forgiven” sound eerily like the promises made by extremist leaders to Islamic terrorists.
What makes it even more difficult for us are the public pronouncements of God’s blessing on the Crusaders and their goals. The entire endeavor was couched in Christian terminology.
It is fair to say that the Crusades represent nothing for which Christ taught or embodied. The national alignments and ecclesiastical politics of the times made the Crusades an easy sell to trusting and unsophisticated crowds. But they were still carried out under the banner of his name. We use much of the same terminology today.
A World Gone Heartless
The President’s remarks about slavery, racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws hit closer to home.
When word came that the captured Lebanese pilot had been burned alive, I thought of the blacks who had been tortured publicly in many town squares and then burned alive while the townspeople gathered to watch – crowds that included civic and church leaders. Gruesome photographs and even postcards of lynching victims were sold. They are collector’s items now.
Even the Nazis did not stoop this low.
These horrible spectacles continued into the twentieth century. Not that long ago.
Time has made these abuses shocking to many young Christians who today are active in Racial Reconciliation. Many older Christians merely shrug at the reminder of extreme racial discrimination with, “I wasn’t there. That was another time.”
While that is true, the events parallel too much the atrocities of the Crusades and, sadly, the current horrors of ISIS.
A World Going Hopeful
So how do we respond?
- Acknowledge that professing Christians have committed sins against humanity in the name of Christ. The reasons they did are many. Generally it is the responsibility of dysfunctional leaders who twist the Scriptures to support whatever ungodly cause they lead. Wrapping Christ in the flag of a country or a cause is exhilarating and inspiring – but it is wrong. We must follow the admonition that we be watchful and vigilant so that we are not deluded by the misguided schemes of any leader (1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Peter 5:8).
- 2. Confess our sins on behalf of those who have sinned so grievously in the name of the Lord. We should follow the examples of Nehemiah and Daniel, godly men who confessed the sins of the people and included themselves in the confession event though they were not involved: “We have sinned against you, O God . . .” (Daniel 9:1-19; Nehemiah 9:1-37).
- Demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Christ by living reconciliation, healing and forgiveness. “By this will all people know you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus made no mention of reclaiming holy lands, forcing people to believe, or classifying people by the color of their skin. True reconciliation begins within the Body of Christ – for those on all sides..
The evil deeds of those in the name of the Lord only demonstrate the first truth of the message of Christ – we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). Forgiven and justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can now show the world how grace changes lives. Let’s give those outside of Christ a reason to believe.
“So from on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16).
We see others through the eyes of Christ and love them with the heart of Christ. This is what we are called to do.
The Crusades, the Inquisitions, racial discrimination . . .
No more. Not on our watch.