President Obama is some teacher. As a “senior lecturer” at the University of Chicago Law School, he reportedly presented an impartial take on the Constitution and civil liberties. He wasn’t a radical, using critical theory and identity politics to undermine the Republic. Instead, he taught objectively while lecturing about American law.
That Barack Obama is gone. Away from the classroom, we’ve learned the president isn’t so generous to his opponents. At times, he proves his own description of himself as the smartest guy in the room. His supercilious nature was on display recently at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. With Islamic radicalism swallowing up greater swaths of the Middle East, Obama took to presidentsplainin’ why some broad reflection should be used in judging the new caliphate. Surprisingly, his arrogance was not totally off the mark.
“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama told the audience. He continued by drawing comparisons of the Islamic State with America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow laws that denied full personhood to black citizens. In short, Christians in the U.S. should think twice before issuing full-throated condemnations of ISIS.
It was a humdinger of a statement, and one that set off conservatives. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission called the remarks “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.” The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue said Obama’s statement deflect “guilt from Muslim madmen” and were above all “insulting.” Charles Krauthammer dismissed Obama’s statement and declared, “What’s important is what’s happening now,” and pointed out the “overwhelming volume of the violence and the barbarism” comes solely from “inside Islam.” Rush Limbaugh demanded, “Why on earth would you go to the National Prayer Breakfast with thousands of Christians from across the spectrum and insult them?”
To answer El Rushbo’s question: Hmmm I don’t know…maybe because introspection is the height of contemplative actions, especially for Christians.
The angry reaction to Obama’s talk shows just how shallow some conservatives can be when playing winner-take-all politics. Rash denouncements are what teenagers resort to when facing criticism. Taking a minute to consider assessments before issuing counter-arguments is how a learned person deals with philosophical differences. The Obama pile-on shows how intellectually devoid some conservatives are who look for any and all reasons to delegitimize their opponents.
Obama’s analogizing of the Crusades to modern Islamic terrorism is not totally off-base. Sure, the brutality we see today doesn’t exactly compare to that used by Christians. But some of the motivations are similar.
According to Saint Louis University medieval studies professor Thomas Madden, the wars Christians fought in the Middle East were not wanton pursuits of bloodlust. They were deliberate attempts to preserve Christendom amidst Muslim imperialism. Pope Urban II called the first of the Crusades “in response to desperate appeals from the Christians of the Middle East,” who were under the domination of the Turks. Each call to arms thereafter was in direct response to the threat of losing holy ground to Muslim conquerors. In that sense, the Crusades met the Augustine’s criteria for “just war” in that they were a reaction against aggression. As Madden puts it, “The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands.”
History is rarely so cut and dry, however. The Christians who fought in the Crusades may have been doing their spiritual duty, but not all their actions were pure. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry points out, some Christians were not so humble upon victory. He notes, “all historical accounts agree that when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they massacred almost everyone in the city, Christian, Jew and Muslim.” This uncomfortable truth shouldn’t be forgotten.
In the same vein, America is not sinless by any means. Christianity was used to justify state segregation and slavery. Both Alabama Governor George Wallace and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens used God to further their ends of black disenfranchisement. Domestic pillages, hangings, and riotous violence stemmed from the acceptance of a different law for blacks than for whites. Again, this discomforting fact should not be forgotten by American Christians.
The kind of violence ISIS deploys matches and exceeds the barbarism of any Crusade or segregationist. It should be condemned wholeheartedly without a second guess. But Christian consideration should not stop there. The Christian heart prizes humility. Unlike Islam which puts emphasis on strength, Christians praise the meek and selfless. This humbleness should give pause to judgment. All of us have the capacity for depravity. When faced with evil, we should remember C.S. Lewis’ important question: “Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler?”
In practical terms, it’s beneficial for Americans to consider the motivations of ISIS. Certainly, we have every right to be disgusted by their horrid practices, such as immolating a Jordanian fighter pilot. Rightly or wrongly, the same Islamists who commit such brutal atrocities believe they are doing so to preserve their religious space. The blowback our country saw on 9/11 was due partly to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam. In their mind, this is an consecrated campaign to establish their own version of Christendom in the Middle East. And in cases where half a million children are starved by Western sanctions, it’s not a hard leap to consider violence against America an act of defense.
The world is an infinitely complex place. Coming to grips with the motives and inspirations of others is an enormously difficult undertaking. Humility, and the acceptance that each of us is dogged by some kind of wickedness, helps in sorting out these moral messes. After all, Christ was the one who asked of us, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Obama’s statement on the Crusades and Islam’s revenge hinted at this trying practice. He may have been overly, perhaps erroneously, direct, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. It’s a pity many conservatives can’t dispose of their black-and-white goggles and see grayness can exist.
Judgment is ultimately left to one person. We can sit here on earth all day and point fingers. In fact, there is an entire profession dedicated to such a practice. Casting blame does little good if it’s not contrasted with our own understanding of human fragility. There’s a balance in using force to ward off attacks while seeing the propensity for violence in yourself. Finding it is the true vocation of the humble Christian.