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Fanaticism and Faith

Monday, 5 September 2011  | John Harrower

Crouched on the roof top of our Buenos Aires’ home, peering towards the sound of machine gun fire, had not been my vision of missionary service.  Yet here I was hearing the sound of extremism in Argentina. One extremist group had Marxist motivations to liberate the poor and oppressed, the other group had passion for the protection of the ‘Patria’, the traditional culture of the nation. 

Three decades later in Hobart, the Cathedral was packed. Present were the Prime Minister, Governor, dignitaries, military, the media, weeping family and friends. Terrorism had claimed a young Tasmanian and we were gathered to recall his life and seemingly pointless death by bomb blasts in idyllic Bali. If September 11, 2001 epitomises religious fanaticism in the name of Islam, the cost of such fanaticism was brought home to Tasmanians in a flag draped coffin, carried from Bali to a sorrow-filled Cathedral.   

This year, on another idyllic island, a gunman massacres 69 young people in the name of preserving “cultural Christendom” in Norway. In his rambling manifesto the gunman, Anders Breivik, disclaims a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but claims belief “in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.” For Breivik this motivates a massacre. 

The fruit of violence, it seems, can be found in every tree.  Is this just a fact of life?  Or can we look to the religious roots and evaluate the claims and disclaims for fanatical violence? Jesus Christ is Brievik's judge, the supreme critic of the self-declared “Christian”. To Christ we turn to evaluate Breivik's claims and disclaims. 

In the first place it is clear that Jesus calls us to a personal relationship with himself, to receive God's love (John 14:23) and to love in return (John 8:42). Christ lends no weight to the justifications of a mere “cultural platform.” 

Secondly, it is clear that the way of Christ eschews violence.  Yes, there is violence in the Scriptures, and truths about justice and divine wrath.  But the issue here is the use of violence as the instrument of furthering religious aims. 

Is Breivik's way the way of Christ, the way we imitate?  The Scriptural testimony of Christ who commands us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) would deny it.  Jesus both rebuked violence in his followers and he himself never took up the sword nor incited violence in pursuing his aims. During the 300 years following the death of Christ his followers were persecuted and put to death for naming him as their Lord. They did not take up arms to bring in the way of Christ. Why? Because the way of Christ is the way of the Prince of Peace riding on a donkey, not a stallion for war and violent conquest.  

If Jesus is the critic of the Christian, what or who then is the critic of Islam?  

I find the answer to a number of the issues surrounding Christian and Muslim relationships in the comparative reactions of Jesus and Mohammad to their apparent ‘failure’ as prophets of God.  

Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of his day and Mohammad was likewise rejected by the religious and tribal leaders of his day in Mecca. What would the prophet do?  

Would God’s word and way be blocked by the intransigence of his wayward people? The answer of Christ is the cross. The way of God would be won through submitting himself to the judgement of this people; being crucified at their hand and giving his life as a sacrifice for others.   

The answer of Mohammad is the sword. Mohammad fled from Mecca to Medina, gathered a fighting force and engaged in holy battle. For the prophet Mohammad, the victory of the sword is the victory of God. God’s way is vindicated by its very success.  So we see the sword in Osama Bin Laden's Letter to America of November 2002 

In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,

"Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory" [Quran 22:39]...

The Islamic Nation that was able to dismiss and destroy the previous evil Empires like yourself; the Nation that rejects your attacks, wishes to remove your evils, and is prepared to fight you...

Mohammad came from a society which fully integrated religious, commercial, military and social life. Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, established by the sword a fully integrated religious, commercial, military and social life - the Islamic nation. Islam divides the world into two houses: the House of Islam (the Islamic nation) and the House of War (territory not ruled by Islam).  Jihad is a struggle against our own passions (Greater Jihad) and a military struggle (Lesser Jihad) where necessary to bring about the submission of the people of the House of War to Allah. Sharia law establishes that submission in all of life. The reward of certain entry into ‘Paradise’ motivates the warrior martyred in jihad.

Fanatical violence is justified by the prophetic word and the prophet’s life. Jesus, the prophet, chose peace and humility unto death. Mohammad, the prophet, chose war and established territorial rule. The later prophet more readily cedes space to fanatical violence. Too many have claimed violence in the name of the former.  

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 passes us by we are reminded again of the reality of fanatical religious violence. We Christians should be alert to recall both the falseness and wretchedness of our own hearts and our many betrayals of Christ and his way.  

Christians are to be open to rebuke and challenge by Muslims: are we living in the way of Christ? 

Christians are to be sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit of Christ: will Christ find us faithful to him and his way?  

Christians are to be a blessing to others, makers of peace. It is our duty and our joy.  

John Harrower is the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania


Gordon Preece
September 6, 2011, 11:29AM
Excellent, pithy article thanks John, with challenges for both sides.

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