In September 11: Religious Perspectives on the Causes and Consequences, edited by Ian Markham and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’, Kelton Cobb writes:
Every religion has its heresies, and heresies must be marked and remembered as out of bounds. Heresies are always children of the religion from whence they come — rogue children, but genetic heirs nonetheless. Heresies are usually borrowed elements of their parent religions, but elements that are broken off and isolated from counter elements that moderated them.
Better than charging these radical Islamists with not being true Muslims would be to ask questions like: What components of this faith lend themselves to these distortions? What counter elements that might keep them in check are being neglected? What dangerous traps lie hidden in its scriptures? What responsibility do the bearers of a religious tradition have for the distortion in its transmission?
The Islam of these terrorists does not do justice to the magnificent, civilized, and peace-loving past of Islam, but it has to be recognized as a “real strand” of Islam. Every religion is like a rope, woven from many strands. Christianity is a weave of the teachings of Jesus, the theology of Paul, the neoplatonism of Augustine, Constantine’s conversion, the “Little Flowers” of St. Francis, the iconography of the Copts, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the piety of the Puritans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights movement, Jerry Falwell, and archbishop Romero.
It’s important to understand that religion is an incredibly complex cultural phenomenon — this is especially true of religions which have a lot of history and a lot of cultural connections around the globe. Such religions cannot be reduced to any one aspect, whether good or evil. Such religions cannot be simplistically labeled as “religions of peace” or “religions of violence” — they are manifestly both, if we take seriously everything in their traditions and doctrines.
The question, then, is which aspects will be emphasized and promoted, not which are “real” or “genuine.” Peaceful adherents who deny the violent aspects of their religions are doing the same thing as the violent adherents who deny the peaceful aspects of their religions. Both are reducing complex religious histories into a few slogans that serve contemporary political or social agendas. Because such programs are not credible over the long term, they are destined to fail — but not before they do real damage.
Just to demonstrate that he really means what he says, Cobb explains how this perspective causes him to approach the self-professed Christianity of the Ku Klux Klan:
I don’t like several of these strands, but when I study them I discover that they contain fibers I recognize in my own faith. Inside the racism of the Ku Klux Klan one can find firm beliefs surrounding Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, divine election, God’s sovereignty over all reality, hatred for the devil, absolute faith in the resurrection of Christ, the importance of purity and righteousness, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Klan did not come out of thin air; it is a development within Christianity which I abhor, but in calling myself a Christian I am complicit and have to answer for it.
How many Christians would be willing to make a similar statement (how many even understand what the Klan’s theology is like)? Most, if asked, would prefer to insist that the KKK isn’t a form of “real” Christianity in order to distance themselves as far as possible from the group’s hatred — but denying that valid Christian traditions have led to the Klan’s theology ensures that their ideas and arguments will not be dealt with adequately.
Christians should openly and honestly acknowledge that the Ku Klux Klan is a part of the Christian community which draws upon valid Christian traditions, even if they have separated from the mainstream of Christianity. This would allow them to face those aspects of their traditions and history which have allowed groups like the KKK to develop. That, in turn, might allow Christians to explain why such developments are wrong and prevent such situations from developing again.
Denying the reality of where the KKK comes from, though, simply allows certain traditions and interpretations to fester in the darkness of ignorance. It’s a bit like a family which denies that certain antisocial relatives are “real” family members, thus allowing dysfunctional relationships and behaviors to continue without challenge, producing more antisocial people and more failed relationships in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most people will follow the wiser course of action — it’s much easier to insist that one’s opponents are not “real” adherents of one’s religion and that their theology isn’t part of the “genuine” religious traditions rather than to simply argue that they are simplifying things inappropriately. That’s why both sides do it, and the reason is inherent to these religions: they tend to be absolutist systems in which only one version of the faith can be True.
People don’t like to “agree to disagree” on what God wants. People don’t like the idea that their religious traditions are human creations rather than divinely mandated rules. For both sides, acknowledging that others are drawing upon valid religious traditions is tantamount to acknowledging that there may be flaws in one’s religion and that it’s possible for one’s religion to go in the “wrong” direction. That, however, is often unacceptable. Denying any validity to others’ claims and perspectives, however, eliminates debate and eliminates the need to reconsider one’s own position.
So which do you think most will realistically follow?