Camp Responds to Jason Byassee

[Editor's Note:  Recently, Pastor and blogger Jason Byassee reviewed Lee Camp's new book "Who Is My Enemy?" for the Patheos Book Club and asked some pointed questions of the author.  Here, Camp generously responds.]

Jason Byassee: You open with a description of the death of Osama Bin Laden, and ask whether his killing is simply an extension of Bin Laden’s own ways. Is this fair? I immediately thought of when I heard that Joseph Kony’s number 2 in the Lord’s Resistance Army, Vincent Otey, had been killed. I mentioned to a Ugandan friend that this was a shame, that we should never celebrate death. This man, committed to non-violence, shook his head. “I will shed no tear for him,” he said. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” While I don’t think American Christians should have taken to the streets in celebration after something so grim as a death, I do feel the world is a better place without him in it. I think I can think that without being a crusader or jihadist, can’t I?

Lee Camp: I also thought to myself, “those who live by the sword die by the sword” when I heard of bin Laden’s death.  Nonetheless, as I argue at some length later in the book, the principalities and powers do in fact use the violence they deride in others for their own ends:  when others employ it, they denounce it;  when they themselves use it, they celebrate it.  The apostle Paul in Romans 13 appears to be suggesting that violence against violence actually gets used in God’s providence to check chaos and violence;  but this remains in tension with the calling of disciples of Jesus, described in Romans 12.

JB: You describe well the way Christians in America often bring up Islam’s penchant for violence, compare it unfavorably with Christianity’s profession of peace, and then turn to the Old Testament to justify violence against the very ones they sound suspiciously like. You put this succinctly and convincingly. Yet I wonder how much of this is colored by your own location in a conservative church in Nashville? I wonder whether Christians even in the US, say, in New England or on the west coast, places more post-Christian or non-Christian, have the same experience you describe? There’s an element of the anecdotal in your work (as in all of ours—you’re just more honest about it) that makes for strong writing, and I find it convincing, but will readers necessarily outside the bible belt?

LC: I predict the book will be read internationally and be a best-seller in all regions.  (Humor intended.)

That’s a good question, but I cannot answer it.  Time will tell.  But I suspect that the phenomena I describe are broader than the Bible Belt.

JB: One of your strongest claims is this: “For contemporary Christians to argue that the Old Testament legitimates war-making is to argue that Jesus was not the Messiah.” Strong, as I say, but I wonder if it’s fair. The Just War tradition which you articulate with fairness throughout the book is a specifically Christian tradition that draws on the OT without denying Jesus’ lordship. Clearly you think they’re wrong to do this, but the bulk of the church through time has thought otherwise, and to do so is not necessarily to fail to recognize Jesus as messiah. Surely a committed just warrior, willing to die rather than defend his own life, could be willing to kill to defend a vulnerable neighbor, and not thereby denounce Jesus’ coming kingdom, right? He just affirms it differently than you.

LC: Yes, he does in fact affirm it this way, and I do not want to deny that.  It is incumbent upon all of us to take one another’s assertion of the Lordship of Jesus seriously, and assume that when one makes such a confession that such a one does so in good faith.  Then we should listen to one another and challenge one another and encourage one another to take that confession seriously.

And I am pleased that you say I describe the Just War tradition fairly throughout the book.  Glen Stassen gently chided me after writing Mere Discipleship that I could have been more reconciling with Just War adherents, and I took that to heart, and tried very much to be reconciling.

The context for my assertion—“for contemporary Christians to argue that the Old Testament legitimates war-making is to argue that Jesus was not the Messiah”—was a discussion of the early church fathers’ interpretation of the Old Testament.  For them, the Old Testament pointed precisely toward a non-violent church, not toward a church that justifies war in certain circumstances.  They made this argument in response to those who argued that Jesus was not the Messiah, precisely because the nations still waged war.  The critics’ logic:  “Jesus could not be the Messiah because the nations still wage war.”  The early church response:  “Jesus was the Messiah, because the church, comprising people from every nation, no longer practices war.”  Thus my provocative assertion:  when contemporary Christians use the Old Testament to justify war-making, we undercut the very logic used by these church fathers to defend the claim of Jesus’ Messiahship.

JB: You argue we Christians should remember our own failings in our history of perpetrating violence, from crusaders boiling and eating Muslims to Allies firebombing and nuking civilian populations. How do we go about doing this in church? You mention quickly praying Twain’s war prayer, which would be powerful indeed. How else? Have you seen liturgical examples that would be helpful?

LC: Alas, I have seen precious few.  I would be interested to hear from others’ experiences in this regard.

JB: You work hard to present Islam charitably, and this is part of your book’s beauty. Forgive me if I wonder whether you go too far in this toward idealizing Muslim history and practice the way your rhetorical opponents do with their Christianity. For example, you describe the way Muslims offer protection to religious groups that support the common defense and pay a tribute. Fair enough. In my experience with Christian minorities in those Muslim countries, they note these Muslim policies mean they cannot evangelize and so not only cannot grow, but can’t actually practice a faith that requires them to evangelize. Muslim countries are famously impatient with Christian missionaries from elsewhere, even though the west, for all its harmful public rhetoric about Islam, still lets Muslims build new mosques, spread their faith, practice it openly etc. What do you make of, say, Pope Benedict’s calls for reciprocity—equal openness to Christianity in Muslims countries to that offered by the west to Muslims?

LC: I think this is a very fair critique of the book.  Your point here may, in fact, be one of the book’s major weaknesses:  but I chose that tone purposely, in order, on the one hand, to “go the extra mile” in being reconciling toward Muslims when (especially here in the Bible Belt) they are too often being lumped into a group of 1.5 billion people all of whom “want to kill us.”  I chose this tack, on the other hand, because American Christians, and Americans more broadly, already have plenty of stock mental images—some historically factual and some not—with which to critique Islam, but we do not have the same stock of mental images, generally speaking, with which to do a self-critique that may effect necessary repentance on our own part.

With regard to Pope Benedict’s call for reciprocity—hmm, well, I have never been asked before to say what I think about anything the Pope has said. But I think that this not only perfectly sensible, but also very appropriate, and that where this is denied Christians are quite right to critique and challenge such policies.

JB: Finally you hint in several places that Christian rhetoric and practice on war ends up in the same place as Islamic, only without the elegance: “too often the Christian performance has failed to get to the nobility of the Muhammad story” (151) I wonder if this is fair in two directions. One, Christianity has its own minority story of non-violence (you point to this often), including monks, nuns, and priests throughout Catholic tradition, the Mennonites, and contemporary peace movements. Two, if Muslims have something very similar to Just War Theory, has their tradition really been any more successful in restraining violence than ours has been? Once you open the floodgates on violence isn’t human nature such that our arrows grow “drunk with blood” (Deut 32) whether we’re Christian or Muslim?

LC: In the citation you quote, I was comparing “Christian performance”—i.e., “mainstream” Christian behavior—with the just war logic I see in the Qur’an.  So I do think it is fair on your first point:  for when we look, especially since the American Civil War, at American Christian performance, there have been horrid excesses in war which have refused to take seriously the constraints of the Christian Just War tradition, as I catalog at length in the book.  On your second point, I raise a very similar question in the book:  indeed, one common assumption among lots of pacifists is that war, once unleashed, does not do well being restrained.

For more conversation on Who Is My Enemy? visit the Patheos Book Club.

Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC, and a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.