By Jason Byassee
[Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Patheos Book Club conversation about the new book Who Is My Enemy? by Lee C. Camp)
There was a distinct moment when I went from liking this book to loving it. Peeking ahead I noticed the subhead, “You are doing the very same things.” Immediately I conjured an image: the author drinking tea in an Arab coffee house with a bearded cleric who is arguing that America terrorizing with missiles is no different from Muslim extremists doing so with suicide belts—the tired old moral equivalency.
My, did I guess wrong. That section in Who is My Enemy? describes St. Paul’s rhetorical trap in the Epistle to the Romans. Paul describes Gentiles’ sins in delicious detail before turning on his readers, announcing they do the very same things (Romans 2:1). Even though I myself have tried hard to scrub from my mind harmful western images of Muslims, one came involuntarily, defending me from Paul’s accusing finger at my own sins. That’s the greatness of Camp’s book: by the end you’ll be asking why you and your church are not more faithfully Christian.
I’m charged to ask questions of Camp rather than review or simply praise him.
1) 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?
2) 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?
3) 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.
5) 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?
6) 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?
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.