Ross Douthat has been playing amateur theologian again in the New York Times. This time, he’s telling Muslims how they need to adapt their inherently “illiberal” faith to assimilate better into Western culture. There are definitely some ways in which Islam is inherently incompatible with our capitalist society, and I wish Christianity were too. I’m no Muslim scholar, but I did work briefly in a Muslim private school in Michigan and I’ve been around it enough to encounter three spiritually and politically powerful concepts that I wish Christians would embrace as part of how we live out our faith.
Jihad is of course a controversial word due to the way that it has been abused by terrorists. What it means literally is “struggle” and it’s usually taken to mean a struggle against injustice. Many Muslim scholars consider jihad to be primarily about an internal struggle against your own idolatry. Jihad is opposed to everything that oppresses people and corrupts their ability to worship God. While it’s true that the word jihad has been used to talk about Islam’s global conquest, one could make an analogy here with the way that European colonialism was always described in European royal documents as a project of “evangelism.” I wrote a seminary term paper on the way that 16th century Spanish theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda used the Great Commission as a Biblical proof-text for justifying colonial conquest. There was never a greedier, more bloodthirsty “evangelist” than Christopher Columbus, but you would never know it from the court documents which praised him for bearing Christ to the infidels.
In any case, what if Christian evangelism today were like jihad instead of being like an eternal fire insurance pyramid scheme? What if the way that the church added to its membership was through solidarity with marginalized people in their struggles against injustice? What if every congregation had to decide every year as part of their strategic planning what social injustice in our community would be their jihad for the year? Imagine if Christians were most known to be people who struggle against injustice rather than people who want special privileges for ourselves like tax exemption and the right to discriminate.
Ummah is the word in Islam for the whole community. The society of Muhammed was very tribal and kinship-based. Ummah declared an end to tribalism and a commitment to the common good of everyone. Though the ummah would eventually become strictly Muslim, the first ummah formed in Medina included both Muslims and Jews. Whatever else is true about Muslim societies today, the concept of taking care of everyone in the ummah is very strong. When poor people languish in a community, it is a cause for the community’s shame rather than presumed to be the product of their individual moral shortcomings.
Christianity is supposed to be committed to the common good. Our word for it is the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “ If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” While some of our individual congregations may exhibit this kind of solidarity inside their walls, we have lost our concern for the common good at the level of our society. It’s hard not to smell underlying racism in the hatred of the federal government that rose up in the white middle-class backlash against the Civil Rights movement after the Sixties. At the very least, one consequence of living in a religiously pluralistic society is that Christians do not feel responsible for marginalized people who aren’t directly connected to us in our church community. In a Muslim country, every beggar on the street is part of the ummah for whom everyone is responsible.3) Riba
Riba is the word in Islam for usury, which means to devout Muslims any loan that is given with interest. This means that devout Muslims do not keep their money in western banks or use mortgages in their real estate transactions. I read about this recently in a story about my childhood basketball idol Hakeem Olajuwon, who paid cash up front for a house because his religion wouldn’t allow him to take out a loan with interest. There are certainly loans that are made within the Islamic banking world, but they do not charge interest.
Obviously, this is a tremendous source of conflict between the Muslim world and capitalism, whose lifeblood and basis for existence is usury. As a matter of fact, the Christian Bible prohibits usury too, but most Christians ignore it. There are actually way more verses against usury in the Bible than verses that talk about homosexuality. Here are some examples:
If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious. [Exodus 22:25-27]
If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. [Leviticus 25:35-37]
If he has exacted usury or taken increase — Shall he then live? He shall not live! If he has done any of these abominations, He shall surely die; His blood shall be upon him. [Ezekiel 18:13]
I’m not saying that we should completely divest from bank accounts and every aspect of the capitalist system, but should Christians be making money off of things like financial derivatives? Shouldn’t we be accountable for how our investments contribute to the global economy? Are we completely unconcerned about the morality of the market? What if instead of just being a reliable single-issue voting bloc for Wall Street’s favorite political party, Christians were unified enough in their commitment to financial integrity that Wall Street hedge fund managers actually had to factor the possible Christian backlash into account in their decision making?
Yes, it’s laughably ridiculous, because very few Christians allow Jesus to be Lord over their personal capitalism. All these megachurch pastors talk about “taking our country back for Christ.” I’ve never heard anyone say anything about taking Wall Street back for Christ. Perhaps they’re making too much money with the devil’s means.