Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world by groups like ISIS: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing.
Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.
However, almost all the abhorrent practices that we condemn in Islamic extremism can be found in the Old Testament. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to read your Bible. As one example, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining (1) a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with (2) a strict application of lex talionis and (3) a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! As we read these chapters, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own sacred texts if we read them too literally.
In fact, one of the primary justifications of religious extremism is the literal reading of sacred texts. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.
While condemning Islamic extremism abroad, some fundamentalist Christians in America use a similar hermetical strategy to justify their own brand of extremism. While championing a literal reading of the Bible, most ignore almost all Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked. They will slog through a sea of divine commands and prohibitions in the Old Testament and quickly dismissing them as outdated or barbaric, until they find one or two verses that support their preconceived ideas about a politically charged moral issue. Once cherry-picked from their larger context, these verses are elevated to the infallible Word of God and used to condemn, exclude, and oppress perceived enemies.
It is not difficult to see that a strict literal reading of the Bible is actually reserved for a narrowly selected group of passages that can be used to justify moral (and political) positions that are developed quite independently of the Bible. Verses that are not helpful in supporting one’s ideology can be rejected as irrelevant, and those that are helpful are elevated as the inerrant word of God. So while the outward manifestations of extremism look very different when comparing middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalism and American Christian fundamentalism today, both seem to share the hermeneutical strategy of insisting on a literal reading of select passages of scripture to justify one’s extreme views.