September 16, 2014

Dear Christians: Are Christianity and Islam that different?

Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.

Dear Christians,

There's been a lot of talk about Islam. One of the points that always strikes me is how Christians attempt to distance themselves from Islam.

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying, again, that I don't have any issue with the religions of individuals. It can be a powerful force for good in the lives of individuals. But organized religion, institutionalized religion--that's a very different beast indeed. So this post should be taken in terms of the broader points, not the individual one.

This is on my mind because I ran across a post on Religion of Peace that attempted to point out how the two sets of scriptures differ. Here's the quote that I wanted to deal with:

Their first try is a passage from Deuteronomy that might appear to command present-day believers to take a city by force and slaughter the inhabitants on order from God:
“When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:10-17 - As quoted by The American Muslim 
Except for the part about sparing women and children, this sounds similar to a verse from the Qur’an: 
And when We would destroy a township We send commandment to its folk who live at ease, and afterward they commit abomination therein, and so the Word (of doom) hath effect for it, and we annihilate it with complete annihilation. (Quran 17:16) 
But, in fact, the Biblical passage is not an open-ended command to "kill anything that breathes", but instead, a story of history bound within the text.  Having trouble seeing this?  That’s because the author of The American Muslim piece cleverly left out this part of the passage: 
“Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you” 
These are the discrete targets referred to in the last part of the quoted text.  The rest of the passage is bound by context as well, given to "Israel" (verse 3) and those "brought out of Egypt" (verse 1).  These would be specific instructions to the ancient Israelites, which is why today's Christians and Jews do not treat these verses as present-day imperatives. 
Strategic omission is just one way that Muslim apologists manipulate Biblical passages.  (In this case, The American Muslim editors did not even include an ellipsis in place of the omission, since it may have raised the suspicions of the reader).

It's amazing to me how the author distances Christianity from Islam by quibbling over minute details.

Yes, it's true--the American Muslim redacted the last verse for some reason. Deuteronomy 20:17 reads as the blog author states.

But it amazes me for another reason. It amazes me because there is a far more similar passage to the Quran verse in Deuteronomy 13:

12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in 
13 that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 
14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 
15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. 
16 You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt, 
17 and none of the condemned things are to be found in your hands. Then the Lord will turn from his fierce anger, will show you mercy, and will have compassion on you. He will increase your numbers, as he promised on oath to your ancestors— 
18 because you obey the Lord your God by keeping all his commands that I am giving you today and doing what is right in his eyes. 

Lest I be accused of remission, that's the entire passage and the link will take you to the full text via Bible Gateway, a great resource for anyone that wants to easily reference passages online, believer or otherwise.

Notice that here there is no distinction.  There is no specific town. It is any town in your midst that God has given to you that is straying from the faith. In today's world, in the view of some Christians I have known over the years, that's a fairly apt description of San Francisco. Just saying.

My point isn't that either religion is more prone to violence. I believe that Islam currently is, not by its nature, but by a combination of the extreme poverty and distress in the parts of the world where it is strongest and by its immaturity as a religion. It's roughly 650 years younger than Christianity. What were Christians doing 650 years ago?

Well, the Inquisition, for one. It began in the 12th century and the institution continued until the middle of the 18th century. Witch trials. Crusades. A whole host of nastiness.

But Christianity grew. It evolved and matured. We are already seeing these shifts in progressive nations, and with support, I have faith (yes, faith!) that we can overcome the influences that feed terrorism in the Middle East.

However, the attitude of superiority is a little much. The differences are not nearly as distinct as people would want to believe.

Any religion, including Islam, should be open for criticism. Nonbelief should be too.

But make it legitimate criticisms, not drummed up strawmen to try to confirm your own biases.

That's all I ask.

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