Religion & Philosophy

ISIS’ Caliphate and Christ’s Kingdom of God

Were Christ and his followers early jihadists?

In the end, martyrdom on the cross was a lot more effective than martyrdom by suicide bombing. (Photo: Random House)

In the end, martyrdom on the cross was a lot more effective than martyrdom by suicide bombing. (Photo: Random House)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham recently announced the formation of a new caliphate — or empire, if you will — comprising the existing states in the Muslim world. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, will act as the caliph — or emperor, if you will.I’m currently reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013) and it occurs to me that ISIS’ announcement is not unlike Jesus Christ proclaiming the Kingdom of God with, like al Baghdadi, himself as the king.

Where exactly do Christ and his disciples fit on the scale of religious extremism? Islam has its Sunni jihadists and, in China, militant Uighurs. Buddhism has its 969 Movement in Burma that attacks Rohingya Muslims and, in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist Power Force also targets Muslims. The United States has its Christian fundamentalists who kill abortion-killing doctors. The quantities in which each kills varies, from one at a time to hundreds and even thousands (9/11) at a time. But killing is killing.

Returning to ancient times, Aslan writes that, a thousand years before Christ,

… God had decreed that [Jews] massacre every man, woman, and child they encountered [“you must not let anything that breathes remain alive”], that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure that the land would belong solely to those who worshipped this one God and no other.

Typical of religious extremists, they cut off their noses to spite their face, in this case by killing livestock and laying waste to agriculture, all of which they could have made their own. (Of course, that was eclipsed 2,000 years later by the most horrifying jihadism ever: the Crusades, which, over 200 years, killed about 200 thousand.)

Another parallel between Christ and modern-day Islamist extremist groups is the issue of “near enemy” and “far enemy.” To Islamists, the near enemy is infidel regimes in the Middle East and the far enemy is the United States and the West. Some groups stick with the near like the Taliban and early al Qaeda; others, such as later al Qaeda, he far. ISIS, meanwhile, has begun to rattle its saber at the far, the United States specifically. Christ’s focus wasn’t on the far — Rome, which controlled the Jewish establishment — but the near, the Jewish establishment itself, especially Caiaphas, the high priest.

Of course, where Christ and his disciples deviate from modern-day Islamist extremist groups is the use of violence. Wait — Jesus was violent? Azlan goes to the heart of the matter.

The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple. And what revolution, especially one fought against an empire whose armies had ravaged the land set aside by God for his chosen people, could be free of violence and bloodshed? … The question is, did Jesus feel the same? Did he agree with his fellow messiahs … that violence was necessary to bring about the rule of God on earth? Did he follow the zealot doctrine that the land had to be forcibly cleansed of all foreign elements just as God had demanded in the scriptures? [One shudders to think that Jesus may have believed this. — RW]

There may be no more important question that this for those trying to pry the historical Jesus away from the Christian Christ. The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who “loved his enemies” and “turned the other cheek” has been built mostly on his portrayal as an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived. The picture of Jesus has already been shown to be a complete fabrication. The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence. There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions. But he was certainly no pacifist. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34/Luke 12:51).

One can’t help but imagine one reason that Jesus — out of all the self-proclaimed messiah/rebels of Jewish history — was singled out to build a religion aroundis that his use of violence was minimal. That would have appealed to the writers of the Gospel, who sought to spread their beliefs without antagonizing Rome, which had recently starved the citizens of Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, and slaughtered its inhabitants.

Since it didn’t lead to any apparent deaths (save his own), Christ’s insurgency doesn’t actually warrant comparison to jihadism. It might be more accurate to think of it as activism at its most aggressive, a step, say, beyond actions by the Berrigan brothers and, more recently, the Transform Now Plowshares. Some of the disciples may have been armed with swords when Christ scattered the money changers (currency exchange) at the entrance of Temple of Jerusalem and, once inside, appropriated animals to be sacrificed.

Swords were also wielded by the disciples when Jesus was apprehended at the Garden of Gethsemane and injuries apparently inflicted. Would that religious extremists today, not to mention insurgents of all kinds, were capable of modulating their violence like Christ. In the end, martyrdom on the cross was a lot more effective than martyrdom by suicide bombing.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

1 reply »

  1. This is fascinating stuff, Russ. As an Episcopalian, I remember asking abut Jesus scourging the money lenders when I was a child and being told – some pablum about it being a story designed to prove Christ’s “humanity” (i.e., he was human and could get good and mad, yadda yadda). I wasn’t satisfied with that explanation then – and this discussion of what can only be termed a latter day attempt at “higher criticism” makes me feel even less satisfied. I don’t mind that Jesus was human – I wish more people could accept that and not think that his every word and deed was so sacrosanct to to be worthy of killing people over.