I recently listened to a fiery talk by a well-known Christian polemicist. If you don’t know, polemics is the practice of attacking someone (or something) through verbal and written debate. His calling in life is to discredit the historical and theological foundations of Islam.
So, given the recent crisis surrounding the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I asked him if the rest of the Muslim world sees ISIS as a legitimate expression of Islam. The question was rhetorical, of course, as from my understanding I don’t think the majority of Muslims would agree ISIS accurately reflects the heart of Islamic teachings. To believe that all Muslims are like (or want to be like) ISIS is dangerous, and can lead to racism, religious hatred and unnecessary paranoia in western society.
But when I asked him the question, his response—to my amazement—amounted this kind of thinking. “Let me ask you this,” he shot back. “When you become more like Jesus, does your lifestyle get more radical?” Without having time to reflect, I nodded my head in hesitant agreement. “Then, wouldn’t you say that if ISIS claims to be practicing the purest expression of the Quran, that this is what all Muslims would like to follow?” He made it sound like, at any moment, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims could fall off the cliff of sanity into the void of radical and murderous fundamentalism. A bit odd, to say the least.
There seemed to be something a bit off, maybe even something—I dare say—a bit radical about his response? Now, what he believes about Islam and Muslims is his own decision. Some of my friends are Muslims. We love them. They love us. That’s my reality, but I realize that’s not the reality of everyone. Although his beliefs about Islam certainly troubled me, that’s not what bothered me the most. What bothered me most was his understanding about what it means to become more like Jesus.
Was he right? Does becoming more like Jesus mean becoming more radical?
Peacemakers, Ambassadors and Stewards
The Bible uses very specific language when it talks about how Christians should live in the world. We are called to be “peacemakers” (Matt 5:9) and to make every effort to “live at peace” with everyone we encounter (Rom 12:8; Heb 12:14). As blessed children of the Father (Matt 5:9), we are called to follow the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) into a world of chaos, anxiety and hatred.
The apostle Paul says we are Christ’s “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in God’s work of reconciling the world. An ambassador is an official representative of an authority who engages the world through diplomacy, not hatred, violence or radicalism. We represent the Prince of Peace, and thus we are called to live in the world as wise diplomats in the pursuit of God’s justice and reconciliation in Christ.
The New Testament refers to leaders in the church as “God’s stewards” (Titus 1:7). But this idea of Christian stewardship is not limited to church leaders. According to the apostle Peter, all Christians—no matter what their vocation— have been endowed with spiritual gifts. With these gifts, they are called to “serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Thus, God’s people are called to responsible living—we call this stewardship—in a way that serves the best interests of their neighbor and the earth.
Need I say more?
The Bible says other things about how Christians should live in the world as well: We are to be neighbor lovers, enemy lovers, animal lovers, justice pursuers—we are to become more like Jesus in every way. But this clearly—given the language employed in the Bible—does not mean becoming radical. Rather, the words peacemaker, ambassador and steward evokes a strong sense of responsibility, respect and diplomacy in our dealings with others.
Granted, living out responsible Christian lives sometimes requires radical measures. We see this in the life of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others. But radicalism is not the hermeneutic—it is not the driving force— of Christian discipleship and ethics. Rather, true disciples of Jesus are guided by a responsibility to live the cruciform and resurrected life in the world. If we are not living in Jesus, we are living in sin. In the words of Eberhard Bethge, “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility” (Introduction, Life Together, 11).
Religious radicalism almost always produces hatred and violence. Human responsibility —guided by the Spirit—seeks love, justice and peace. Christianity is a religion of responsibility.