Sunday, September 23, 2012

Islam or Christianity? Wrong Question?

The firestorm of protest which swept the world in response to the pathetic yet gross-insult movie, The Innocence of Muslims, opened afresh a dramatic fault-line between Western and Islamic cultures. The violent reaction included the killing of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other embassy staff. Continuing unrest has claimed the lives of more than fifty people in Muslim nations across the world.

In these fraught circumstances it is very easy for Westerners in general, and those citing a Girardian analysis in particular, to feel a distinct superiority to Muslim criteria of judgment and response.

Meanwhile, the mood on the streets of Peshawar, Kano, Benghazi and Cairo sees the arrogant West giving itself permission to disregard the religious sensitivities of Islamic peoples, failing to accord them the right to pursue their faith undisturbed. Alongside, of course, there is the continually roiled resentment at the "long war" directed at Muslim countries, and the feeling of double standards applied to their countries and Israel in regard to human rights

In respect of Rene Girard, he has commented that the Koran "has no real awareness of collective murder" (Battling To The End, p.216). In other words it lacks the revelation of the scapegoat, manifestly present in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Because of this Islam represents a return to archaic religion. From an anthropological point of view these are incredibly potent charges.

They mean, among other things, there is no built-in room for laxity or tolerance in Islam. Religion consists in an untouchable, razor-sharp purity. There is nothing messy, human or bloody on its surface or at its core, only the unqualified, pristine divine.

The gospel is entirely the inverse. The bloodied corpse of Jesus hangs at the center of its consciousness. There is no insult that can ever do more to disgrace Christ than has already been perpetrated and accepted. Which is entirely the point. By raising up the Crucified, so that Jesus' nonretaliation becomes a boundless historical truth, all insults and violations are forgiven, if only the perpetrator can accept this amazing grace.

I once taught a religion course in which I used the notorious example of the "Piss-Christ" as evidence of the cultural phenomenon of Christ as nonretaliating, forgiving victim.There was a young Muslim woman in my class: while the Christian students hardly batted an eyelid (at the most a quick "eeww!") she was completely disgusted and angry. She took the artifact as clear evidence of Christianity's weakness and failure.

However, from a Girard perspective it would be precisely the gospel revelation of the victim-- demonstrated provocatively in this piece of pop art--which constitutes the gospel's immense historical vigor. It is this demonstration which has turned the world upside down, slowly liberating the cultures under its influence from sacred order, undermining rigid hierarchy and validating the victim, so she becomes the most compelling cultural principle of all time.

But is there room here for Christian smugness? Absolutely not. The theological consciousness of Christ as revelation of the victim can hardly be said to be Christian S.O.P, let alone that it grabs public attention in the vicious culture wars fought around Christian morality. Again and again Girardian commentators are forced to reflect that the revelation of the victim takes place first in a broad secular framework, rather than in the church. Girard's own first discoveries on the trail of mimetic theory came from reading the secular works of novelists, not theology.

In truth, this revelation of deep Christianity remains by and large hidden to the official West. Girard sees the West as continuing blindly on a course of confrontation with Islam, marching in a mirror opposition, so that it too reverts to an archaic religiosity, tinged with superficial rationalism: "two forms of fundamentalism," as he has called it (ibid. 211).

All of which suggests to me that the West is just as much challenged by the revelatory crudeness of the cross as is Islam. The whole history of institutional Christianity, from Augustine through to the Protestant Reformation, has been a way of integrating this deconstructive core back into traditional violent transcendence.

Which suggests in turn there are more and more only two religions on offer in the world. The religion which drives ferociously toward a new sacrificial order, indifferent to whatever "side" ends up winning; and the one which responds from its soul to the deconstructive power of the cross in the world. This second religion runs across all borders and boundaries. It has no dividing line so it can be recognized as "us" against "them," although I am sure you can know it when you see it. It is just as likely to be expressed by Muslim scholars (as in the "Common Word" written in response to Pope Benedicts's Regensberg address, and eliciting from him the conciliatory gesture of visiting a mosque in Jordan), or indeed anybody, as it is by Christians.

It does not belong institutionally to Christianity. In fact it does not even belong to religion. It is the messianic principle of the cross let loose in the world and carrying the hearts of humanity forward on its irresistible wave of transformation.

So what is the response of the Christian who embraces this in her heart and finds herself in the world of mirror fundamentalisms? No different from that of early Christianity, uninvested in the fight between the Caesars. That's the point, to call attention to the massive crisis, but in the meantime live the new way of life which is the true way out.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian


  1. Excellent, thought provoking article, Tony! We all must face our own violence, including a sense of superiority over and against the other. Girard has some caution in Battling to the End in regards to Islam that I find helpful. He admits an "inability" to understand much of Islam and warns that "This is why our explanations often belong to the province of fraudulent propaganda against Muslims" (215). Fraudulent propaganda is the correct term for that video. Of course, I can easily slide into a sense of superiority over and against the director of it, yet also feel we must speak out against all forms of violence, no matter who commits it, but especially when I/we commit it. My thoughts also went to this in regards to laxity in Islam/the Qur'an - I think it's also important to know that while Muslims believe the Qur'an is the Word of God, Islamic tradition has debated how to interpret it, specifically in the complicated Islamic doctrine of abrogation. Much of the fundamentalist move in Islam when it comes to quranic interpretation is a mirroring of the modern fundamentalism of the West. I've found Farid Esack's book on the Qur'an was helpful to me in this regard.

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  3. Thanks for this, Adam. It is definitely interesting in those passages of "Battling" where Girard confesses an inability to understand in regard to some aspects of contemporary Islam. He's normally so trenchant. What is it that escapes him? Is it possible he senses what you suggest at the end of your comment, that the West itself has stirred the deeps of violence? Certainly there are mimetic dynamics going back and forth, and all the way to the beginning. I appreciated your alerting me to the issue of "abrogation." I discovered that sura nine contains the "sword verse" and permission to fight "disbelievers." This seems to come from very late, the year of the Prophet's triumphant return to Mecca when he was facing the power of Byzantium (not just the Arabian tribes). In other words the more the phenomenal violence of the adversary increases, the more violence of the response will grow? Which makes me think again that the only symbol and sign with the power to abrogate toward nonviolence (rather than in the other direction) has to be the cross?