Isn’t it dumb to say that the Nazis weren’t “real” Christians yet the jihadists are “the real” Muslims?

The Passion Play at Oberammergau

I’ve been frustrated by a recurring defense that Christians will make for the faith when I suggest that our track record on peace and mercy is not altogether that great, a criticism often made in response to some Christians claims that Islam is an evil religion devoted to war and terror. “But those aren’t real Christians” they say. “The terrorists are the real Muslims who are faithful to their religion”.

But, I’ve asked, couldn’t the Muslims say the same thing about those who commit terrible acts in the name of Allah? That they aren’t real Muslims? God knows (and is probably not too happy) that there are plenty of instances in both the Bible and the Quaran where God is advocating violence.

Perhaps both responses are correct: that Christian crusaders and Muslim jihadists are not real followers of either faith – that they are stepping dangerously outside of the bounds of both sets of doctrines.

Denying the authenticity of those Christians who act poorly must be pretty common because other people, like Stephen Prothero, have met it as well. In his book “God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter” he tells us about this problem but his approach is a bit different, and a bit braver than mine:

When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christians bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories. I found this response terrifying, and I still do, since failing to grasp how Nazism was fueled by ancient Christian hatred of Jews as “Christ killers” allows Christians to absolve themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with how their religion contributed to these horrors.

After 9/11 many Muslims absolved themselves too. The terrorists whose faith turned jets into weapons of mass destruction – who left Qurans in their suitcases and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) as they bore down on their targets – were not real Muslims, they said. Real Muslims would never kill women and children and civilians. So they, too, absolved themselves of any responsibility for reckoning with the dark side of their tradition.

Is religion toxic or tonic? Is it on one of the world’s greatest forces for evil or one of the world’s greatest forces for good? Yes and yes, which is to say that religion is a force far too powerful to ignore.

So, according to Prothero, it’s not just a simple matter of writing off some violent Christians and Muslims as being posers – not real adherents to their faith. It might very well be a problem that lies deeper, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Meanwhile the atheist audiences of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher will continue to grow.

  1. #1 by Ron Krumpos on May 23, 2010 - 7:25 pm

    Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  2. #2 by Ron Krumpos on June 12, 2010 - 4:20 pm

    In an earlier comment I had mentioned the similarity of the mystical traditions vs. the difference of orthodox religious doctrines, as outlined in my e-book at In fairness to Dr. Prothero, I came across a later editorial review in which he states:
    “Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to “gamble everything for love”; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”

  3. #3 by anon on June 13, 2010 - 10:38 pm

    “It is on ordinary religious folk—the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.”
    —Precisely the difference between “ordinary folk” and mystics—-is that the mystics see the bigger picture, —us “ordinary folk” get caught up in the details—and the differences……not realizing all that these are different paths to the same goal—a relationship with the Divine.

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on June 17, 2010 - 10:48 am

      I would have to agree. In fact, I think that the journey of faith only moves forward if it moves towards mysticism.

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