Beginning in the 7th century Islamic armies brought the sword, sweeping over the Mediterranean world like a firestorm. Eventually, the societies of Europe launched the crusades to counter the onslaught. Those who object that Christian Europe was no better because of the crusades have obviously never heard the sound of tramping boots coming over the hill. Christian Europe should offer no apology for opposing a religion unalterably bent on the eradication of the Christian faith and their way of life. In the twenty first century things are not so simple.
As Lutheran Christians we hold to a view of what Martin Luther spoke of as the ‘two kingdoms’. On the one hand (the kingdom on the right ) God uses all forms of law, in all societies, to make society as civil as possible and to restrain evil. On the other hand (the kingdom on the left) God uses the Gospel of Jesus Christ to “call gather, enlighten and sanctify” people in faith for His kingdom. Both kingdoms have their place but they are not the same. We believe there will be no kingdom of God established in this world, no fully realized Utopian future. That is for the world to come. In the meantime societies are free to establish flexible laws that bring about as just and peaceful a world as possible.
The Islamic religion sees things differently. Their ideal world is one where every man, woman and child submits to the absolutes of Sharia law. After all, the word Islam means “submission”. And while Islam is not monolithic, and the vast majority of Muslims are certainly not gun-wielding terrorists, Muslims are convinced of their superiority, claiming to have received the final and ultimate revelation from God, and live uneasily where Islam is not religiously, politically and culturally dominant. They make no distinction between sacred and secular law. Secular law is flexible and adapts, Sharia law endures, permitting no irony, immovable and untouchable. And so they press on, barely tolerating what is to them ultimately intolerable, the non-Islamic world.
The battleground in the west, apart from the more obvious violent episodes of terrorism that occur from time to time, can be hard to define. Islam is carrying it’s reactionary cause into daily life; the law courts, city councils and school boards where they press their religion forward one issue at a time. And they are fundamentally not communities of engagement but of withdrawal; colonies which seek to preserve the totality of the Islamic culture within every non-Muslim country they inhabit, patiently waiting for the demographics to tip in their favor. Cunning Islamists are using our democratic institutions with an eye on a larger goal which is anything but democratic. And they are using our democratic freedoms to their advantage largely because western countries have lost confidence in themselves and the Christian moral order that has stood beneath our civilization. The growing presence of Islam and its alien, incompatible politic in the west has exposed this waning of the moral order, and the great religion that has been its underpinning. Secularism, new Marxism and a selfish materialism are no substitute for the spiritual foundations of a civilization. Islamists sense the vacuum and are determined to fill it.
If Islam is to find a place in the west, difficult questions need to be answered. Can Islam affirm the political and cultural inheritance of the west, freedom of speech, association and religion? Can Islam learn to put religious law in a category apart from secular law? Can Islam absorb criticism, even what it sees as blasphemy, for the sake of a diverse and pluralistic society? Can Islam turn from its rigid legalisms toward a more tolerant posture? In the current atmosphere of self-loathing and appeasement whether these questions will be asked broadly with any real seriousness is an open question. Nevertheless, as citizens of the west it is our obligation to do so.
As Christians, we have the joy and obligation of reaching out to our Islamic neighbors with the Gospel of authentic peace, the forgiveness that is Christ. Forgiveness, after all, is a far more potent force than the resentments and harsh, inflexible bigotries that drive much of the Islamic cause. English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton frames it this way;
“Christians should follow the path laid down for us by Christ, and that means looking soberly and in a spirit of forgiveness on the hurts that we receive, and showing, by our example, that these hurts achieve nothing save to discredit the one who inflicts them. This is the hard part of the task — hard to perform, hard to endorse and hard to recommend to others.” This hard task of living and proclaiming the “more excellent way” of love and forgiveness in Christ is the genius and power of the Christian life. For that life is not fueled by brittle legalisms or resentful, envious politics but the resilient, gracious and merciful love of the Living God.