Christianity, ISIS, Lynchings and Pogroms

Slavery isn't the Christian sin to compare to ISIS's terror; religious persecution is.

By John Zmirak Published on February 12, 2015

In a column at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher undertook a grim but worthy task: reminding Americans of our shameful racial history — specifically, the regime of terror enforced in the South (and sometimes elsewhere) in the decades after the Civil War. All Americans, especially whites and conservatives, need to know this appalling story, if only to offer just and rational answers when black Americans erupt in seemingly inexplicable outrage after incidents such as happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

Dreher’s article makes for sobering reading, if only because it points up a profound failure of Christian witness in America: The white Americans who lynched black citizens in defense of white supremacy were almost to a man at least nominal Christians — as were most of the Southern slave owners, Yankee slave traders and Spanish slave ship captains who came before them. These men successfully ignored or distorted the teachings of Christianity for hundreds of years, sometimes wrenching lines from the scriptures themselves in defense of their predatory behavior.

But the context Dreher chose, and the title, squander his article’s impact. The piece ran in the wake of President Obama’s clumsy and ill-informed remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, under the tabloid title “When ISIS Ran the American South.” There is nothing wrong with eye-catching titles, but the comparison is misplaced.

ISIS is an organization that practices religious-based terrorism and persecution. Their actions are explicitly grounded in sharia law, and mirror the actions of Muslim conquerors throughout the centuries — going back to the cruel conquests led by Muhammad himself. ISIS is no different in kind from the Islamic governments of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Both Dreher and Obama surely know this.

The old white supremacist South — and much of the rest of America — were driven not by Christianity, the dictates of Christian scriptures or the example of Jesus Christ. In fact, white racists were flouting all of these things, as mostly white Christian preachers in the abolitionist movement noted over many decades — to the point where those white supremacists censored the press, closed abolitionist churches and forbade the teaching of scriptures to their black slaves.

In The Race to Save Our Century, I wrote at length about the evil ideology of racism/nationalism, and showed how it corrupted many Christians in America. For my pains, I was criticized by one reviewer for “belittling American Southerners” — when in fact the book only criticized slave owners and segregationists.

Happily, the only “Christians” today who wrench the scriptures to support white supremacy are in tiny, contemptible cults like the Aryan Nations.

Comparing these pseudo-Christians — who ginned up heretical readings of scripture to justify their sins — to the plausibly orthodox Muslims of ISIS is an exercise in self-congratulatory hand-wringing. The slave owners were white racists who didn’t let their Christianity get in the way. Islamists like ISIS are Muslims first and last.

Now there were historical sins committed explicitly in the name of Jesus Christ, directly to advance the interests of particular Christian churches. I note with shame that the church to which I belong, the Roman Catholic, endorsed and encouraged a form of religious persecution for centuries. So did Rod’s own Orthodox church, as did some Protestant denominations in certain times and places.

Perhaps Dreher should write a more informative and pertinent essay, comparing ISIS’s atrocities with the (Catholic) Albigensian crusade or the (Orthodox) Russian pogroms against the Jews, or the (ecumenical, Protestant/Catholic) witch-burning frenzy that scarred 17th century Europe. Modern (and false) stereotypes aside, those are Christians’ sins, committed as Christians and in the name of Christianity.

For those sins our churches should collectively repent, as Pope John Paul II prophetically did in 1999. Precisely because these acts of persecution contradict the words of the New Testament and the example of Jesus Christ, we can honestly condemn Islamic atrocities while remaining faithful Christians.

It’s true that there have been Christian churches that sinned explicitly for racist reasons — see those “Southern” denominations that split off before the Civil War in order to distance themselves from northern abolitionists. But such churches (for instance, Southern Baptists) have issued strong statements of repentance for the sins of their forefathers.

Racism and nationalism are not so much perversions of Christianity as alien implants grafted onto the faith by sinful misbelievers. We should be profoundly grateful that most Christians now reject the sinful use of the sword to compel any person’s conscience. Would that Muslims would do the same. But they face an additional obstacle: the words, deeds and legacy of the founder of their religion.

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