CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM – ALTERNATIVE VISIONS FOR SOCIETY AND GOVERNMENT
By Peter Corney
There are similarities between Islam and Christianity; they are both missionary faiths with the stated goal of bringing all nations into the fold of the one faith.
But there are also major differences in their goals and the way the outcome is achieved, particularly in political terms.
For Christians the goal is stated by Jesus in his command to the disciples recorded in the Gospel of Mathew 28:19-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefor and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Disciples are ‘made’ by proclaiming the Gospel so people may understand its message and be able to respond freely and so choose to enter the Kingdom or rule of Christ. Coercion or force must not be used. Christians in the past have at times used force but this is diametrically opposed to the spirit and teaching of Christ and is to be condemned. The way of Jesus is the way of love not violence. The final universal and complete rule or Kingdom of Christ will be ushered in by God’s power and actions. The Kingdom of God is not brought in by human worldly power or force. (See John 18:36-37 and Mathew 26:52-54)
Islam believes that the Kingdom or rule of God should be expressed now politically in a universal and international Caliphate (or rule) under the one supreme Islamic leader. [i] Under the authority of this order all people whether believers or not are subject to the one Islamic government and one legal system, sharia law. Some, but not all, minorities may be tolerated but not on an equal footing with Islamic believers. Other branches of the non dominant Islam in a particular state may also be treated with intolerance and oppression as in the current case of the treatment of the Has-aria Shia minority in Afghanistan. In such a State apostasy or leaving the Islamic faith is a punishable offence and converting someone from Islam to another faith is also a punishable offence. As well as preaching and persuasion Islam’s rule or ‘Kingdom’ can be achieved by force and by waging war, and in some current expressions of radical Islam, terrorism, suicide bomings, kidnapping and deception are seen as legitimate means.
Christianity, believes that the Kingdom or rule of God is established through Christ. It has become present now through Christs life, death, resurrection and ascension but will only be fully realised when Christ returns and God finally and fully consummates it in a renewed and transformed creation set free from the destructive effects of the fall.[ii] A person enters the Kingdom by personal faith in Christ and freely accepting his lordship over their life. Christians do not believe that the Kingdom is a political rule that can be imposed or fully achieved now. Our present political and cultural orders can be and have been influenced by Christians, particularly in Western culture, and so may reflect, more or less, some of the values of Christs Kingdom.
The Kingdom and the Church are not one and the same; the Kingdom is a much bigger and more encompassing reality than the Church. The Churches role is to bear witness to the Kingdom, to live out its values and to be a signpost to it. At times the Church has been very influential in social reform, education, health care and a powerful voice for human rights and the unique value of every human person, but it is an imperfect body and has often failed in its role and witness. [iii]
Christians have lived and continue to live in many different political orders in which they seek to be good citizens. The limits to their co-operation with or obedience to any current political order is determined and framed by their allegiance to Christ, for them Jesus is Lord not Caesar. (Math 28:19 See above) If the current political order requires of them actions or beliefs that are contrary to the teaching of Jesus then they will peacefully resist or disobey and take the consequences. Recent examples are Christians in communist countries and the Confessing Church under the Nazis in WW2.
Christians are charged by Jesus to be salt and light in the world [iv] and so seek to influence the values and public policy of the current order in which they live. They do this by the witness of their life, by reasoned argument in the public discourse, and through legitimate political avenues where available. This has meant, in the case of the evolution of Western liberal democracies, the significant shaping of that political and civic order. For example it can be shown quite clearly that in the development of codes of Human Rights right up to the UN Declaration the process was significantly influenced by Christians, particularly in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. [v] The Evangelical revival in England in the same period coincided with and strongly influenced the political organisation of labour and the rights of ordinary workers, the factory acts, the child labour laws and many other social reforms during the industrial revolution. Christians were leaders in all these initiatives. Christians also seek to commend and explain the Christian faith to others and invite them to faith in Christ. They believe that people should and must be free to make their own decision without coercion or civil penalty. In these ways the Kingdom of God makes its presence felt in the world through the Holy Spirit in Christ’s disciples. But the final realisation does not come till Christ returns.
This understanding of the role of Christianity in the political order is clearly much more compatible to liberal democracy than Islam’s goals and methods.
[i] “The international system built up by the west since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state.” This statement was made after the Madrid terrorist attacks in 2004 by an ‘al Qaeda spokesman. Posted in the ‘Global Islamic Media Internet Forum’ under the name of L. Atiyyatullah and reported in ‘The Media Line’ April 2004 by Yaniv Berman.
[ii] See Romans 8:18-25
[iii] The history of Church and State in European history is complicated, there were periods when the two were joined and when the Church identified itself with the Kingdom of God. The Reformation gave impetus to the idea of the separation of Church and State; it also coincided with the emergence of nationalism and the nation state in Europe. Lutheran theology emphasised the idea of two separate kingdoms or spheres of responsibility, the Enlightenment reinforced this further. The Treaty of Westphalia (1647), which brought to an end the 30 years’ war over religious and national issues, established the basic principles of our current arrangements of sovereign nation states. These principles are now under some revision as a result of the formation of the EU, the UN and the growing acceptance of the ‘doctrine’ of human rights intervention where foreign states feel obliged to intervene in another states internal affairs when human rights are seriously infringed, e.g.; Kosovo, Libya, etc.
( Note: The gradual evolution of the liberal democratic state in England is seen by many as a good example of the development of a successful model of the relationship between Church and State. The observation could also be made that the Church is now so weak in England and the majority of the population so secular and pluralist that the current expression of the relationship is unrepresentative and unbalanced. This view is disputed by those who believe that the current order is a true reflection of England’s history, inheritance and core culture and should be preserved and that the present level of unbelief is a phase that may well change in the future.)
[iv] Mathew 5:13-16
[v ] See A C Graylings “Toward the Light” (Bloomsbury Press 2007) for a survey of the immense influence of Christians like Anthony Benezet, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce on the development and eventual adoption of Human Rights charters and declarations. (Pages 164 f). It should also be remembered that the very influential Tom Paine who wrote “The Rights of Man” began his public life as a Methodist lay preacher.