In his comments during the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama, dropped these lines,
And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
And because of them my facebook was in an uproar.
I’m not the biggest Obama fan out there because there are some significant issues that he and I approach differently. However, that doesn’t mean that I think he is incapable of some wise words, or that he should be represented unjustly. So yeah, Obama said that people have committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. However, before we jump to the defensive I think we need to ask is the principle true and why were these words said.
The principle of the matter is true. In Jesus of Nazareth, as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) comments on the petition “Hallowed be thy name,” he shares this thought:
This [the incarnation] enables us to understand what the petition for the sanctification of the divine name means. The name of God can now be misused and so God himself can be sullied. The name of Go can be co-opted for our purposes and so the image of God can also be distorted. The more he gives himself into our hands, the more we can obscure his light; the closer he is, the more we can disfigure him. Martin Buber once said that when we consider all the ways in which God’s name has been so shamefully misused, we almost despair of uttering it ourselves. But to keep it silent would be an outright refusal of the love with which God comes to us.
This seems to hold to the principle that Christians can do terrible things to sully the name of God. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who is willing to fight tooth and nail and say that the principle isn’t true. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way,
To the extent that they [believers] are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teachings falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the true nature of God and of religion. (2125)
I’m pretty sure the Bible just sums this up as “hypocrites and false prophets.” Anyway, I don’t think it is the principle, that Christians can do terrible things while claiming the name of Christ, that most people objected to. It is the specific instances that Obama chose that most people seemed to have the biggest problem with, and I’ll visit that further in the post.
Now, what can the layout of his speech tell us about the purpose of these words?
First, after some pleasantries, Obama takes time to speak of violence that is occurring around the world in the name of religious interests. I don’t get the impression that it was meant to be a comprehensive list, but notably every event mentioned was outside of our borders. Then, he says the words that have stirred up such a buzz.
After the infamous words, he begins to speak on lessons that he believes we, as Americans, should take to heart. To me, that means that the intention was to communicate that we should not immediately dissolve into us vs them thinking. We should not convince ourselves that we, as Western Christians, are immune to committing sins we believe are justified. By making this point, I get the impression he was trying to draw people to look in the mirror rather than across the ocean.
Now, we come to the issue of the specific instances. I believe that the way he articulated the principle is what struck the biggest nerve. Referencing the Crusades and the Inquisition in one brief sentence over simplifies a very complex and nuanced historical debate into the size of a twitter post. So in that way I think he did historians and people of faith a disservice. Really, the question I would raise, is why list centuries old events alongside current events. The desire to give specific instances was appreciated, but when all the other events listed are present day issues it would have made more sense to reference something a little more contemporary.
The Real Point
It intrigues me though, that this is where most people stopped. They never got past the nerve that Obama struck by referencing two contested parts of Christian history. After the Crusades and Inquisition references he began to give his advice. He got into the real “meat” of his message, some of which is great from a Christian perspective, some of which leaves a lot to be desired. Some things are suspiciously (thought not surprisingly) absent from his words and there are things that would be supported or rejected depending on where someone falls politically.
Thus, while I appreciated the posts that offered education and clarification about history, I think we’ve hurt ourselves by never getting past the lead-in and into the message. We’ve missed the point and expressed that our priorities aren’t where they should be. Why were we freaking out about poor examples when:
- We could be celebrating that awareness regarding human-trafficking has continued to grow.
- We could be wondering if the line “No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number,” includes the unborn, disabled, and elderly. Or those victims of war whose humanity has been disguised as they are classified as “collateral damage.”
- We could be challenging ourselves to more fully embrace the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
- We could wonder why Obama’s presentation of the Great commandment as only concerning neighbor seemed to say “What you believe doesn’t impact the way you act”; when the reality is that the three Monotheistic faiths all present the command to love neighbor as derived from our love of and faith in God.
- We could celebrate that in a time of popular atheism, Obama would lend credibility to stories of faith.
- We could also question why the definition of humility suddenly included doubt, as if confidence was arrogance.
This back and forth list could go on for a long time. I’m sure others would generate a different list than I did.
There are things to question and critique in Obama’s words, there are things to celebrate, and there are things to outright disagree with; but as a lover of history and apologetics I want to express one last thought: Everyone jumped on the words about the Crusades and the Inquisition because both sides have their ready made arguments and defenses. Because that was the easy part. The scary part, the difficult part, is then entering into a dialogue about the words that followed. Dialogues concerning truth, human dignity, rights of the individual, the relationship between church and state, pluralism, etc. Scary though it is, that is the dialogue that will bear great fruit.