God's Politics

On Good Friday, 2007, a friend drew my attention to a fascinating editorial by CNN contributor Roland Martin. It expressed in both intellectual content and emotional intensity what many of us think and feel about the state of the Christian community in the United States. Along the way it offered this rather inspiring vision – evocative of the biblical vision of the lion and the lamb lying down together in peace:

I’m looking for the day when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, James Kennedy, Rod Parsley, “Patriot Pastors” and Rick Warren will sit at the same table as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Cynthia Hale, Eddie L. Long, James Meek, Fred Price, Emmanuel Cleaver and Floyd Flake to establish a call to arms on racism, AIDS, police brutality, a national health care policy, our sorry education system.

An aside: Martin’s use of the warfare language in the editorial – call to arms, holy war, set our sights, and so on – mirrors the surge in military rhetoric currently (over) deployed by our news media. Every conflict, it seems, quickly becomes a full-blown war – from “The Battle over Anna Nicole’s Body” to “the nuclear option” in Congress to Newt Gingrich’s proclamation during the invasion of Lebanon last summer that World War III had begun. (I found myself using warfare rhetoric just the other day, in a completely inappropriate ministry context. I guess the language of war, like war itself, can be contagious.) We should all do some serious reflection on how the warfare rhetoric we use can turn the tables and start using us.

But putting that important concern aside for the time being, let me quote Martin again. Speaking of the deep polarization between the Christian “left” and “right,” he observes:

Many people believe we are engaged in a holy war. And we are. But it’s not with Muslims. The real war – the silent war – is being engaged among Christians, and that’s what we must set our sights on.

Martin’s insight about the conflicted Christian community in America reminded me of three books I read recently about Islam.

In the last chapter of Caryle Murphy’s A Passion for Islam (Scribner, 2002), the Pulitzer-prize-winning author speaks of “the divisions that mark Islam today as it passes through one of its most crucial periods.” She continues, “It is this internal battle for the hearts and souls of fellow Muslims, rather than Bin Laden’s call for jihad against the West, that is most crucial for the future of Islam’s contemporary resurgence” (276).

Similarly, Irshad Manji’s courageous book The Trouble with Islam (St. Martins, 2003) speaks of the great need for ijtihad – honest reflection, self-criticism, self-examination, vigorous rethinking, renewal, reformation. Manji explores the conflict between those who look inward, seeking to root out internal hypocrisy and religious dysfunction through ijtihad and those who externalize their anxiety by pursing violent jihad against external enemies instead.

Finally, Reza Aslan, in No god but God (Random House, 2005), concludes:

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, may have fueled the clash-of-monotheisms mentality among those Muslims, Christians, and Jews who seem to mistake religion for faith and scripture for God. … What has occurred since that fateful day amounts to nothing short of another Muslim civil war – a fitnah – which … is tearing the Muslim community into opposing factions (266).

As I read Roland Martin’s editorial, I couldn’t help but feel the resonances between his call for conflicted Christians to find a way beyond their impasse and the parallel struggle among our Muslim friends and neighbors in seeking a way forward for their conflicted faith. For all of their differences, members of the two religions have at least this in common: both faiths are in “crucial periods,” experiencing an “internal battle” or “silent war” among opposing factions, a struggle to retain what is true and good and generous, to reject what is inconsistent with each faith’s highest ideals and dreams, and to do so in ways that won’t blow us all to smithereens.

The fact that Martin’s editorial came out on Good Friday got me thinking of Jesus’ role as one who challenged the religious establishment of his day with its polarizations and paralysis. Jesus called for a kind of ijtihad (repentance) among his brothers and sisters, proclaiming a new commandment of love, leading to a new way of being godly people – as reconcilers, peacemakers, servants of the last, least, and lost. I thought about what his message cost him on the first Good Friday, and what it may cost anyone today who seeks a better way beyond the politicized, fractious status quo.

We’ve probably heard many people here in the U.S. ask, “Why aren’t there more moderate Muslims speaking out against the violent extremists and calling for reform in Islam?” As I reflected on Roland Martin’s editorial on Good Friday, 2007, I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe around the world, ‘behind our back,’ so to speak, people are asking a similar question about Christians in the U.S.”

These reflections stayed with me over the weekend and were with me still on Easter Sunday. In his Easter sermon, my pastor quoted Romans 8, where Paul says that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. Those words challenged me to believe that the impossibility of resurrection is indeed possible … not just in our individual lives, but also in our religious communities, if we are truly open to the life-giving, death-defying Spirit of God. I’m grateful to Roland Martin and for prompting this Easter reflection.

Brian McLaren ( is an author, speaker, Red Letter Christian, and serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His next book, due out in October, will be called Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

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