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Obama was right: It’s time for Christians to reflect

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday (February 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015 or with RNS-EHRICH-COLUMN, originally published on Feb. 10, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday (February 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015 or with RNS-EHRICH-COLUMN, originally published on Feb. 10, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday (February 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of asonUTERS/Kevin Lamarque *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PRAYER-BREAKFAST, originally transmitted on Feb. 5, 2015 or with RNS-EHRICH-COLUMN, originally published on Feb. 10, 2015.

Who knew that so few words could cause so much hysteria?

During his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama discussed the need to oppose militant groups that misuse religion to justify oppression or violence. But then the president said this: “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.”

That single sentence launched conservative Christians into the stratosphere. From Bill Donahue to Franklin Graham, it seems like everyone is taking time to criticize the comment. Some were restrained while others—like Texas preacher Robert Jeffress who said Jesus is “incensed” over the speech—bordered on silly. But most of these denunciations ignore or even twist the facts about what the president said and clearly meant.

Some Christians argued that Obama’s comment skirted past discussing the real issue: Islamist terrorism. Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said, “The president missed an opportunity to address the growing threat that radical Islam presents to the world.” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke of Obama’s increasingly “dangerous” refusal to acknowledge our current challenge of “resurgent Islam.”

“President Obama would not mention Islam by name,” Mohler lamented, “but he did bring judgment on the Christian past, with specific reference to the Crusades.”

But the transcript shows that the president did mention “Islam” by name. Twice. He also referenced “Muslims” and “ISIL.” In fact, he referred to ISIL as a “brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” That’s not exactly sheepish.

Other Christians went even further, arguing that the president’s comments empowered terrorists. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, for example, accused Obama of feeding “the insatiable rage of the extremists.”

Wait, so when the president proclaims that we should oppose religiously motivated violent acts—including those perpetuated by militant Islamists—it fuels terrorism? I’m confused.

And if conservative Christians are so worried about fueling the rage of Islamist extremists, then why do many of them support torture techniques that we know fuels terrorists’ resolve? And why haven’t they apologized for providing the moral support for the Iraq War—a conflict that contributed to the conditions that give rise to ISIS and mass Christian persecution in Iraq?

The common thread among almost all of these criticisms is the claim that Obama created a moral equivalency between the Crusades and ISIL’s current campaign. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said on CNN, “It’s almost as though Franklin Roosevelt were to say, “It’s a date that shall live in infamy, but let’s remember we surprised the British at Yorktown too.”

But if you read the president’s full remarks, it is quite clear that he wasn’t drawing a moral equivalency between these two events—a fact that even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly recognized and admitted on air. Instead, the president simply reminded the crowd of what history tells us:  that almost all religions—even the Christian kind—have been and can be misused to justify violence.

Why exactly was this so inflammatory for conservative Christians? This is neither a false nor a fringe idea. After all, many historians and scholars have written about the similarities in religiously motivated violence throughout history—including the Crusades and Islamist terrorism. The only explanation I can reason is that they are attempts to score political points against a president they seemingly love to hate.

But these cheap shots from the president’s critics aren’t fully honest. They have attempted to brush past the brutal violence of the Crusades with a “yeah, but…” attitude, and in some cases, are even trying to justify the brutal Christian campaigns, which wiped out up to 1 percent of the global population. Of course, the issue at hand isn’t really the Crusades but an undeniable historical pattern. Warrior popes, church-sanctioned executions of “heretics,” the enslavement of Africans, world-wide colonialism, displacement of the American Indians, abortion clinic bombings, anti-Jewish pogroms, the lynching and systemic oppression of Black Americans—these are just the headliners.

As Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf writes, “Beginning at least with Constantine’s conversion, the followers of the Crucified have perpetrated gruesome acts of violence under the sign of the cross.”

When I reflect on the recurrent violence throughout Christian history, I’m reminded of the words of a first century Rabbi: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” That was Jesus, of course, and he was reminding us that when our anger burns against others, we should pause to reflect on our own evil impulses and behaviors.

Contrary to the hot air coming from so many, it is actually quite Christian to remind ourselves of our own violent history even as we confront current evils. This posture nurtures humility rather than rage and forces us to see ourselves in the eyes of our “enemies.” It stops us from chanting “kill them all” and forces us instead to whisper “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I have deep disagreements with President Obama, and I have written of them on several occasions. But at the National Prayer Breakfast, the President was right. Sadly, many Christians participated in needless hysteria that robs them of an opportunity for honesty and humility. Perhaps if Christians learned to regularly reflect on and confess the logs in our own eyes, we would be less preoccupied with rattling sabers and more concerned with proclaiming the gospel of peace.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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