Their scriptures may imply that God ordered genocide. Their extremists preach hate and destroy artifacts from other traditions. Most of the clergy insist that theirs is a religion of peace.
Yes, Christians are in a quandary these days.
If you are Christian, as I am, and find this shocking, welcome to the crowd. It is excruciating to read, in the biblical Book of Deuteronomy (20:16-18), God's command to the people of Israel to wipe out the Canaanites. It is embarrassing to watch news about Westboro Baptist Church and the Qur'an-burning Terry Jones and hear them claim membership in our faith family.
Lately, of course, the world has paid more attention to another religion entirely, whose current quandaries are eerily similar to the above. The horror of ISIS has set off a vigorous debate over which interpretations of the Qur'an are Islamic and which are not. (Two must-reads from this debate: journalist Graeme Wood's widely discussed Atlantic article from earlier this year, and scholar Caner Dagli's incisive response.)
What's important here, for our purposes, is what the two traditions share in common: texts that repel the faith's gentler adherents while inspiring its extremists to acts of depravity.
What do we do with all this?
It is tempting to dismiss these difficult texts entirely and uphold only the "good" texts as truly representative of the faith. It is tempting, for us Christians, to retort that at least most of our extremists aren't violent (or not that violent). It is tempting for others to use such texts as proof that religion breeds violence.
There is another option. We can peer more deeply into our own traditions, including the darkest elements. Here's why.
First, an unblinking gaze into those difficult passages can sometimes yield insight. This is why many Christians pray and study according to a lectionary, a fixed cycle of sacred readings for each day: it prevents us from reading only the passages we like. Rather than accept or reject the passage, we are asked to wrestle with it -- and see if any truth might be had in the process.
That experience has tweaked my worldview several times. On one occasion, the lectionary gave me a nudge to confront the most repellent verse in the Bible (Psalm 137:9). The graphic expression of the desire for vengeance is more than I can stomach on a good day. Yet even as I loathed reading it, the words suddenly struck me with something new: the tiniest glimpse of the rage that oppression elicits in the oppressed. For a white, straight, middle-class person, the importance of this glimpse in sparking empathy for some of God's favorite people -- the conquered, oppressed, and marginalized -- cannot be overstated.
Second, owning up to the difficulties in our own tradition can inspire a trait truly required for peace: humility -- a crystal-clear gaze into the belief systems that occupy an important place in our hearts. When we can admit to the warts and obstacles of our own tradition, it becomes easier to empathize with people of other traditions and the obstacles they face. Rather than hear news accounts of ISIS and conclude that all Muslims follow a violent religion, we can empathize with them, because we know the challenges of drawing wisdom from a book that can be difficult, even maddening.
Third, when we gaze into our texts and traditions, we inevitably encounter not only the dark and difficult, but also the rich, beautiful, and meaning-making: the passion of God to create a just world for God's beloved humanity, the worship and prayer that answer our deep longing to connect with the impenetrable, the transformation of heart that turns us into people of compassion. These traditions have far more to offer the world than their detractors would have us believe.
Imagine what might happen with this orientation toward humility and awareness in our deepest selves. We might rush not to judgment of Muslims but to empathy. We could consider key issues -- national security concerns, the admission of Syrian refugees, the collection of intelligence -- free of the consuming fear that, too often throughout history, has resulted in lamentable decisions.
We might, in short, become more effective at dealing with these intractable issues.
No one likes the seamy and repugnant and difficult in any tradition. But as the wizard Gandalf predicts in The Lord of the Rings, even the most horrible may have its role to play. Perhaps this is true in our faith traditions as well.