Barbara Bradley Hagerty, National Public Radio's religion correspondent, ruffled some feathers last week when she posed this question: is the Bible more violent than the Quran?
Religion scholar Phillip Jenkins was on hand to answer that question. No contest, he argues in his new book Jesus Wars>. Whereas the violence prescribed in the Quran is mostly defensive, Jenkins says, the Bible is packed with genocidal commands from God. That drew a sputtering response of incredulity from Andrew Bostom, a self-taught scholar of Islam whose writings are most about the malevolence of jihad. "This is just preposterous!" he exclaimed in the same broadcast.
Since most Americans have at most read selected passages of the Bible, I expect they will agree with Bostom. But here are some hard truths: Christianity and Islam are the world's dominant religions because they have used every possible tactic, including large-scale violence and intimidation, to get that way. There are no clean hands in this quarrel.
Sure, Jenkins make a fine "mote and beam" argument. (In a certain well-known sermon, Jesus is recorded as saying, "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?") But the even harder truth is this: it doesn't much matter what the sacred texts say. Scriptures are magic mirrors. They reflect back the wishes of those who stare into them. If you're rich, you find justification in them for your wealth. If you're poor, you find hope that you'll be rewarded for your suffering.
Harder still: religions are like living beings, and like all living things they are subject to natural selection. Far from being the fixed point in a turning world, every religion evolves and, if it persists long enough, speciates. You can see this at a glance in Christianity and Islam. Each has split into two major species: Catholic and Protestant on the one hand, Sunni and Shi'ite on the other. But even up close, you can observe evolution at work in religion. As often as not, religion evolves toward violence.
Case in point: Quakers. I attended a Friends school back in my youth in Philadelphia and as a young adult flirted with the idea of being a Quaker, but I could not in good conscience declare myself a pacifist. Not that I like war, but imagining myself in my parents' generation, I could not see sitting out the fight against Nazism. Peace constitutes a defining Quaker value. To be a Quaker is to be a pacifist. So it was not for me. And yet, the president who not only waged but expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos was none other than Richard Nixon, the nation's only Quaker commander in chief.
Could Nixon have won the presidency as an outright pacifist? Probably not. Look at how he pasted the dovish George McGovern in 1972. Variation and selection bring about adaptation.
Of course, Quakers are not particularly doctrinal, and they have less respect for scripture than for inner reflection. Would it have made a difference if they were more, er, bookish? Not really. Let us not forget that the Ten Commandments, which theocrats are always trying to nail up in public schools, come in multiple versions, most of which include this: "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
Pretty plain language, wouldn't you say? And yet, a pro-death-penalty, war-loving preacher can slice and dice that commandment faster than Pitchman Vince on the Slap Chop. What's more, even if you buy the argument that this commandment is simply a prohibition against murder, can you show any evidence that it has constrained the faithful? American jails are crammed with violent believers, including a disproportionately high number of Christians. Atheists, at less than half a percent of prisoners, are sadly underrepresented in proportion to their numbers in the real world.
What of the reverse? Do commandments to do violence necessarily result in violence?
To be sure, there are suras in the Quran than can be read as highly aggressive. Take this choice morsel: "Then, when the sacred months have passed -- that is, [at] the end of the period of deferment -- slay the idolaters wherever you find them, be it during a lawful [period] or a sacred [one], and take them captive, and confine them, to castles and forts, until they have no choice except [being put to] death or [acceptance of] Islam; and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush, [at every] route that they use ..." Of course, the passage ends with an offer of mercy if they convert to Islam, but still ...
And yet, consider: Muslims believe the Quran to have been dictated, word by word, by Allah -- that is, God. Taken literally, the above sura amounts to a command to go out and kill or convert nonbelievers every year. How many Muslims actually do that? Not even one in ten thousand, I daresay.
Only a minority of Muslims even laud the few who do practice jihadi violence, characterized by the suicide bombing. A 2007 poll of tens of thousands of Muslims in various Middle Eastern countries found support for violent extremism falling even among Palestinians. None of this is meant to dismiss the threat posed by Muslim extremism, which remains all too stark, nor to discount the humdrum violence and oppression that characterize all too much of the Islamic world. Nor do I mean to overlook the violence of Christian extremists such as Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. Till in church last year.
On the contrary, both Christianity and Islam owe their global success not so much to the magic words in their scriptures as to their effectiveness in practicing forced conversions. Oh, yes, we all know about the growth of the Islamic Empire, whose berobed foot-soldiers held a scimitar in one hand and the Quran in the other. But pull that beam out of your eye, dear Christian reader, and remember the Celts, the West Africans, the Indians of the Plains, the Hawaiians, and countless other peoples whose religions and languages were violently suppressed that they might know salvation through "our Lord Jesus Christ."
There are no clean hands in this quarrel.