Only God Forgives

By Alexander Görlach

You can't avenge God. And you have to be overly foolhardy to assume that you are qualified to do so. Holy warriors of all stripes may believe they can, but they simply exact vengeance for all the little and medium-sized impertinences they have experienced in their lives. They take vengeance for what they perceive as a violation of their identity. In their minds, religion becomes a cipher for their inner selves. "Whoever takes the liberty to insult my religion, also insults me personally," they reason, when it is actually just the other way around: whoever insults me, also insults my religion.

By attaching to your sense of belonging to a religious community, your personal identity is safeguarded from complete voidance -- and invigorated by the assumption that your faith is the only one that is true. This is what in your mind distinguishes you from all the others who only seem to be superior at first sight. It is this reasoning then, the belief that you are among the few chosen ones, that turns humiliation into glory. The Lord's self-declared avengers effectively switch roles: After all, God calls upon the prophet and not the other way around. This pushes these overzealous warriors to the limits where it becomes clear, that others will not follow their example. Following this logic, it is a sad truth that the first victims of militant Islamism's self-righteousness are moderate Muslims. Every terrorist attack conducted by radical Islamists is therefore first and foremost an attack on every Muslim who condemns such gruesome acts.

Even Jesus was radical

The seed of this toxic belief to be amongst God's chosen few can be traced back to our religious figures. Wasn't it Jesus Christ himself who challenged the order of his day and age with his radical beliefs and proclamations? He too felt chosen by God and his purification of the Temple was the straw that broke the camel's back: The enraged aristocracy decided to have him executed by the Roman forces of law and order. Jesus accepted his faith and considered it a confirmation of him being the chosen one. "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) he uttered to one of the two criminals that were crucified along with him. To his disciples he spoke before his passion: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit--fruit that will last" (John 15:16).

It is this radicalism that some priests of the Latin American liberation theology followed when they took it as their mission, equipped with stole and machine-guns, to guarantee a fairer land distribution among the population -- just as the Lord would have wanted it.

But would he? One photo signifies an important theological decision. On it, a representative of the liberation movement, Ernesto Cardenal, kneels before John Paul II and kisses his ring in greeting, only to be lectured by a visibly upset pope.

People who have always found Karol Wojtyla overly conservative see a moralist at work here. But seen in the light of yesterday's events in Paris (and what for years we have been criticizing as the ill effects of individual Islamists that believe to be "chosen") the image assumes new meaning: When priests employ weapons to fire off their interpretation of scripture, they distort the New Testament's peaceful message.

Instead, it is the most important task of the faithful to impatiently wait for the arrival of God's kingdom -- in which the injustices of our time are resolved by the presence of an all-just God.

"All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword"

We can of course try to understand that there are people unwilling to wait for that. But "all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:52). This means that whoever wants to act as judge on earth shows that he has no faith in God. He turns himself into a God -- out of vengeance and the belief that revenge cannot be postponed. Consequentially, he becomes an a-theist; he moves away from God. Judgment, as Christians and Muslims both believe, is God's task. He alone decides who may enter heaven. It's his place after all.

Anyone trying to fight idolatry, that is pictorial representations of the Lord and his prophets, has to take care not to turn themselves into God and become and idol themselves! Who decides over life and death in God's place is their own God. Theoretically speaking, he should see in himself the biggest enemy of faith and fight himself, through fasting, prayer, pilgrimage. He should fight the hubris that, according to scripture, once ejected us from paradise. Because that is the place where humanity first tried to be like God. This is the true Jihad, for Christians and Muslims alike. Everything else is idolatry.

Personal note

The images from Paris have moved us all. As publisher of a magazine devoted to debates, I believe that plurality and diversity are the hallmarks of a free and just society. The European is devoted to the preservation of such a societal order. And as much as it needs respect, it will always include provocations that engender dialogue and discourse with those of other faiths. In a democracy, no power is unquestioned. Alexis de Tocqueville may have stated: "Only God can be all-powerful without danger." But he can't: Debate and discourse may never be inhibited by claims of supernatural legitimacy.