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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.

22 Comments

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  • Bible says examine yourself to see if you are in the faith. it’s good to reflect
    and look at/in the mirror because so many people today only talk about the
    gay marriage issue or the abortion people so their sin doesn’t seem so bad.
    1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists many sins right along with the homosexuals so all
    sin is wrong/bad. We all need to Repent. Luke 13 says to Repent or perish!
    1 Corinthians 5 and 6 the whole chapters are really in need of being taught
    today because so many people in the church don’t want to change/Repent.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

  • Well, I’m not inflamed; however, comparing the butchery, including crucifixion of children, that is happening now to something that happened 800-1000 years ago is not a fair comparison, and that IS what Obama was doing.

    Your comment: “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.” It was not the president saying we should oppose religious motivated violent acts that fuels terrorism, it is the president MENTIONING what Christians did 800-1000 years ago that fuels terrorists. Now ISIS has an excuse. After all, Christians did it a millennium ago.

    Regarding the crusades, one’s opposition to them within the church depends upon whether one is a Pacifist or one agrees with the Just War theory, which many churches do. Obama’s comments were totally unfair, misguided, and even hostile comparisons. I don’t think it was necessarily intentional. it’s almost as if he doesn’t know the difference.

    That is all.

  • Absolutely right. People forget that Romans 2 follows Romans 1. They just stop reading at the end of Romans 1.

  • Now is the time to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done in heaven and also on earth (Matthew 6:10). This is the only way true peace and security will be realized worldwide through its millennial rule over man (Micah 4:3,4).

  • We can’t complain that mentioning history fuels violence when the history exists.

    What defuses the power of past atrocities is not ignoring them or pretending they didn’t happen, it is understanding them and talking about them honestly, and when appropriately apologetically. That is the appropriate and Christian method of moving on.

    ISIS using the crusades as current motivation didn’t make sense before the president spoke or after. But condemning the president and ignoring the context of the remark speak pretty loudly to many.

  • You yourself illustrate precisely why talking about the Crusades is still relevant:
    “Regarding the crusades, one’s opposition to them within the church depends upon whether one is a Pacifist or one agrees with the Just War theory, which many churches do.”

    Indeed!! Many churches DO find the sort of massive, widespread, raping, pillaging, butchering, and slaughter of the Crusades to be a “Just War”. Unfortunately, because of these Christians who view the horrible actions of the distant past as “Just”, the Crusades are still VERY MUCH relevant today.

    It may have been almost a thousand years in the past, but there are many in the present who don’t see it as bad. As long as that is happening, the relevance remains.

  • To “Adam Shield ” But condemning the president and ignoring the context of the remark speak pretty loudly to many.” As an unbeliever the president is already condemned he needs to repent and trust in Christ..

  • So you know him that well do ya? Maybe you need to work on that big plank in your eye there pal, before you cast your lovely aspersions elsewhere.

  • From reading Jonathan Merritt (and listening to the president), you would think that nobody in America (except them and those who share their politics) has even heard of the Crusades, let alone been taught in school about their horrible behavior.

    If my experience is typical, the opposite is the case. When I was in middle school and high school, I read plenty about the Crusades, but almost nothing about the Muslim armies they were fighting. And what little we were taught about medieval Islam was positive.

    It was only in the years after 9/11 that I began reading further and realizing that while the Crusades were barbarous, the larger context was an-on-and-off-again war between the military forces of Christendom and Islam in which both sides were pretty awful in conduct. And those years also forced me to ponder which side was the one I would have supported had I been alive at any point in that millennium-long war.

    What Jonathan Merritt doesn’t realize is that tens of millions of Christians in America are in exactly the same boat as I am. They were taught a one-sided, politically correct view in school and over the past decade, have been reading the other side. It has been a rude awakening of sorts…..to realize that today’s challenge of radical Islamism isn’t just a modern phenomenon but is just an extreme version of what unfortunately has always been…..

    We must avoid the opposite extreme of whitewashing the Crusades, but again, for most of us, given our education, the danger was the opposite, which was to whitewash their Muslim opponents.

    I agree with Jonathan that some Christian pastors have said some pretty silly things, like the one who said Jesus would be “outraged” by Obama’s remarks. I can’t imagine that at all.

    I think though, that from a post-9/11 perspective, they were inappropriate, since we really are at war and should not be giving our enemy, which calls us “Crusaders,” any good sound bites for their recruitment campaigns….and especially since, if I am any example at all, our educational system has already taught us about the brutality and depraved behavior of the Crusades.

  • Fourth Valley, while the Crusades were a barbaric and savage bunch, the act itself of going to war against the Muslim armies of that time wasn’t necessarily wrong. Scholars will disagree about whether at that moment in time, Europe was in any imminent danger, but in terms of the larger, thousand-years-war between Euro-Christendom and Islam and their armies, yes, there were plenty of moments. But more important, the reason Europe likely wasn’t in daily danger was precisely because it had the will to arm and to fight.

    So these are two separate questions — whether the Crusader choice to go to war was just and whether their subsequent behavior was just. On the latter question, the answer is profoundly not. But the answer to the first question is far from clear. I’m open to either answer.

  • Calvin, I do not need to know the man personally to see the fruit of his life, supporting same sex marriage, promoting the murder of millions of innocent unborn by partial birth abortion, and he is a out and out liar.etc, and this is his practice of life. The plank in my eye has nothing to do with his life style. Maybe you need to become a little more discerning.

  • The Jim Crow South and it’s thousands upon thousands of lynchings under the sign of the cross weren’t 800-1000 years ago.

  • Much of what the President said was true. Personally, I just felt like the timing of it was rather poorly timed. I would rather see the prayer breakfast be a time of prayer with attempts at unity. Last year, Dr. Ben Carson made some true statements as well–but they pushed the idea of unity further away than desired. Enough in fact that the White House later requested an apology.

    On the history lesson, I was perplexed in that the Crusades and much of the Inquisition were responses to Muslim invasions of both Israel and Spain respectively. Because Muslims invaded, these two events developed as response. War is a horrible thing, but an incursion did exist.

    Finally, things of the past like this–who reflects of them on a regular basis? My kids sinned 2 years ago–but I don’t remind them of past sins and drag it out to belittle them, do I? God wants healing, to help us move past our past.

    We shouldn’t be on a high horse, but I wasn’t there for the Crusades either. It may help me remember I need forgiveness, grace, and healing that only Jesus can offer.

  • Rob S,

    Jesus himself said that those who use the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52). He further promoted love and peace among one another, even loving our enemies and praying for those persecuting us (Matthew 5:44,45). That is such a different position that most churches in Christendom today do not discern nor practice today.

  • Rob you need to read up some more about the crusades; they were not all to fight the invading Muslim infidels. There were numerous occasions when the crusaders were doing their share of pillaging and looting, even though they received a commission of sorts from the catholic church and some special dispensation for their sins in the fighting. Try and google “Reconciliation Walk”-the crusades. Oh and by the way the Christians did not fare too well in the two centuries of fighting in the crusades.

  • Jack, There is much you say I disagree with. However that you recognize what you, and so many others have been taught in childhood, when left unevaluated with the mature reasoning mind most adults have, is to leave oneself in an ignorant state.
    If only more believers would question the veracity of the “truth” they were taught then all humanity would not be concerned with humans doing terrible things to other humans based on a belief that must be believed by faith alone, as no evidence exists to support it.
    I realize that human would still do bad things to other humans, as other drivers exists like lust, greed and power, but at least we would all stop killing each other for absolutely nothing.

  • Thanks, but all I was really doing was trying to inject a bit more real-world content into what has become a very esoteric and abstract debate — informed by a politically correct narrative that doesn’t fit with my own experience education-wise, nor, I suspect, with that of millions of others.

    The real point of ignorance for most of us was not the evils of the Crusades, which we already knew, but the persistence over a millennium of real threats from actual Muslim armies, which we did not know.

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

    No. You and he expect people actually loyal to Christian teachings and institutions to reflect.

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