“They’ll Know We Are Christians By…”

Three cover stories in the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic www.theatlantic.com address religion and its cultural impact.

By far the best (and most troubling) among the trio is “God’s Country,” by Eliza Griswold link to article. Griswold reports on bloody conflicts that rage between Muslims and Christians across Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” perpetuated not only by competing religious claims but also by economics, political power, competition for resources, geography, and climate change. Mostly it is a story of hatred finding refuge and legitimation in religious rhetoric, although the article’s lone bright spot–a description of an imam and a pastor who labor together on behalf of the Interfaith Mediation Centre–reminds us of faith’s power to reconcile people to one another even as horrors rage.

The article makes two impressions upon me. First, the hostility it describes can actually enlighten students of the New Testament, giving them better insight into the words that first nurtured Christians nearly 2000 years ago. Bible readers today often struggle to make sense of New Testament’s martial imagery, threats of judgment, apocalyptic dualism, and battening down of the hatches against outsiders. It is difficult for those of us who live with relative comfort and power to understand how persecuted and embattled groups–including those comprising New Testament authors and their first readers–might view the wider world and interpret the threats they face in such ways. I do not mean to endorse all the violent fantasies and longings for retribution that one hears from Christians in both The Atlantic and the New Testament; my point is merely that greater familiarity with the experiences of people like those spotlighted in the article prevents us from too easily dismissing the Bible’s grammar of conflict as outdated or unrealistic. The trick, of course, is appropriating that theological grammar in ways that faithfully reflect the hope and peace that God extends to the whole world through Jesus Christ.

At the same time, much in the article should leave us dismayed at how followers of the Prince of Peace continue the age-old Christian practice of wielding violent rhetoric and perpetuating it as if they were enacting God’s will. When the Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola implies that violence is a legitimate option in the service of the gospel and utters the threat, quoted by Griswold, “[L]et no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence,” he surrenders whatever theological and moral credibility his office might presume to grant him. I know that not all Nigerian Christians think this way. I hope their neighbors discover it, as well.