The Common Good
July 2013

Overcoming Violent Fundamentalism

by Jim Wallis | July 2013

Religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response.

TODAY THE Middle East—where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25—is a region dominated by humiliation and anger. Failure plus rage plus the folly of youth equals an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep. We can start with the fact that what we consider our oil lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive regimes, the presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy. Add to that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Muslim world. Fundamentalism—in all our faith traditions—is volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it is hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Three principles may help us navigate a path out of this mess. First, religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response. Ample evidence proves that such a strategy often makes things worse. Religious and political zealots prefer military responses to the threats created by Islamic extremism. Ironically, this holds true on both sides of the conflict; the fundamentalist zealots also prefer the simplistic military approach because they are often able to use it effectively. Fundamentalists actually flourish and win the most new recruits amid overly aggressive military campaigns against them.

Second, religious extremism is best undermined from the inside rather than smashed from the outside. The best antidote to religious fundamentalism of all stripes is the genuine faith tradition that is alive and well in most world religions. For example, the best thing that moderate and progressive Christians can do in the struggle with fundamentalism in other faith traditions is to make powerful alliances with the moderate and progressive leaders in those communities. Fundamentalist religion must be countered with prophetic religion, and a new alliance between prophetic religious leaders across our faith traditions is the best way to defeat its threats.

Third, while the use of force to protect our security and bring perpetrators to justice is justifiable, it will take much broader and more creative strategies to defeat the mindset and motives of terrorists. This third principle goes back to Paul’s strategy of feeding your enemies, to “heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). What the modern Muslim world most needs today is education, especially of its young women, the building of technology and infrastructure, and a principled focus on economic development. The Middle East in general needs that kind of assistance from the West, not more weapons and money poured into the coffers of corrupt regimes.

SINCE THE ATTACKS of 9/11, we have seen a theology of war coming from some political leaders in the United States and even from some of our religious communities. It attempts a theological justification for the “war against terror” and even for the particular role of the United States in such an endless war. But for Christians the words of Jesus stand directly in the way of that theology of war.

In a world wracked with violence, the words “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) are not only challenging; they are daunting. The hardest saying of Jesus, and perhaps the most controversial in our post-9/11 world, is indeed “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Let’s be honest: How many churches in the United States have heard sermons preached from either of these texts in the years since America was attacked? Shouldn’t we at least have a debate about what the words of Jesus mean in our world of terrorist threats and wars of occupation?

The issue here is not partisan politics, and there are no easy answers to the complicated questions of national security. No one has a monopoly on the truth. But there is reason to worry about the increasingly religious tone in formulating an aggressive foreign policy that is more nationalist than Christian.

The words of Jesus are either authoritative for us or they are not. And they are not set aside by the very real threats of terrorism. They do not easily lend themselves to the missions of nation-states that would usurp the prerogatives of God. Our confession of Christ warns against the demonization of perceived enemies and the assumption that those who fundamentally question American policies must be siding with the “evildoers.” Christian ethics challenges the simplistic idea that the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. A version of this column appeared in his book On God’s Side.

Image: Beatitudes #6, Robert J. Beyers II /

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