Nobody’s God says “Hate your neighbor,”
Even if the neighbor doesn’t believe in God.
So said President Obama in his speech Wednesday announcing an initiative to degrade and defeat Islamic State.
Actually, the quote is from the song “Everyone Is Good” by the Roches, three folksinging sisters who are among my favorite musical artists.
But Obama said almost the same thing in his speech: “No religion condones the killing of innocents.”
To which a lot of historians of religion would reply: “What?”
True, the scriptures of most religions contain pacific pullquotes, and religious violence is blessedly less common than it once was. But you don’t have to be Richard Dawkins to recognize that violence stains most major faiths. Nobody expects the president to mention the Inquisition, but it happened, and so did the Crusades.
As for a prohibition of killing innocents, well, there is the little problem of Bible passages such as 1 Samuel 15:2–3: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”
An online Bible commentary calls God’s orders in this passage “honestly a very difficult issue.” You think?
Obama channeled the Roches in a part of his speech in which he also taunted “ISIL, which calls itself the ‘Islamic State.’ ” In a gibe that recalled Voltaire’s claim that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, Obama said the so-called Islamic State was neither Islamic or a state.
It wasn’t a state, he said, because it “is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates.” It wasn’t Islamic, he said, “because the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” (That’s a non sequitur. You can identify with a faith and kill fellow adherents. Christian groups have killed other Christians over the centuries.)
In response to Obama’s comment, one critic snarked on Twitter that “I was unaware our president was a theologian with knowledge sufficient to declare that which is, and is not, Islamic. Now I know.”
But if Obama professed to be an expert on Islam, so did George W. Bush. A week after 9/11 he went to the Islamic Center in Washington to declare: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
Whatever its theological accuracy, that statement was a noble political act designed to prevent reprisals against innocent Muslim Americans. Obama seemed to be trying to convey a similar message.
And though it may be simplistic, given human history, to pronounce any religion a “religion of peace,” the two presidents were really making a different and important point: that the vast majority of Muslims don’t see their faith as sanctifying violence or terrorism.
So maybe we can let those statements slide. Still, it was jarring, and ahistorical, for Obama to say that “no religion condones the killing of innocents.” Leave that sentiment to the Roches.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3