‘In response to the San Bernardino terror attack two weeks ago,’ World magazine reports, ‘college students from around the country joined thousands of Liberty [University] students in supporting [university president] Falwell’s public address, which encouraged students to get concealed-carry permits to protect themselves and their classmates in case of similar attacks by Muslim extremists.’ Some student leaders at Wheaton College, on the other hand, have responded with an open letter, as have some Ph.D. students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Wheaton students say,
In his remarks, [Mr Falwell] called for students to arm themselves so that they could ‘end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them’, exhorting the students to ‘teach them a lesson if they ever show up here’. While these sorts of remarks epitomize the ever-growing fear and hostility directed toward Muslims, we as Evangelical Christians hold that Christ calls us not to react with religious oppression or violence – instead, we have the responsibility to live out fearless love in order to pursue unity.
I agree with the call for Christians to respond with courage rather than reacting without reflection. This call, such as it is, I find admirable and wise. To clam up against an actual or merely perceived enemy is less than human, falling short of the reason we ought to exercise in the image of God. To move against Muslims in general, simply for believing in and practising a certain religion, is foolish and unworthy of a Christian; to treat others poorly for the sake of their beliefs, indeed, fits the definition of bigotry exactly, and to do so is contrary both to our Protestant heritage and to the law of the Lord.
What the students at Wheaton and PTS do not see is that they are themselves reacting against what they perceive to be a threat – to their usual way of life or to their prestige. Mr Falwell’s comments, they say, ‘detract from the witness of the Gospel and the call to love our neighbors and pursue unity’. I doubt not that they think so, but the claim rings hollow nonetheless. Is it witness to Muslims that would be hurt by a call to defensive violence? Is it not rather the liberals whose good opinion the students cherish, whose company they covet? Much as the students may identify with evangelical Christianity, they are loath to be associated with ‘the wrong sort’. I can relate, as can anyone who is tied, by unchosen relations, to persons whose conduct he finds embarrassing. But this aversion of theirs, understandable as it is, has brought out bad exegesis of holy Scripture. The remonstrating students rely upon abstractions that, rather than being supported by the word of God, encode the values of the liberal chattering classes. They have criticized fear on the basis of the proposition that, in the words of St John, there is no fear in love. Ergo, they say, we must resist fear of Muslims. What does St John actually say?
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us.
Because we know that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is this Son of God, we know the love of God; and it is this love that sets us free from the fear of judgement and torment, as we behold the love that God has shown to us.
To be sure, the truth of this passage applies to Christians’ relations with Muslims. First, we have no need to justify ourselves by making Muslims out to be subhuman, and by comparison to stand out as chosen and approved. Second, the love of God, which we have experienced, calls upon us as well, that we should show forth in our conduct the image of his love; and just as Christ died for all men without exception, so ought we to love all men without exception. St John assures us that those who do otherwise do not have the love of God within them, and that they do not know God. His words are stern, and those who think themselves made of sterner stuff should think again. A hard teaching it may be, but he who would live must accept the truth; let them complain of God’s meanness whose love is greater than his.
Let us not have meaningless group hugs and bromides about unity and brotherhood. Christ has died for all without exception, but he has not died for all without distinction. Those who believe in his holy Name and those who blaspheme against it are not one. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. To unite the two, says St Paul, is to put together Christ and a harlot: it is as great a sin as the Muslims imagine Christians commit in ‘associating partners with God’, the blasphemous idolatry of shirk. ’Tis one thing to commit to showing the love of Christ in our bodies, but quite another thing to commit our bodies to destruction for the sake of boasting in the flesh.
And such committal is what we have in those who, professing godly love for enemies, would rather die at the hands of wicked men, and call others so to die, and think themselves godlier than those who would not, than stop those to whom they owed no allegiance. Render unto Cæsar, says the Lord, but it is no noble martyr’s death to offer no resistance to a thief, and thus to give over to death a bearer of the holy gospel. The would-be martyrs, would they surrender the sacred vessels of the Lord’s most precious body and blood? If they would not there be traditores, how much more should they keep themselves living witnesses and living members of the Body of Christ? To follow Christ’s blameless steps in holy martyrdom is an honour, but suicide is dishonour to the body.
We should count it honour to suffer for the sake of Christ, and in suffering to love our enemies: for our sakes our Lord scorned the shame of the Cross. But nowhere has love overruled good sense. To know the love of God is not to take leave of our senses. To be armed, if slow to anger, if not overzealous to kill, is to use that sense which is common to man – and which the wisdom of God will not deny, for God is one. For the calamities that have come upon us for our sins, let us beseech the Lord to hear us, that he may turn these evils from us when we repent of our evil; but, though the kingdom of God spreads only by the sword of the Spirit, let us also be willing to defend our lives and our people with the sword of steel. God is not a pacifist.
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Update: For quite a different view, Nijay Gupta at George Fox Evangelical Seminary has written a piece entitled ‘Advent Lament: The Falwell Threat and the Apostolic Mission (Power and Suffering in the Acts of the Apostles)’.