Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Radical Christianity vs. Radical Islam

Years ago I taught a Christian Studies course at Seinan Gakuin University titled “Radical Christianity.” The Japanese word for “radical,” just like the English one, had to be defined, for it was a term easily misunderstood.
As part of my explanation I told the students how the English word, which is often transliterated into Japan, comes from the Latin word radix, which means root. So my emphasis was that radical Christianity was the sort of belief and practice that went back to its roots, to Jesus and his teaching and activities.
(By the way, do you know about Radix, the “radical” Christianity magazine? I subscribed to it for several years, beginning soon after its initial appearance in 1976.)
In explaining what radical Christianity looks like in Christian history, I talked about people such as Francis of Assisi, Kagawa Toyohiko, Martin Luther King Jr., and Clarence Jordan (among others).
The only examples I used were Christians who believed in and practiced non-violence and who were devoted to social justice. And I still believe those are characteristics of what radical Christianity should, and does, embrace.
In recent years the term “radical Islam” has been widely used—and in such cases radical has a completely different meaning—or does it? In general use, radical means “associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change” (Merriam-Webster). Used this way, it most often includes use of violence to bring about that change.
Christianity changed from its radical beginnings to become more and more aligned with violence (war). In contrast, until the recent rise of the Taliban, ISIS, and other such radical groups, Islam became more and more peaceful through the centuries.
“Muhammad and the Caliphate” is the first chapter of the massive tome titled The Oxford History of Islam (1999). It is explained there that beginning in 627 Muhammed “launched raids against Meccan caravans, seizing valuable booty and hostages.”
Then by a “series of raids and battles” Muhammad was able to subdue some of his opponents and by “outright force” was able to subdue other groups.
Soon after Muhammed’s death in 632, Abu Bakr, his successor, sanctioned the “Apostasy wars” and then by “shows of force” brought the entire Arabian peninsula under his control by 634 (pp. 10-11).
The British historian Hugh Kennedy is the author of The Great Arab Conquests (2007). In his first chapter Kennedy explains how Muhammad’s “military campaigns” were “the beginning of the Muslim conquests. His example showed that armed force was going to be an acceptable and important element first in the defence of the new religion and then in its expansion.”
Kennedy also writes, “The Prophet’s example meant that there was no parallel to the tendency to pacificism [sic] so marked in early Christianity” (p. 48).
In spite of the changes that later took place, both in Christianity and Islam, it seems indisputable that the nature of the public activities of Jesus and Mohammed from the beginning to the end of their lives differed greatly. There was also great difference in the activities of the followers of Jesus and Mohammed in the decades after their deaths.
Restoring radical Christianity is a challenging and worthy goal for all Christians, and one I continue to promote. How badly most contemporary Christians need to go back to following the radical teachings and activities of Jesus!
On the other hand, staunchly opposing radical Islam, such as embodied by ISIS, as well as affirming and supporting the peaceful Islam that has developed through the centuries and widely practiced here in the U.S. now is also badly needed.


  1. I would hardly consider the list of good deeds Christ called us to as radical. The radical and reactionary Christians I have met are militant, mean-spirited, damn those not like themselves, and should generally be avoided. Sadly, many Christians across the spectrum have forgotten the service (good works) commands of God all through the Bible, and the love commands of Christ - especially to "love one another", but the fringe groups on both sides come only to steal and kill and destroy - the antithesis of Christ. Much the same can be said of Islam, and most religions.

    Leave me far from the adjective "Radical" (even if David Platt, whom I admire, uses it), and let me serve others as I am called. But we must also protect the innocent, especially those of the household of faith from genocide.

  2. You missed my point. "Radical" comes from the words meaning "root," so radical Christianity in the sense I use it is Christianity which goes back to its roots, to Jesus and his teaching and activities. The examples of radical Christians I gave were Francis of Assisi, Kagawa Toyohiko, Martin Luther King Jr., and Clarence Jordan (among others). Whatever else you might think about them, they certainly were not militant, mean-spirited people who damned those who were not like themselves. They are people I would like to know and be with, not avoid.

    You may not like the adjective "radical" as you understand the word, but at least consider the meaning, and the point of using it, as I defined the word with its etymological meaning.

  3. Christianity spread only because of its violent history as well. Without violence, Christianity would not have become a world religion. It think it is more helpful to look at the recent examples of peace in both Islam and Christianity.

    1. True, Christianity spread because of violence -- but that wasn't until the fourth century. There was virtually no violence used for 300 years in what I call "radical Christianity." Islam used violence from the very beginning.

      The adoption/cooption of Christianity by Constantine has been considered by many Christian historians as a victory for Christianity, but we Anabaptists tend to see that as the fall of Christianity--and a major reason radical Christianity needs to be recovered and re-affirmed in the present day.

      While there are certainly examples of peace in Christianity today, the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, both of whom emphasize their Christian faith, are calling for extreme violence to be used in the fight against ISIS.

  4. I have had more dialogue with the Karen who posted comments above.

    In response to my reply, she wrote, "I still think it's problematic to try to play the game of 'who has a better past.'"

    And then I responded, "I don't think it is a game. I think it is a matter of historical record that there was great difference between the amount of violence used by Jesus and his followers in contrast to Mohammed and his followers. As a historian, you have to deal with the facts.

    "It seems to me that liberal Christians, or liberals in general, don't want to talk about the origins of Islam because it makes it look bad--or, at least, violent.

    "I certainly don't want to use the historical facts about the origins of Islam as a weapon against the peaceful Muslims in the U.S. today, which is why I said what I did in the last paragraph."


    1. Karen responded to my comments:

      "There seems to be an implication that Christianity is 'better' than Islam by suggesting there is a 'purer' past on the Christianity side. History is always more complicated than that, in my view, and appropriating an idealized past is always about serving some present agenda."

    2. To a certain extent, the Protestant Reformation and especially the Anabaptist movement that started at the same time was an attempt to appropriate the past, namely, the original faith of Jesus and his followers.

      To call it "an idealized past" is a judgment, which may or may not be true. And the "present agenda" in the 16th century was the reformation of what they thought was a corrupt or "fallen" church as represented by the Roman Catholic Church or, in the case of the Anabaptists, the Reformed Church in Zurich.

      Similarly, talking about "radical Christianity" as I did in this blog article is also seeking to serve some present agenda. That agenda is opposition to the violence, and the greed, and other negative aspects of Christianity that are a part of much (especially conservative) American Christianity and promoting the teaching of Jesus and the early Christians.

  5. Thinking Friend Charles Kiker writes from Texas,

    "Interesting take. I too am interested in radical Christianity and strive to be a radical Christian. I’m certainly not a scholar of Islam. Have not read the Koran in whole or in part. I see snippets from it to prove that Islam is a religion of peace, and other snippets to show that it is a violent religion and that no good Muslim could also be a patriotic American. My inclination is to point out that one can 'snippetize' the Bible and prove that Christianity is a violent religion. But, with the history you have cited, perhaps ISIS is radical Islam."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles.

      In having this discussion with a very limited number of people, some have said what you have: you can find support for violence in the Bible.

      My contention is that while that is true for the Old Testament, it is not true for the New Testament, except perhaps for a literal reading of Revelation.

  6. Though I have rarely responded I have missed very few of your blogs, Bro. Leroy. Can't say I have agreed with many of them, but with today's all I can say is this is wonderful. Your discussion is the first one I have seen, certainly not in popular reading, that points out the "radical" difference in the origins of Christianity and Islam. Thank you. Jesus carried a cross. Muhammad carried a sword.

    Radical Christianity has always been radical in comparison to sinful society. You pointed out Christianity became violent when it aligned with the culture around it. That is when it stopped being radical. In 20th century parlance you might even say the Christianity of Jesus and to some extent Paul was always counter cultural. The day it stopped being counter cultural is the day it stopped being radical. Radical Christianity will always meet the world with the two Great Commandments grounded in divinely-centered, self-sacrificial love. Otherwise Christians are just another variation of a humanistic worldview.

    1. Thanks, Tom, for posting your comments. It seems that you understood the point of my article better than most, and I appreciate the way you re-stated the point in other words.

      The challenge, of course, is for us Christians to meet the world with self-sacrificial love, as you put it, rather than with an attitude of superiority, condescension, or triumphalism.

  7. Thinking Friend Daniel Corl, who has lived much of his life in Japan, posted the following comments about this article on Facebook:

    "The history of the origins of Islam seems to be undergoing a significant reevaluation. I haven't read this book, but intend to. Its been translated into Japanese, too."


    1. Thanks for your writing, Dan, and for linking to the book, which I had not known about. Some of those who left comments on the Amazon.com site refer to it as a revisionist book, and I wonder if that might not be the case.

      I tried to find reliable, objective books to read about the beginnings of Islam, and I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the books I cited in my article.

  8. In chemistry a "radical" is an active atom or molecule with an extra electron. I suspect this definition has more to do with the the use of the word in politics than the "root" definition discussed above. You do not want too many free radicals in your body, and the government does not too many free radicals in society. We do use the word as discussed above, such as when someone does a "radical makeover" on their house. As a term for describing faithful Christians, I suspect it has the same problem I ran into a few years ago when I thought I had invented the term "neoliberal" to describe a theological position, only to discover some economists with whom I strongly disagree had claimed the term already.

    Naming is often complicated, and sometimes needs updating. Rather than trying to reclaim "radical" from contemporary crazies, it might be best to try again. Once upon a time, a group who wanted to get back to basics protested and called for reform. They came to be called the Protestant Reformation. What would be an equivalent title today?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig.

      I didn't know (or remember) how "radical" was used in chemistry. That usage does not resonate with what I was writing about with regards to radical Christianity.

      Certainly, there is a problem with using the word "radical," and without careful definition it will be misunderstood. But with that as the theme of the class I taught at Seinan Gakuin University I could repeatedly remind my students of the way the word was being used, and throughout the semester most understood the point--and some of my many non-Christian students became much more interested in Christianity when they learned what the radical (original) position entailed and how it was lived out by such people as Francis of Assisi and Kagawa Toyohiko, the outstanding Japanese Christian.

    2. I have been having trouble with this term. It is obviously used in many ways - mathematics and chemistry (including organic chemistry), politics, religion... They may all have the same root, but the concept plays out differently. My background would lean more toward the scientific side, so I have had trouble relating this to other areas. Although the actions mentioned above are certainly fundamental to Christianity, it has been a difficult jump to call that "radical", the way David Platt did. The term carries negative connotations due to our societal usage. I think that I would prefer to be called a "traditional" Christian (integrated belief and good works), rather than being known as something I am not. Otherwise, this is just another term for name-slinging - I'll pass. Craig is right.