A man whom The Economist calls "one of America's best scholars on religion" has just released his latest book, "Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses." Author Philip Jenkins presents a perspective about Christianity, Islam and Judaism that forces readers to think critically about religious violence, rather than bask in the comfort (and danger) of stereotypes.
To be sure, I did not necessarily agree with Professor Jenkins on every conclusion. I do, however, admire his work immensely. Indeed, my points of disagreement are minor in comparison to the numerous powerful arguments -- with which I do agree -- he makes throughout his book.
For example, Jenkins argues that few true pacifists exist either among Muslims or Christians. To qualify this claim, he examines the Qur'an, a book commonly and incorrectly charged as a scripture that promotes violence. Jenkins instead argues that the Qur'an deserves respect for how its attempts to legislate the rules of war -- particularly in its strictly defined permission to fight in a defensive struggle against external aggression. Interpretations that are used as excuses to justify private terrorism, acts against civilians, and vigilante justice are as abhorrent to one faith as they are to another -- Islam being no exception.
Jenkins makes a bold statement, however, about "Islamic terrorism" -- one no doubt the likes of Peter King, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and a host of other die hard conservatives would disagree with. He argues that instead of focusing on Islam as a (the) problem, critics should recognize that the generalizations made about Islam as a violent faith apply equally to a reading of Christian or Jewish history. In short, religion does not justify terrorism -- terrorists justify terrorism.
In pointing to the diversity within Islamic thought and the ongoing efforts within the Muslim world to advance the cause of peace, Jenkins dismantles the false belief many propagandists push that terrorism in the name of Islam is the rule, not the exception. Instead, he presents several ignored but contemporary examples of terrorism done in the name of Christianity and Judaism to demonstrate the hypocrisy in attempting to lynch the entire Muslim world for the actions of a few, while dismissing "Christian terrorists" and "Jewish terrorists" as unrepresentative of their respective faiths.
Lest someone get the wrong impression, "Laying Down the Sword" does not "bash" Christianity, Judaism, or any faith for that matter. It does, however, condemn terrorism, those who sympathize with terrorist ideology, and those who ignorantly stereotype entire faiths and scriptures for the violent actions of a few. In fact, Jenkins' book is not merely a theoretical exercise, but practical and solution focused. Once establishing the clear fact that terrorism has no religion, he presents commendable arguments on how to properly interpret Qur'anic and Biblical passages. He goes as far as to elaborate several substantive examples of scriptural interpretation to demonstrate that his solutions work in the real world.
Jenkins maintains a tone of clarity and optimism throughout his book. In maintaining clarity, he does not sugarcoat the violence recorded in the Bible. On the contrary, he pushes forward and demands a movement to address these verses head on as opposed to brushing them under the pulpit. In maintaining optimism, Jenkins argues that these verses are not a source of embarrassment, but a source of opportunity to better understand history and prevent future violence.
Muslims will appreciate this book as a living example of a world-leading Christian scholar who recognizes that Islam is not a violent faith. Christians and Jews will appreciate this book as a candid commentary on Biblical teachings, and the solutions provided to effectively address the uncomfortable parts. Critics of religion in general will appreciate the work of a scholar who does not hide from "problematic" verses, but addresses them with candid confidence.
In short, whatever your background, "Laying Down the Sword" is an excellent buy and certainly worth a weekend investment.
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