I am a Christian but I have never had to condem acts of brutality or hatred carried out by other Christians. I have not had to distance myself from the Klu Klux Klan or apologise for atrocities committed by Christians in the Balkans or closer to home in Northern Ireland nor am I asked to explain the behaviour of members of the brutal and violent Lord’s Resistance Army which grew out of the Holy Spirit movement and claims to be inspired by God.
For my Muslim friends condeming atrocities and distancing themselves from extremism is becoming an everyday occurence. My Facebook feed is full of statements from kind, peace-loving people making the point that this latest act of mass murder is not in their name or the name of their religion. At the same time they are seeing an anti-Islamic fervour gathering pace in Europe with attacks on mosques and anti-immigration rhetoric becoming commonplace.
It is tempting to think that it is time for religion to be confined to the private areas of our life and be reduced to the status of other ‘life-enhancing’ activities such as shopping, going to the gym or collecting model trains. I am fortunate that over the last few weeks I have been reading Miroslav Volf’s excellent book, A Public Faith.
Volf describes a faith restricted to the life of the soul as an ‘idle faith’. He says: “If faith only heals and energizes, then it is merely a crutch to use at will, not a way of life. But the Christian faith, as a prophetic faith, is either a way of life or a parody of itself.
Volf contrasts the ‘idle’ faith of those who want to give their souls the occasional pampering with the ‘coercive’ faith which is so keen to impose itself on the world around it that the end begins to justify the means. Violent protesters outside abortion clinic would be a good example of this. The fanatics in Paris seem to be another.
These two ‘malfunctions’ of idleness and coerciveness result in a ‘thinned out faith’ which allows people to have goals unrelated to their faith or to define their goals in accordance to their beliefs but not the means of achieving them.
Volf concludes: “If this is correct, the cure for religiously induced violence is not less faith but more faith – faith in its full scope, faith enacted with integrity and courage by its holy men and women, faith pondered responsibly by its great theologians.”
Good fervent faith does not lead to violence and senseless killings but it does shape our entire lives, our private thoughts and public actions. My faith influences how I vote, where I live, my job, my hopes and dreams and my parenting. Volf says: “Faith does its most proper work when it (1) sets us on a journey, (2) guides us along the way and (3) gives meaning to each step we take.”
I have heard a few Christian friends say recently that they are beginning to associate a fervent faith with extremism of one kind or another. But this kind of faith, which Volf calls ‘thick faith’ does not encourage or sanctify violence and brutality. If God is giving meaning to every step we take and is guiding us on the way, the end outcome (righting a perceived wrong) cannot justify the means (violence).
Violence, whether it is firebombing a mosque in Sweden or a shooting in Paris, seeks to cause terror, fear and division. We all stand to lose if such violence dominates our imaginations, our stories, our relationships with our neighbours and our media.
Together we have the chance to create new stories, build new friendships, provide a safety net for those who feel excluded and forgotten and work out how we live our faiths publicly and privately to bring about the peace, wholeness and joy we are longing for.