What is the biblical response to religious violence? I would suggest at least two things. First, it is important for every follower of God to be aware of their own ignorance in spiritual matters. There are some things we can know about God, but there are also many things we don’t know for sure (Deut 29:29). In many religious groups certainty is a higher value than truthfulness. People won’t necessarily admit that or even be aware of it. But as you observe their interactions with others it becomes clear that once they have made up their minds, people of differing opinions become the “enemy.” But this behavior flies in the face of Scripture and is a symptom of human pride.
The apostle (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9) Paul was one of the great thinkers of the Christian church. Among other things, apostles were the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 11:47-50; Eph 2:19-22). God spoke to Paul in visions (2 Cor 12:7-10), so he was an inspired writer, who was later added to Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Nevertheless, Paul makes this startling and candid admission: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9, KJV, ESV, NIV). Although Paul received special revelations from God, he was ready to admit that his knowledge was partial and even his prophesyings were partial. Full knowledge of spiritual things is not a present reality, but something attainable only in eternity (1 Cor 13:12). This conviction harmonizes with the teaching of Jesus, which include the assertion, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now” (John 16:12). It is healthy to have religious convictions and act on them, but when those convictions lead one to kill people in the name of God, something very twisted has occurred in the name of conviction.
From an Islamic perspective, a similar caution can be found in the Qur’an itself (Al ‘Imran 3:7): “It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundation of the Book: others are not entirely clear. But those whose hearts deviate (from the truth) follow that which is not entirely clear. They seek discord and search for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.” From this passage it is clear that absolute certainty in religious matters can lead one to deviate from the truth by seizing on hidden meanings which God did not intend.
A second response to religious violence is to understand that the divine answer to the world’s problems is not political, financial or military. Whenever religion mixes with politics and economics, true religion is the loser and human pride is exhibited in corporate ways. The spirit of Jesus, taken from His own testimony in court, is clearly stated in John 18:36, NIV: “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’” Peter somehow missed the memo and endangered Jesus’ legal defense by his violent actions in Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). The true religion of Jesus does not live by the sword. His kingdom comes from another place. Jesus spoke even more pointedly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:43-45, NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Ultimately, behind religious violence is a picture of God as a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. Jesus here says that those who love their enemies are like their Father in heaven. That is what God is really like. He is really like the One who was beaten, slandered and killed, yet said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In the words of Jesus, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).
From an Islamic perspective, the violent approach to religion should struggle much more to reconcile itself with statements like the following in the Qur’an (Al Nahl 16:125-128): “Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance” (16:125). This text suggests trusting the outcome of one’s witness to God, who alone truly knows the heart. Violence takes away another person’s choice and implies that God is pleased with forced submission. “And do thou be patient, for thy patience is but from Allah” (16:127). The key here is the character of God. The Muslim’s religious convictions cannot ignore the fact that the core portrayal of God’s character is as the merciful and compassionate One (Al Fatiha 1:1, repeated in the opening line of nearly every sura in the Qur’an). We are to be merciful, patient and compassionate to those who disagree, because that is what God is like. “Allah is with those who restrain themselves, and those who do good” (16:128). There are times and places where communities may need to defend themselves. But such actions are “emergency measures,” they are not for the purpose of exhibiting the character of God. Such actions, even when necessary, are to be regretted. They are not the substance of true religion, even for Muslims. To murder innocent people “in the name of Allah” is to bring shame and disrepute on God Himself. Such actions do not draw unbelievers to God, they drive them away in disgust.
Whether one is an Adventist or a Muslim, the solution to religious violence is centered in two things, humility and the character of God. Humility arises not out of God’s limitations, but ours. Humility is simply recognizing the truth about my own limitations. My ignorance about God is greater than my knowledge about Him I have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn. To take the life of another on the basis of my own understanding of truth is foolish arrogance in the extreme. Words fail.
The centrality of the character of God is evident at the heart of both Adventism and Islam. The central question at the heart of Islam is “What matters at the end of life?” When you come to the end of your life or the end of the world, what will truly matter? Will you wish you had played more video games? Will you wish you had binge-watched more TV series? Probably not. The Islamic answer to the question is found in two things: What really matters is God and good works. In other words, the two things that truly matter in Islam are submission to God (the word “islam” in Arabic means “submission”) and developing a character that does the things that please Him (good works). At the core of Adventism one finds the same basic question and the same answers. If you read the Conflict of the Ages Series from Ellen White, it begins and ends with the phrase “God is love.” The character of God is what the whole thing is about. And the same Adventist author says that the one thing we will take with us into eternity is our character (DA 331; RH, Dec 13, 1892).
The ultimate “jihad” is not political or military, it is a battle for the mind and the heart. Muhammad seems to have understood this principle, in spite of all the literal battles he chose to or had to fight. It is reported that after one campaign he announced to his soldiers. “We have now completed the lesser jihad. We now go home to the greater jihad.” The battle of faith is not about guns and tanks and fighter planes, it is the battle to control ourselves and to love one another. For sinful humans beings hurting others is relatively easy, controlling ourselves is difficult. If religion is to mean anything in this world, it must make us better people than we would be without it. Our study of Waco and ISIS does not suggest that they offer promising paths toward peace and self-control. Turning the other cheek is a true miracle that you won’t find in Waco or Raqqa (capital of the Islamic State). Genuine religion is more needed than ever in this world.