Obama, the Crusades, Niels Peter Lemche, and Old Testament History

February 11, 2015

On February 5, President Obama made a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he reminded listeners that Christians too, not only Islamic terrorists, have done horrible things in the name of service to God. The ensuing storm of protest is well represented by the expression of outrage that Governor Jindal of Louisiana posted on the state government website:

It was nice of the President to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast.  Today, however, the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, is the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.
We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.

Reading comments like this makes me wonder, how many of these people actually listened to or read the president’s remarks in context before condemning them? 

It’s as though everyone heard a short sound bite including the word “Crusades” and jumped out with guns blazing.  But anyone who actually reads the whole speech will find a remarkably well balanced and thought-out composition.  For those without time to read its 2,900 words, here’s a recap of the main points, illustrated with selected quotations.

Obama begins by posing the paradox that religion can be a force for good or misused as a force for evil:

… around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another [examples follow] …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. [examples follow, including ISIL barbarism] …

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [faiths] for their own murderous ends?

Some Christians are tempted to blame Islam itself for the evils perpetrated in its name, and so Obama pointedly reminds them that their religion is equally subject to “hijacking for murderous ends.” Notice that “Crusades” is just one out of four examples Obama cites, all of them valid evidence to make a valid point that this is not a case of good religion vs. bad religion.

… lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. [example of religious strife in India follows]

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Having pointed out the problem, he moves on to say that we all have a duty to do something about the intolerance that lies at the root of terrorism.

In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

The first of three guiding principles for how to combat the evils of religious violence is humility:

… we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

… we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.

… as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.

A practical way to foster humility is to uphold freedom of religion and freedom of speech:

And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion …

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

…  the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment …

The second guiding principle is separation of church and state:

… the result [of separation of church and state] is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion … So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States. [examples follow showing U.S. support for people persecuted abroad for their religious beliefs]

And the third and last guiding principle is the Golden Rule:

And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths … that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. … Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred. [examples follow showing how people of different religions endorse this principle] …

The speech ends with a call to action, after reiterating the primary guiding principle:

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I’m not one to get excited about politicians’ speeches, and I’m usually on the opposite side of the political fence from Obama, but this is a magnificent speech. Content such as this could have come from a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Dalai Lama. It’s the perfect call to action against terrorism for a prayer breakfast.

Contra Governor Jindal, Obama’s speech did indeed address “the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, … the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.” The speech explicitly mentions ISIL’s barbarism as an example that springs from the kind of intolerance that we all have a responsibility to counteract.

Obama’s prescription for counteracting such evil – maintaining an attitude of humility, affirming freedom of speech and religion, and living by the Golden Rule — is precisely the way that each of us can play a role however indirectly in dealing with the root cause of terrorism. Jindal’s dismissive remark “The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today” totally misses the point. It’s not a long gone “Medieval Christian threat,” it’s a very real modern Christian threat. When modern Christians assume with “fierce certainty” that their religion is right and Islam is wrong, they are part of the problem rather than the solution.

In a national prayer breakfast speech Obama had no need to mention that he is dealing with the terrorist threat militarily where appropriate. He’s given ample proof in other contexts that he’s not naïvely assuming we can always forego that kind of response. The appropriate subject of a prayer breakfast speech would be how people of faith can best respond to the situation, and he hit that nail right on the head.

That said, what does all this have to do with Old Testament?  The issue is this:  some Christians tend strongly toward that “fierce certainty” which is the opposite of humility and breeds the intolerance that is behind so much evil in the world.  Obama’s attempt to help them see a different perspective by reminding them of past horrors inspired and condoned by Christianity seems to have aroused more indignation than humility. But a different approach might work better: what if you could show Christians that a basis for that tolerant perspective can be found right in the pages of their own Bible?

Enter Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.


Lemche is one of a growing body of biblical scholars whose work, if understood and taken seriously, undermines the “fierce certainty” of some Christians “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” In subsequent posts I’ll recount how what we have learned about the Old Testament can help Christians accept that other religions have equal access to truth and equally inspire “the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths.”