WASHINGTON, February 6, 2015 – At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Obama compared the brutality of ISIS to America’s Jim Crow and the Crusades.
“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.”
A great deal has been written about ISIS, the Crusades, lynchings and the Inquisition, much of it with the apparent desire that the sins of America and Christianity help us put the burning of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muadh al-Kasasbeh in “perspective.”
Let us, then, have some perspective.
The Crusades we can dismiss out of hand. Those were a thousand years ago (okay, the last was almost 800 years ago – call it rounding error). They were part of a medieval cycle of violence. Muslims invaded Europe, and Pope Leo IV called for the first Crusade in 846, after Muslims sacked St. Peter’s in Rome.
Other crusades followed as Europeans attempted their own, ultimately failed version of Jihad, invading the Holy Land and sacking Byzantium on the way.
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Much horrific brutality ensued, but you should feel no guiltier about that than a resident of Ulan Bator should feel about the destruction of Kyiv by the Mongol invasion in 1240.
The Inquisition is more recent. The Spanish Inquisition, one of the worst parts of that sorry history, was more political than religious. It was the result of a money grab by Ferdinand and Isabella, who after expelling the Muslims from Spain, decided to fund their imperial pretensions with the money of converted Spanish Jews. If they were found guilty of backsliding into Judaism, their property was forfeit to the crown.
Even in Spain, though, the Inquisition killed under 2 percent of people investigated over a span of two centuries – about 2,500. It is a good bet that mistaken executions in two centuries of American judicial history are in that ball park; lynchings go well beyond it, though.
So what about lynchings? They were cruel and barbaric, a shameful – and not that distant – part of our history. The last lynchings occurred in the 1960s. Some of them were far more brutal than the murder of Lt. al-Kasasbeh.
In 1899, Sam Hose, a black man whose argument with his white boss was transformed into the rape of his boss’s wife, was stripped, chained to a tree, had his nose, fingers and genitals cut off, and then the skin flayed form his face. He was doused with kerosene and set ablaze.
When he was dead, the mob cut out his heart and liver and sold fragments of his bones.
What happened to Hose was done by people who considered themselves good Christians, and Christianity was often invoked as a justification for brutal oppression of black men and women in America. And any decent human being today is disgusted and repelled by that kind of cruelty.
That clearly excludes ISIS. It also excludes members of Winnie Mandela’s faction of the African National Congress who favored “necklacing” – a form of execution which involved putting a gasoline-soaked tire around the victim and setting it ablaze – as a means of dealing with snitches and enemies. And it excludes people across the Middle East and South Asia who consider incineration of a living woman or girl the appropriate way to deal with an insufficient dowry or the shame of a rape.
Obama is correct when he points out that violence and cruelty are a common human condition, not exclusive to ISIS or Islam. Christians, Hindus, Muslims and atheists, whites, blacks, Arabs and Asians are all capable of astonishing cruelty.
But what is perhaps most astonishing is that we are astonished and disgusted by it. We strive to be better, and we often are.
The people who lynched Sam Hose were never punished. They did it openly, and posed for pictures with the burned remains. They brought their children for the spectacle and entertainment. Yet the nation was horrified by lynchings, and white, Jewish and brown Americans ultimately marched with men like Martin Luther King to end the violence.
They pushed for change, and they overcame.
What ISIS did last month to that pilot isn’t justified by what Americans did to Hose. It wasn’t any less barbaric or horrific. If you want it in historic context, fine, but Obama’s comments read like an attempt to justify, not to put into context.
We’re horrified by lynchings and by ISIS, but lynchings are over and ISIS is right there in front of us.
Decent human beings stand ready to condemn this kind of violence, whether it is committed by their ancestors, their neighbors, or people of other faiths and nations. We should remember that it can erupt anywhere, even among Christian Americans and civilized Europeans, but as laid out by Obama, this looks like a stab at moral equivalence: “See, you’re just as bad as they are, so don’t be a hypocrite and go on about it.”
Obama said that America “is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” Yet in his insistence that the Islamic State isn’t really Islamic, he doesn’t claim that the Christians who fought in the Crusades weren’t really Christian, or that the people who lynched Sam Hose weren’t really Christian or American.
He wants to have it both ways: Christianity is violent, America is violent, ISIS is violent – but ISIS isn’t really Islam.
The blame for what happened to al-Kasasbeh isn’t Christianity’s, America’s, or Jim Crow’s. It deserves its own horror and its own disgust. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, not always the smartest observer of Islam, put it nicely, “The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.”
The appropriate response is not to say, “well, we did it, too,” but to move swiftly and resolutely to stop it from happening again. If Obama wants to take the opportunity to engage in a self-indulgent round of self-criticism, let him, but then he isn’t part of the solution, but part of the problem.
We can deny that Islamic terrorism has anything to do with Islam, but it does no good to say that the problem is American, Christian, or just the human condition. That condition should appall us wherever we see it. And right now, we see it in the face of ISIS.