Faith & Politics: The Reign of God in Christianity and Islam (Part 2)

Previously (in Part 1), I began to make the case that both Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society, albeit in unique ways. I also made the claim that this has important implications for interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness. Essentially, I hope to show that the Christian faith, despite popular assumptions, has been and is every bit as political as Islam. The discussion continues in Part 2 below.

Theology (The Reign of God in Christianity and Islam)

Having examined the respective historical expressions of each faith tradition (Part 1), I hope to briefly explore the internal political logic of Christianity and Islam (Part 2), and discuss potential implications for interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness (Part 3).

At their scriptural core, it can be said that both Islam and Christianity concern themselves with the Reign of God. “Both Muhammad and Jesus,” writes J. Dudley Woodberry, “preached a message of ‘Repent for the kingdom is at hand.’”[1] In other words, God’s Reign has begun. God is King.

To say that God is King is a deeply political act for such a statement immediately relativizes any other claim to ultimate authority. In biblical thought, God is King. Pharaoh is not. Christ is Lord. Caesar is not.

“Ultimately,” writes Woodberry, “both Jesus and Muhammad have become for their followers models for their [respective] understandings of the Kingdom of God.”[2] As such, when Christians and Muslims announce the Kingship of God they are ethically bound to strive towards seeing that vision actualized. Or, to borrow a well know biblical phrase, to work towards “seeing God’s Kingdom come and His Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Of this, two questions immediately surface:

  • What is God’s Will?
  • How does God’s Kingdom come?

Islamic Law 101

God’s Reign on earth, as envisioned in Islam, is ultimately demonstrated through the appropriation and application of God’s revealed law, or Sharia. Joseph Schacht describes Islamic law as “the epitome of Islamic thought, the most typical manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the core and kernel of Islam itself.”[3] And, as Woodberry writes, “The Kingdom of God can be realized by introducing the Law—which applies to all areas of life including political. As people get into the habit of following it, the Kingdom is actualized.”[4]

This is a holistic vision encompassing all domains of life, both individually and collectively. And with Muhammad’s Medina as a model, the state and military apparatus is typically understood to be an appropriate means for seeing this Kingdom vision realized. (However, it is important to mention that interpretations often vary widely as to the correct appropriation and application of Islamic law.)

Christian Ethics and the Kingdom of God

My position is that Christianity is every bit as holistic and all-encompassing as Islam, claiming sovereignty over all domains of life, individual and collective. This naturally includes politics. To ignore, therefore, the political message of the gospels is to reject the Lordship of Christ, accepting “other lords” in his place.

In essence, the Christian faith is as concerned with collective ethics as Islam. Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it and to restore it to its original intention: God’s redemptive reign.

For example, it is no accident that Christ climbed a mountain to deliver his most famous sermon, intentionally reminiscent of Mt. Sinai when God first revealed his Law, while also calling for “a radical obedience that went deeper than the act to the thought and intent, what has been called niyyah in Islamic ritual.” [5] In doing so, however, Christ “offered not hard sayings or high ideals but concrete ways to practice God’s will”. [6]

As such, for Christ’s followers to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice, is to participate in the Reign of God. To obey Christ is to find freedom from the “vicious cycles” within which we too often find ourselves trapped and to work towards the actualization of God’s Reign, “characterized by salvation and deliverance, God’s presence, justice and peace, and great joy!”[7]

The Parting of the Ways

Both Islam and Christianity offer deeply political visions for state and society. There are, however, important caveats thus far left out as to the manner by which Islamic and Christian traditions understand and apply political power. For in this lies the primary difference between Christ and Muhammad, each of whom model for their followers the character of God’s Reign. Woodberry writes,

“Both Muhammad and Jesus preached a message of ‘Repent for the kingdom is at hand.’ Both were rejected in their hometown, but each made a different formative decision for their followers. Muhammad in 622 fled from Mecca to Medina to rule rather than suffer, while Jesus went to Jerusalem to suffer rather than rule in an earthly sense. The Arabian prophet chose an earthly kingdom that could be extended by force; but Jesus [standing before Pilate, the regional representative of Roman imperial power] said, ‘My kingdom is not [from] this world. If it were my disciples would fight.’”[8]

It is not that somehow Islam is political while Christianity is not. Nor is it that Islam concerns itself with the holistic details of everyday life, while the Christian faith is individualistic and otherworldly. As I understand it, the core distinction between Islam and Christianity with regard to the Reign of God is not about politics, but it is about the proper use of power.

Consistently rejecting the dual temptations of imperial compromise or armed rebellion, Christ models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial, non-violent, redemptive love. And, this love culminates in his unjust death on the cross, where an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns.

In part 3, I hope to explore the potential implications of this important distinction for interfaith cooperation and Christ-centered witness.

_________________________

[1] J. Dudley Woodberry, “A Biblical Perspective on Islam” in The World of Islam: Resources for Understanding (GMI: 2000).
[2] J. Dudley Woodberry, “The Kingdom of God in Islam and the Gospel” in The World of Islam: Resources for Understanding (GMI: 2000).
[3] Cited in: Colin Chapman, Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Presss, 2007).
[4] Woodberry, “Kingdom”, Resources.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Intervarsity Press: Downer’s Grove, 2003).
[7] Ibid.
[8] Woodberry, “Biblical”, Resources — with added insights from N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels” (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

2 thoughts on “Faith & Politics: The Reign of God in Christianity and Islam (Part 2)

  1. I love this post as much, if not more than the first one, it really makes me think. I do see and agree with you on the point both are political (verse my earlier comment about social justice), when I frame political in the sense of ideas or strategies relating to a particular group.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head when you quoted Woodberry saying that where Muhammad used power over to rule here and now, Jesus used love to come under to build his kingdom in the next world.

    It seems to me that each and every time Jesus is asked a question, what he does is flip it on it’s head and make the seeker see that they are asking the wrong question. Such as in the good Samaritan: Jesus is asked who is my neighbor, he comes back with what does it look like for YOU to be a good neighbor…

    Is this not much the same thing, rather than asking how to use power correctly, should we not be asking what is the definition of power? Is it being able to force folks to do what we want (power over)? Or is true power self-sacrificial, loving service such that folks desire to follow us?

    It seems to me that Jesus focused, not on how to do something, but how to redefine things. I can witness to the transformation in people when they truly understand how Jesus defines things, which is very different from this world:)

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