By Jesse Wheeler
Bad theology kills.
For many, the subject of “theology” invokes the image of old white men with impressive beards and antiquated ideas sitting in ivory seminary towers writing really big books that nobody reads. Yet within everything we think, say, and do can be found a variety of implicit theologies, even if we are unconscious of them. For theology (along with its secular twin – ideology) encompasses our very core beliefs as to how the universe functions and how we function within it. It drives our very sense of purpose and provides us with the interpretive lenses through which we make sense of and find meaning in our daily lives.
And, some theologies are good. Others are bad.
So, in an age of deconstructed absolutes, how then is it possible for one to distinguish the good from bad? For the follower of Jesus, the answer is amazingly simple:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us:
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-17 NIV)
To distinguish the true from false prophet, or anyone claiming to represent the will of God, Jesus does not implement a doctrinal litmus test. Instead, he tells us this: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Likewise, to distinguish between a true and false theological system, one must simply look at its fruit:
- Does the fruit of that system lead us to LOVE God, neighbor and enemy as ourselves? Or, does it result in self-aggrandizement, or separationist and supremacist attitudes?
- Does it seek God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Or, does it seek to promote the hegemony of some other Lord, Pharaoh, Führer, or flag?
- Does it stand up for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the refugee? Or, quite plainly, does it not?
Distinguishing good theology from bad theology comes down to this: Good theology brings life. Bad theology kills.
Rotten Fruit and Dead Arabs
I wish therefore to highlight three interrelated theologies which have been particularly destructive in the Middle Eastern context:
- First, Colonialist Paternalism
From the “white man’s burden” and “mission civilisatrice” of the 19th century to the modern American desire to “export freedom by force of arms” in the 21st century, the tragic history of Western imperialism in the Middle East is rife with examples of theological and ideological systems which have sought to promote, justify, downplay, and excuse that which in reality is little more than violent and deadly conquest, theft and exploitation.
With complete sincerity, yet degrading paternalism we colonialists have justified our aggression by convincing ourselves that we have been acting, often on behalf of God, for the betterment of the colonized peoples. Of this, Brian McLaren writes:
“[Colonial theology] would explain — historically or theologically — why the colonizers deserve to be in power — sustained in the position of hegemony; It would similarly explain why the colonized deserve to be dominated — maintained in the subaltern or subservient position; It would provide ethical justification for the phases and functions of colonization [and] it would camouflage or cosmetically enhance its ugly aspects and preempt attempts to expose them.”
Not only does bad theology kill, but it has justified the death of many Middle Eastern persons.
- Second, “Henotheistic” Crusaderism
Henotheism, at its most basic, declares: “My God can beat up your God!” It is the “warrior tribe” theology which pits one’s own god against those of its neighbors. Of this, Joseph Cumming asks:
“If the Christian faith is primarily a tribal identity, where does that take us? It takes us to the belief that, ‘We must fight to defend the survival of Christian civilization. If necessary, we must kill the enemies of our civilization before they kill us. We must pray that our God gives us victory over their Allah-God.’”
This mentality can be found throughout the history of human warfare, even among professed monotheists. In this way of thinking, one’s own “tribe” becomes the chosen of God fighting an epic struggle against the forces of darkness and their sub-human minions. We see this in the crusades. We see this in the tragic massacres of the Lebanese Civil War and in Lebanon’s deeply sectarian politics. We have seen this in the religiously tinged language of the War on Terror. And, we see it now in Syria. This is the theology of “God and Country.”
- Third, Manifest Destiny
Referencing the origin of the term manifest destiny, evangelical activist Jim Wallis writes: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” Likewise, the Afrikaner Calvinists of South Africa understood their settler-colonial project as a direct calling from God, “not unlike the people of Israel in the bible.”
At its most basic, manifest destiny seeks to conquer, cleanse and colonize.
In the MENA context, French colonization of Algeria was profoundly destructive for the native Algerians. Furthermore, the colonial Zionist project has been absolutely catastrophic to the lives, property, and psyche of the native Palestinians, sending shock waves throughout the entire region which reverberate to this day. “Christian Zionism,” a default position within western evangelicalism until recently, has provided theological justification, financial capital, and political cover for decades of land confiscation, ethnic cleansing, settlement activity, and apartheid-equivalent practices.
As Colin Chapman asserts, “Our very understanding of God, our witness to the gospel, and the credibility of the Christian church” are at stake when it comes to our theology of Israel-Palestine. 
Speaking as a western evangelical, there is far too much blood on our hands.
Precisely because bad theology kills.
So, as we prepare to remember the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior this Friday, may we always remember the true meaning of the cross. As Joseph Cumming writes:
“The cross is at the heart of the entire Christian faith, and for the Muslims and Jews of the world, what does the symbol of the cross now signify? The cross now signifies, ‘Christians hate you enough to kill you.'
“What is the cross supposed to signify? It is supposed to signify, ‘God loves you enough to lay down his life for you, and I would love you enough that I would lay down my life for you.’ Satan succeeded in taking the very heart of the Christian faith and turning it around to mean not just something different, but to mean the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.” 
This year, let us each carry our cross in everlasting service to a broken world in desperate need of God’s love, justice, and deliverance. Like the messiah, let us spend ourselves in self-sacrificial love.
_________________________ Glenn Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bassit, 2006) Kindle Edition. Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 320  Simply watch “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” with this in mind. Clearly, I have been.  Joseph Cummings reports the following: “Recently, a U.S. army general was speaking to a large evangelical Christian church, describing a battle with a [Muslim] warlord from northern Africa, and he said ‘I knew that I need not fear, because my God was the true God, and his God was a demon!’ That is henotheism!”  Colin Chapman, “A Biblical Perspective on Israel/Palestine” in The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli/Palestinian Context, ed. Salim J. Munayer et all. (Eugene: Wipft and Stock Publishers, 2012) 238  The cross was emblazoned on the shields and banners of the crusaders and many Muslims still sense crusader tendencies in American economic expansionism and Zionism.  Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” 323.