During the Second World War, C.S. Lewis gave a series of radio talks that were to become the bestseller known as Mere Christianity. In his introduction, Lewis says his purpose is to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Lewis skirts issues that have divided Protestants and Catholics, not because they are trifles—he scorned reductive ecumenism—but because his scope was what he assumed all “mere” believers held in common. He wrote before the advent of lesbian bishops, pro-choice Christians, and Catholic pols officiating at same-sex “marriages.” Such innovations could not have been foreseen in 1946, even by someone with the prescience and satirical bent of C.S. Lewis.
Along with what Christians must believe about the identity of Christ, Mere Christianity discusses the behavioral change that starts with accepting Jesus at his word—as the way, the truth, and the life. To regard him as a “great teacher” while rejecting his unique claims and predictions was condescending nonsense. Someone who could make messianic claims, contrary to fact, was not a great teacher, but a lunatic, a liar, or a demon out of hell. While declining to steer his reader into a particular “room,” Lewis insists that after a period of discernment in the “hall,” one must commit to a communion with other believers. “Interest” in Christianity, after a while, dissolves into mere dilettantism. In a later book narrated from the diabolical perspective of a demon named Screwtape, Lewis dwells even more on the effect that Christianity must have on one who enlists under the banner of “the Enemy.” With disturbing clarity, the neophyte sees that he’s not the high-minded, truthful, modest, and forgiving fellow he mistook himself for. Sometimes he is petty, false, vain, vengeful, and self-centered—woefully short of perfection—“even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But the merest attempt to love one’s neighbor loosens links in the chain of ego bondage. The novice may not feel much love for his neighbor; but following Pascal, Lewis tells him to act as though he does, for acting conditions feeling. “Acting the Christian” (or Muslim, or “None”) also has enormous implications for society.
And lest the novice Christian think that “neighbor” means only folk like that amiable visage in the mirror, Christ tells a disquieting story about a Samaritain. The lawyer who posed the question hears of a sodden pulp groaning in a ditch after a beat-down and robbery—yes, even that is your neighbor. How many schools, hospitals, leprosariums, food pantries, and alms houses have sprung up from this inclusive parable? While owing special tenderness to the community, Christian mercy is due to those of other faiths, or no faith; to atheists in aids hospices, to drunks and addicts in rehab; and today, to refugees in the Middle East—where Samaritans risk rough treatment, even death, at the hands of those with a less inclusive take on “who is my neighbor.”
Not all mere Christians, to be sure, practice heroic charity, any more than all Muslims wage jihad. Short of sanctity, the chains of self-love don’t miraculously dissolve, like those of St. Peter in his Roman jail. But the feeblest step along “the Way” has the minimum social value of making life safer for near and distant neighbors.
Recently, a woman wrote a letter to our small town newspaper to express her fear of a “giant cross” displayed at the annual fair. She wondered if it had been put there to frighten non-Christians like her Jewish son-in-law. She claimed to fear Christians generally, especially those “gun-toting idiotic fundamentalists.” So great was her trepidation, that “unsigned” asked the editor to guard her anonymity. Perhaps she had fixated on just the first of two messages the media and political elites convey about religion: A) religion is inherently intolerant, something we must not cling to. And B) religion is something peaceful—a thing that only bigots would ban or restrict. How can both be true? The fog clears when one realizes that “A” refers to Christianity, and “B” to Islam—the religion of peace par excellence.
Now I know many Christians of various “rooms,” armed and pacifist, but not one who threatens a “neighbor” with violence because of his beliefs. As Pope Francis warns, Christians, like Muslims, murder their wives. They also embezzle and lust and cheat on their taxes. In other words, they are sinners. But when they lie, cheat, and murder, they search the scriptures in vain for doctrines like “taqiyya” and “jihad” to sanction lying and violence against infidels.
There are many neighborhoods in St. Louis where violence is a rational concern. This threat imposes a regretful wariness, especially on those responsible for a family. As much as the Christian loathes putting people or neighborhoods in categories, a rational sense of self-preservation nags one to look about—alas, to profile—even when meditating a work of mercy.
Just a month ago, leaving a club in St. Louis where he had been commissioned to review a band, my son and his companion were held up at gun point. Seasoned by similar encounters in the Gateway City, they threw their wallets on the pavement. Docility failed to pacify. One of the thugs fired a shot which shattered a hand—not that of my son—who was able thus to use his shirt as a tourniquet until the cops and medics arrived just minutes later.
This incident prompted me to wonder if the letter writer, and all who fear Christian violence, aren’t conning us. Where would she really feel safer at night if her car ran out of gas? In front of a church when hundreds of mere Christians—even those despised fundamentalists—are leaving a service; or in a neighborhood free from the touch of Christian indoctrination and restraint? It only takes a second for a crowd on an unfamiliar street to coalesce into a flash-mob; but I suspect that “unsigned,” and others who echo the meme about the inherent violence of religion, breathe easier when that large group is identifiably Christian.
Can the same be said for mere Islam? History, the Quran, and current events suggest otherwise. Points of doctrine and historical experience divide Sunni from Shia, Alawite from Druze, Kharijite from Mouride. Not all of Omar Khayam’s “Two-and-seventy jarring sects” extol violence with the same intensity. The Quran and the hadiths include moving paeans to “neighborliness”—within the house of Islam. And even there, grisly punishment is allowed—stonings for adultery, amputations for theft, etc. But outside, what mere Islam confronts is not a neighborhood, but a “house of war” where infidels are to “submit.” Violence and coercion are sanctioned by a hundred hadiths and Quranic verses urging believers to be “hard [ruthless] against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves” (48:29).
In Europe and the United States, Jihad is, to cite a Wikipedia entry, “striving, applying oneself, struggling, perservering”—a metaphor for self-actualization. Presidents, popes, and pundits warn of the dangers of Christian insularity but insist that the West has nothing to fear from “the religion of peace”—a lesson reinforced in the multicultural class room. There, inductees learn that Islam expanded in its first hundred years from the wastes of Arabia to the banks of the Loire by a policy of urbane tolerance rare in Christendom; that the savagery of the Seljuk Turks (and their ISIS heirs today) was perpetrated by “hijackers”; that those unfortunate attacks you hear about on TV—Orlando, Nice, Paris, Berlin, Turkey, etc.—are aberrations having nothing to do with the real Islam’s good-neighbor policy.
Of all the “houses” of mere Christianity, it is Catholicism that has historically understood—and therefore steeled itself against—Islam. More than any other prince of Christendom, it was the Roman pontiff who blessed armies, summoned armadas, and built walls to repel what G.K. Chesterton called “the cruel children of the lonely God.”
Such vigilance is now worse than false, it is out of date. Multiculturalism has rendered Christian militancy inappropriate: Don’t resist, “COEXIST,” says the bumper sticker. That is all the multiculturalist knows on earth, and all he needs to know. Diversity dogmatists don’t much care for divisive doctrine, but they do tolerate a treacly sort of Christianity. They acknowledge it with a polite yawn as unoffending, undisturbing, undemanding—in a word, boring. They may not be into church-going, but they show no hostility to an inclusive pope who, like themselves, equates proselytism with “poison.” Why make a fuss about what people believe—provided they don’t really believe it? Insistence on the truth requires making distinctions which can be “hurtful.” Bring up the faith that fought at Tours and Lepanto and the gates of Vienna, and the tolerant modern, to paraphrase Baudelaire, swallows that world in a yawn.
While ennui suffuses any discussion of the need for vigilance, Islam’s neighbors—Christian, secularist, “None”—are alike menaced by the sword of the Prophet. In a wide-awake world, recognition of this shared threat might prompt a closing of ranks against a common enemy. “Extreme vetting” might not seem out of order. But when “divisive” discussion either irritates or sedates, an alert response can’t be taken for granted. Unfortunately—perhaps fatally—Muslims are not so easily bored.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “The Good Samaritan,” was painted by Palma il Giovane, 1544-1628.