Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Book Review: Alone With a Jihadist by Aaron D. Taylor

"A common tendency among human beings is to separate the world into 'us' versus 'them,' empathizing with those whom we perceive to be 'us' and dehumanizing everyone that we perceive to be 'them.' The interests of those whom we perceive to be 'us' need to be protected no matter what the moral cost is to those we perceive to be 'them.' The 'thems' are at best an inconvenience or at worst our enemies. Even the 'thems' that have little to do with the conflict between 'us' and 'them'--like innocent civilians--are disposable commodities to serve the interests of 'us.' The tragedy in all of this is the Body of Christ is supposed to be a spiritual entity that transcends 'us' versus 'them' distinctions, especially the ones created by national boundaries." - Aaron Taylor, Alone With a Jihadist

Before he became a senator in Minnesota, many will recall that Al Franken was a comedian and actor. He is probably best known for his time as part of the cast on Saturday Night Live, most notably his Stuart Smalley character that spawned an ill-fated movie as well. Over time, Franken focused more and more on political humor with books such as Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Obviously these offerings would appeal to some people and not to others.

At any rate, there is a brief chapter in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them entitled "Our National Dialogue on Terrorism." All of a page long, Franken imagines--some may say recreates--a typical conversation between two Americans not too long after the events of 9/11. One begins the conversation simply by asking, "Why do they hate us?" The other participant doesn't take kindly to this question, and talk quickly devolves into the asker being accused of hating America, despite the innocuous nature of the first person's tone and his or her seemingly well-meaning effort to understand the other side. Being right, unquestioning support for one's own cause, and a desire for an enemy's destruction is all that matters to the second imagined conversation partner, which is meant to call attention to similar attitudes present in a large amount of the American population.

It is perhaps a familiar experience for many of Franken's readers, and maybe for at least a few who are reading this. As Aaron Taylor reflected on the encounter that inspired his book, he found that it was his experience as well.

Alone With a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War begins with Taylor agreeing to meet with Khalid, a radical Islamist. Taylor briefly recounts his being raised in a conservative evangelical strand of Christianity that eventually led him to pursue missionary work, particularly to Muslim regions, with dedication and zeal. Documentary filmmaker Stephen Marshall eventually contacted him to take part in a project called Holy Wars, which would feature conversations between Taylor and Khalid.

Content from this meeting is sparse and largely relegated to the first chapter, where Khalid confronts Taylor about whether Jesus sought to overtake government with his own version of holy law. Try as Taylor might to use his best apologetic tactics, Khalid is persistent, citing what he sees as American debauchery and its lack of a moral center firmly grounded in religious reasoning. "I'm going to pin you down," Khalid says repeatedly, as he touts his understanding of Islam as being superior particularly for the way it emphasizes a strict government-regulated rule of law.

Taylor's meeting with Khalid leaves him shaken, perhaps in part because he wasn't fully prepared, but moreso because he saw certain uncomfortable truths about his own Christian tradition mirrored back at him. It is this realization that drives the book's content: an analysis of Christian just war theory to see whether it stands up to Biblical, theological, and practical scrutiny and how well it matches up with the Kingdom ethic of Jesus.

This probably isn't much of a spoiler: Taylor concludes that it doesn't. In a fairly extensive tour through the Bible--particularly the New Testament--Taylor argues that what Jesus taught can in no way be used to justify war, advocate the killing of one's enemies, or establish a religion-based form of government. Taylor gives extra treatment to passages that are used traditionally to argue otherwise, particularly Romans 13:1-4, which he argues is neither a call to link politics and faith nor a justification for violence, but rather part of a ribbon that he sees running through the New Testament advocating the adherence to an alternative kingdom while peaceably living in earthly kingdoms. In studying many of these passages, Taylor has done his homework: he delves into the cultural factors involved in the text to attempt to arrive at a more faithful rendering.

In his Biblical analyses, I think that Taylor does have a few misfires. He comes from a more conservative tradition that sees Jesus even in Old Testament passages, and this occasionally gets in the way more than it helps. In his final chapter, for example, he states rather matter-of-factly that God's original establishment of Israel was an object lesson in the failure of nation-states' ability to uphold an adequate moral standard, including God's slaughtering of the Canaanites to teach the Israelites a lesson about how bad violence is. Why would God who liberated the Israelites to begin with take them on this educational path at the fatal expense of others? In Taylor's view, Jesus came to correct this sort of thinking anyway (a traditional understanding that applies to the Mosaic law as well), although he doesn't cover why violence was an acceptable teaching tool for God in the Old Testament, but Jesus took a more direct approach in denouncing it. This is symptomatic of the theological worldview out of which he operates, although he transcends it in many other areas of the book.

Perhaps the parts of Alone With a Jihadist that struck me the most were Taylor's recounting of personal experiences of how Biblical justifications of violence play out in real time. Among others, Taylor shares what he saw and heard on a recent visit to the Palestinian territory, most of which I wasn't aware of, and I'm sure most other Americans aren't either: Palestinians needing to pass through checkpoint after checkpoint resulting in a trip of a few miles taking several hours, homes randomly seized or demolished by Israeli soldiers while families are at work, waste dumped down the hill from Israeli homes into Palestinian neighborhoods, and generally hateful remarks and gestures from Israelis to Palestinians. Taylor shares all of this chiefly for two reasons: first, because we tend to hear more about the other side of the story and to show that the story is much more complicated than "us" vs. "them," and second to note that many American Christians tend to support this behavior--and worse--toward the Palestinian people, many of whom are brothers and sisters in Christ. Taylor presents this as yet another instance of how Christians support and even condone violence and hatred despite what Jesus teaches.

Taylor tackles many other topics related to Christian justification for violence, attempts to establish religious grounds for government, and the counterintuitive nature of these types of activities and ideas relative to Jesus' model and teaching. His conclusion is that such actions are nothing like the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and nothing like the way of the cross. As you might expect, Taylor ends up presenting a case for Christian pacifism, although that particular term is absent from his writing.

You may be disappointed, as I was, that this book didn't really feature more of Taylor's conversation with Khalid, as the title may lead one to believe. Instead, that meeting serves more as a jumping-off point as Taylor realizes just how many similarities there are between Khalid's worldview and that of many Christians. It is this realization that causes him to explore and question the themes that he does. Some may pick up his book and have a reaction very similar to the second person in Franken's imagined conversation. Taylor's goal seems to be to get people beyond those knee-jerk reactions toward a more serious evaluation of why Christians believe and support what they do regarding war and violence, and how well those views line up with Jesus, if at all.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)