Justification versus motivation

By Lorenzo

As more than one commentator has pointed out, much of the contemporary intellectual and political Western elite does not understand, or give much weight to, religious motives. Using religion to justify actions they have a more of a grip on, than doing things for religious motives.

The controversy over President Obama’s prayer breakfast comments show this quite well.  In the most controversial passage, he slides from motivation to justification:

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.

For the Crusades and the Inquisition, religious motives were definitely crucial. US slavery and Jim Crow were justified within explicitly Christian frameworks, but were hardly motivated by Christianity. By comparison, attempts to reintroduce slavery in Sudan and the Islamic State seem to be substantially motivated by religious claims.

In overwhelmingly Christian societies, in times when Christianity remained the dominating moral framework, almost anything was justified within explicitly Christian frameworks–thus, both slavery and the opposition to it; both Jim Crow and the opposition to it. Use of religious justifications tell us almost nothing, except that religious framings have resonance in that society: or, at least, among the target audience. Indeed, given that opposition to slavery and Jim Crow had a larger dose of altruism than support thereof, the opposition likely had a stronger dose of religious motivation.

Which is why, for example, Ta-nehisi Coates defence of President Obama’s comments, and his pushback against the President’s critics, falls flat. Coates writes about justification rather than motivation. Indeed, he implicitly denies that the Islamic State is about religious motives:

Now, Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

Yes, ISIS uses religious justifications, but to imply that all they are about is religious justifications is nonsense on stilts. I have called volunteering to fight for ISIS psychopathic sex tourism, but I did not mean to imply by that religious motivation is not important. It is not merely that Medinan Islam is the framing for their actions, it is quite clear that religion is a very powerful motivator for their actions. A particular conception of Islam, to be sure, but one well within the historical parameters of that faith. Islam is not always like this; not even close. But it is recurrently like this.

Even regarding the Crusades, the Christianity-Islam analogy is dubious. There were four great areas of crusading activity: the Prussian and Livonian marches, Iberia, the Levant and North Africa. The Crusades on the Prussian and Livonian marches were straight aggression against pagans, both motivated and justified by religion (with some anti-Orthodox aggression added in). The Crusades in Spain were part of the Reconquista–the reconquest of Iberia after the Muslim conquest. The Crusades in the Levant (Outremer) were a (belated) response to the Muslim advance through Anatolia after the Eastern Roman disaster of the Battle of Manzikert. Like the North African crusades, they were attacks on formerly Christian lands. Indeed, none of the anti-Muslim crusades were other than attacks on formerly Christian lands, conquered by Muslim religious aggression. All part of how very lost in the modern secular mind The Lost History of Christianity is (which philosopher Michael Walzer provides an excellent example of).

The reverse is not remotely true. Historically, religiously motivated Christian attacks on Islam are dwarfed by religiously motivated Islamic attacks on Christendom. Which remains very much true.  Apart from anything else, in the contemporary world, Christian persecution of Muslims is dwarfed by Muslim persecution of Christians.

Moreover, most contemporary Christians do not live in Europe and North America. How much are the Crusades and the Inquisition part of “their” history for African and Asian Christians?  It is one thing to point out that Christians-as-people and Muslims-as-people are, as people, equivalent in their capacity for violence and brutality.  It is quite another to pretend that Islam has not been the more violently aggressive religion, nor that it is not so in the contemporary world.

Much of the pushback against President Obama’s remarks are precisely due to folk comparing contemporary Christianity with contemporary Islam and thinking that the President’s remarks miss the point. Even in their selective sense of history, the remarks rather do. But, in their gliding over the difference between justification and motivation, they do so even more.

Ta-nehisi Coates definitely wants to move away from considering religious motivation:

That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct.

But if you see what ISIS does as merely justified by religion, rather than also motivated by it, you miss much of the point. And one can see how contemporary Christians could be offended by the President’s remarks without any spectre of racism: Ta-nehisi Coates seems much more comfortable importing bad-faith-about-racism motives to fellow Americans than religious motives to foreign Muslims; in large part because, one suspects, because he is not comfortable with the notion of religious motives: still less where taking them seriously might lead us.

He much prefers to put religion back in a box:

Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.

You see, it’s all about us, really.  As if the contemporary West–or, for that matter, contemporary Christianity–has not learned anything. Thereby missing the point hugely. Yes, of course, humans are capable of much brutality (there is plenty of brutality in Western history, including modern Western history). But they are also capable of getting better, of learning, of increasingly listening to, and acting on, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Which is why the joyous, uploaded-to-Youtube, brutality of ISIS or Boko Haram is so confronting: it is so very atavistic. They really do want to take us to a world where C7th Arabia is the epitome of moral and social understanding, and to do so for religious reasons and religious motives. They appeal to folk precisely because they provide religious justification and motives for, most flagrantly, enthusiastic brutality. But also that promise of an end to alienation, to grand unifying purpose, that intense political–and especially religious–movements provide. One cannot analyse them solely in religious terms, but if you do not understand the seriousness of their religious motivations, you do not understand them.

And, no, it is not all about us. People are not being massacred, enslaved and oppressed for us to draw banal moral lessons. That is just looking at us so we do not have to look at the uncomfortable them. Where near sins and past sins are so much more comfortable lessons for virtue than present brutalities.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

ADDENDA: This Atlantic piece is particularly clear on the seriousness of the religious motivations behind the Islamic State.

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