convert or die… or wait a few hundred years

June 30th, 2012

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You probably missed the phenomenal article on China in the LA Times a while back, which came on the heels of more and more morose news of what’s looking less and less like a recovery of the American economy. Among other points, one of the more central themes the article focused on was that Chinese culture is not American culture:

The Chinese have a powerful sense of their identity and worth. They have never behaved toward the West in a supplicant manner, for reasons Westerners persistently fail to understand or grasp.

China is simply not like the West and never will be. There has been an underlying assumption that the process of modernization would inevitably lead to Westernization; yet modernization is not just shaped by markets, competition and technology but by history and culture. And Chinese history and culture are very different from that of any Western nation-state.

And so far as I can tell, no one protested this observation as bigoted or racist or even remotely controversial. It’s simply a cultural observation.

Chinese culture is not Western culture. It is, as they say, what it is.

Cultures instill different values, they have different norms, they lead to markedly different behaviors. As the article so aptly put it, our “failure to understand the Chinese has repeatedly undermined our ability to anticipate their behavior.” Western culture, it’s often said, is rooted in “Judeo-Christian” values. These values have become imbued in our legal systems and constitutional rights, over thousands of years religion has seeped into our sense of justice – of right and wrong.

This exact same argument of culture dissonance can be made when it comes to religion, between Christianity and Islam, although just about everyone seems terrified to bring up the obvious.

And yet almost ironically, the single biggest difference between Christianity and Islam is a simple temporal one. The paths these two great Western religions took barely even meander from the same course, one of the two just moved along much more slowly. This temporal dissonance, the fact that Christianity took hundreds of years to get to the same point that Islam reached in just a few generations, is central to understanding the differences in how the two great world religions are applied in a modern everyday context.

As much as most Christians would like to believe that their religion’s story ends with the Bible, it doesn’t. Christianity was just one of scores and scores of mystery cults in the ancient world until Constantine co-opted it and made it the official state religion in 312AD, up until that point Christians had been persecuted along with many others who were viewed as occultists.  After Constantine’s convenient conversion, Clovis followed suit due to similar imperial and martial motives.  And it was their violent and merciless conquests which cemented Christianity as the Western world’s primary religion – not the peaceful and gradual epistilatory modus that’s traced out in the New Testament.

Countless elements of Christian ritual are shamelessly borrowed from existing mystery cults: drinking communal blood and the Cult of Mithras, rebirth and Osiris, and the unavoidable dualistic Zorastrian influence of Good vs. Evil that we’ve since collectively decided to forget.

Once Christianity was the official religion of the most powerful empire in the West… lots and lots of non-Christians were summarily put to the sword.

At this point Christianity had a pretty firm foothold on the world stage. It’s worth taking a moment to notice that no specific element of biblical doctrine was used when Constantine decided it would be okay to kill anyone who wasn’t a Christian. And yet this was ultimately what spread the faith across the Western world. Peter didn’t singlehandedly spread Christianity as the end of the New Testament would have us believe. Christianity seeped across the world benignly at first, but it only gained prominence at the tip of a sword.

But since Christianity’s official doctrine doesn’t talk about killing people who don’t convert, you feel pretty safe saying “killing people who won’t convert is un-Christian.” Look at the history though, and you find that killing people who refuse to convert spread Christianity much more broadly and deeply than any peaceful means.

Even after Constantine and Clovis, Christianity wasn’t firmly entwined with Western culture until Charlemagne came along and continued with the “convert or die” approach. Following his birth in 742AD, he wiped our the remaining pagan and animist religions in Europe by killing untold thousands who refused Christ’s salvation. In the process he set the groundwork for the French and German empires, and arguably the entirety of Western civilization itself.

It’s kinda funny, neither him nor Constantine nor Clovis are really considered prominent Christian figures, even though without them there’s no reason to think Christianity ever would have made it past the status of mystery religion in the first place

Islam is roundly denounced because it was spread via military conquest, which leads to the argument that Islam condones violence. Muhammad was a military leader, he and his immediate successors killed lots and lots of people as they spread Islam across the globe. Whereas Jesus wasn’t a military leader, and none of his immediate religious successors ever killed a soul – as far as we can tell.

This differing level of first-generation violence may be largely due to the fact that Christianity took several hundred years to be institutionalized, while Islam was a cohesive institution from its very start. After Christianity was finally institutionalized by the Catholic Church and the Byzantine Empire at Nicaea, men who took up the cross such as Clovis and Charlemagne were responsible for plenty of carnage and death in Christ’s name. The names of the untold hundreds of thousands put to the blade by nominally Christian generals have been lost to history – but their deaths and their neighbors’ fearful conversion were no different from the converts won and deaths caused in Islam’s early spread.

In terms of pure volume and square millage Constantine, Clovis, and Charlemagne forcefully spread Christianity farther and deeper than anyone who came before them. However neither the Bible or any official Christian text really addresses this, and so it seems very far divorced from the faith itself.

It isn’t.

Christianity didn’t become fully rooted in Western culture until those men aided and abetted its spread – a spread just as violent and terrible as Islam’s early years.

So, fairly or not, Christians today tend to overlook the violent actions of those nominally Christian men and only allow the use of the lives depicted in the Bible during debates of how “early” Christianity was spread or what Christianity is “really” about. But in the history of all three great Western monotheistic religions, there is no escaping the tension between religious party and political power:

Like any social organization, the religious party is at first a natural rival to political power. The struggle is all the more intense when a religion is universalist in nature, as are Christianity and Islam. The universalist religions… naturally cohere as “ideological communities.” In other words, they include all those who accept their dogma and exclude all those who do not. Founded on a credo, such communities define and organize every aspect of the society to which their members belong. In their early phases, such organizations are mostly interested in religious or philosophical problems. As they grow in number and confidence, however, they extend their influence to other spheres of social organization and ultimately set their sights on definitive social control through political power.

Nearly everyone in the West holds that the story of how early Christianity spread ends where the Bible does, and believes that a comparison of how Jesus and Mohammad lived their lives and spread their faiths tells the entire story.

In the nine years after announcing the concept of jihad in 624AD Mohammad ordered at least twenty-seven military campaigns, personally commanding nine of them. In the Bible, there isn’t mention of Jesus so much as backhanding a mouthy disciple. But this shortsightedness is incredibly limiting, Christianity and Islam trace nearly identical paths of violent proliferation, the only difference is a temporal one – Christianity took many hundreds of years to cover the ground Islam only took a few generations to cover.

And yet while being martyred in early Islam is being killed while battling for the spread of faith, being martyred in early Christianity is being publicly murdered for the sake of imperial oppression and entertainment. Mohammad and his followers spread their faith on horseback, often lopping off the heads of those who opposed them. Jesus and his followers spread their faith on horseback, often getting their heads lopped off by those who opposed them.

Islam can and has been a peaceful religion for epochs at a time, and Christianity has been invoked in the name of violence just as much if not more than Islam when their total historical volumes are considered – but when it comes to martyrs there is a difference lurking in the origins of each religion. The very idea of martyrdom is much more plastic within Islam, and much more open to debate.

Membership has never been debated in Islam, from its conception either you follow the five doctrinal pillars or you aren’t a Muslim. Very simple. And although succession was debated, it was a matter of choosing between two successors to Mohammad and not of deciding what true Islamic faith meant as it was in the Christian faith, at least not to the same degree.

But since Christianity’s later spread by emperors is divorcable from it’s early origins, people feel like Christianity and Islam are utterly different.

They share the exact same story.

They both preach ideals of empathy, compassion, grace, and forgiveness, and yet neither were spread by kindly peaceful conversion but instead by violent domination and conquest. Christianity just took several hundred years longer than Islam to do it, so that part of its story is often ignored.

For the modern Muslim and the modern Christian though, there are immediate repercussions.


Even though, from a distance, it’s obvious that Christianity and Islam followed nearly the exact same path, the fact that Islam took a single generation to follow the path it took Christianity several hundred years to blaze does result in some behavioral differences. Because Islam’s birth and its conquest of the world occurred so close together, it’s much easier to excuse and condone violence using its traditions and texts.

The Crusades occurred when the West was struggling and Islam was thriving, now that the opposite is true it only makes sense that Muslims are looking to violence to protect their coreligionists and ensure their own society’s survival.

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Category: 9/11, al-Qaeda, Charlemagne, Christianity, Clovis, condoning violence, faith, islam, islamist, Muslim, news, Nicene Creed, organized religion, terrorism | Tags: , , , , , , Comment »


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