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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

872: By their fruit you will recognize them

Day 872: Friday, August 5, 2022

By their fruit you will recognize them

Bad Theology Kills

For many, the subject of “theology” evokes the image of old men with impressive beards and antiquated ideas sitting alone in ivory seminary towers writing really big books that nobody reads. Yet, within everything we think, say, or do can be found a variety of implicit theologies.

For theology—alongside its secularized twin, ideology—encompasses our core beliefs as to how the universe functions and how we function within it. It gives shape to our identity and drives our sense of purpose, providing us with the interpretive lenses through which we find meaning in our daily lives. And, some theologies are good. Others are bad.

In an era of “alternative facts,” how is it possible to make such a claim, to distinguish the good from the bad? For the follower of Jesus, the answer is surprisingly simple: fruit.

Jesus cautions,

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them . . . every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.(Matthew 7:15-17).

To distinguish between true and false prophets, 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 theo-ethical, ideological, or political-economic system, one must examine the fruit of that system and ask:

Does the historical fruit of this 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 will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Or, does it promote the idolatrous dominion of some other lord, pharaoh, flag, or financial system?

Does it stand with the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the refugee? Or, does it cause them harm?

Too often we find walking the halls of power those false prophets who provide ideological cover for authority and its abuses, destructive wars, and the neglect, exploitation, and sacrifice of those most vulnerable upon the altars of profit and politics. But, distinguishing good theology from bad theology comes down to this: Good theology brings life. Bad theology kills.

I wish therefore to highlight three interrelated theologies which have been particularly destructive in the Arab context:

First, “Imperial Paternalism”

The tragic history of western imperial intervention 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 has been little more than violent conquest, theft, and exploitation. From the “civilizing missions” of the 19th century, through the post-war Mandates of the 20th, to the modern American desire to export freedom by force of arms in the early 21st century, such justifications have a deep history.

Often with absolute sincerity, yet degrading paternalism, we colonialists have justified our aggression by convincing ourselves that we have been acting for the betterment of the colonized peoples. Likewise, even well-meaning missionaries, development practitioners, human rights activists, and non-native feminist movements have been too often incapable of disentangling themselves from their own cultural presumptions or the imperial interests of their countries of origin. While many have undertaken great work, others have been responsible for great harm. Not only does bad theology kill, but it has justified the subjugation and death of countless others.

Second, “Henotheistic Crusaderism”

Henotheism, most basically, 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. This, Joseph Cumming tells us, “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.” In this way of thinking, one’s own tribe, clan, or nation 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 language of Zionism. We see this in the veneration of “Judeo-Christian civilization” and in the religiously tinged language of the “War on Terror.”

This is the theology of “God and country” whereby the God of the universe is reduced to a territorial idol, transforming the refugee into an infiltrator, the immigrant into an invader, and the indigenous into an outcast. And, it represents a wholesale rejection of our call to costly discipleship and self-sacrificial love of others.

Third, "Manifest Destiny”

Referencing the origins of the term manifest destiny, 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.” Beyond North America, such theologies held sway in settler-colonial societies from Australia to Argentina. Likewise, the Afrikaner Calvinists of South Africa understood their settler-colonial project as a direct calling from God. In its most basic form, manifest destiny seeks to conquer, cleanse and colonize.

In the Arab context, French colonization of Algeria was overwhelmingly destructive to the native Algerians, subjecting them to a level of colonial violence that would permanently alter the region’s social make-up. Finally, the colonial Zionist project has been absolutely catastrophic to the lives, property, and psyche of the native Palestinians, a crisis born of and sustained by bad theology.

“Christian Zionism,” from Balfour to Biden, has provided theological justification, financial capital, and political cover for decades of land confiscation, ethnic cleansing, settlement activity, and apartheid. Speaking as a western Christian, there is far too much blood on our hands—precisely because bad theology kills.

“Good theology” is another conversation entirely, but at FOSNA we recognize it as a practical force for real-world liberation, justice, and peace. For now, let us repent of our complicity in the suffering of others, of those times we find ourselves held captive to the false allure of destructive theo-ethical systems and their apologists.

Let us spend ourselves in self-sacrificial love and everlasting service, confident that although “the arc of the moral universe is long [it] bends toward justice”—that peace ultimately prevails and liberation has the last word.

By Jesse Steven Wheeler*

*Today’s reflection is an abridgement of the chapter, “Bad Theology Kills: How We Justify Killing Arabs,” in Keeping the Faith: Reflections on Politics & Christianity in the Era of Trump & Beyond,” itself an adaptation of a post for Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), Lebanon.

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