“Demonizing” our opponents can be great fun. When we demonize groups we offer reasons why any compromise or shared action must be ruled out before we begin. Knowing that over demonization is not politically correct, we never admit to it (that what those other folks do!), but we sure see a lot of it anyway.
I’d like to argue that demonization is a bad strategy, not simply because it is impolite, rude, mean, or immoral. Rather, if our objective is for our position to “win” – whatever that means, then demonization is counter-productive.
There is real difference in the world. In the world of American politics there are real and substantive differences between conservatives and liberals. In the world of religion there the differences between Christians and Muslims are also real and substantive. These differences sometimes result in conflict, war, death, and destruction. If, in the “War Against Terror,” we are in conflict with an Islam that is inherently and unambiguously violent at its core, there will be real consequences for us – and a perceived imperative to brook no compromise or collaboration with the Enemy. We must tell the truth, hard as it may be to hear.
Folks have often commented that they think I am deluded or soft-headed when it comes to Islam. When I hear comments or read comments on Facebook that put Muslims or Islam beyond the pale, I commonly put in contrary views. I do that not because I am a closet Muslim or because I am a relativist in religious matters. I do it precisely because I passionately believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and this not just for me, my church, or my culture. I whole-heartedly believe Jesus is for all people, regardless of their culture, nationality or religious background.
Part of my unwillingness to demonize is that it seems un-Jesus-like. Sure Jesus was plainspoken toward the scribes and Pharisees (consider Matthew 23). But he seemed willing to talk to anyone in almost any context. So part of my resistance is a consequence of my Christianity.
But I’m also unwilling to demonize for practical and prudential reasons. When it comes to politics and religion I am fail to find convincing evidence for essentialism. If essentialism is false, then every political position, every religious tradition, is constituted by particular practices and sets of arguments happening through time. None are unchanging. Thus it is possible for a position/tradition/group that I consider wholly and deeply wrong now, to come around to the truth later on. I view my staying engaged with them is a necessary part of their coming around.
Am I thinking that they’ll think something like, “Ah, this guy is so nice. I wish I could be that nice. I think I’ll become a Christian so I can be nice too?” Not at all. Oh, there might be an occasional person who thinks that way – maybe once or twice a century.
Am I being honest? Maybe, maybe not. Taking our relations with Islam, for example, it is possible to read the Quran and the Hadith in such a way that one might conclude that Islam is necessarily a “religion of violence,” and not as that famous interpreter of Islam, George W. Bush said, “a religion of peace.” I am thoroughly convinced that it is better for me – and for others – if Islam is not a religion of violence. Some will take the possibility of configuring Islam as a religion of violence, not just in theory but in the work of several actual Muslims (who get lots of press), and tell me I’m being dishonest here, simply engaging in wishful thinking. “You want Islam to be peaceful so you act as if it were peaceful. But we have plain evidence that it is not peaceful.”
But remember, I reject essentialism. Any time I say of Islam (or any other social phenomenon) I am not offering a pure description. To use some terminology from John Searle’s speech act theory, while my claims have a modicum of a “word to world direction fit” (i.e., try to describe the world accurately), they are even more working in the direction of “world to word direction of fit” (i.e., trying to get the world to match my words). When I say, “Please pass the salt,” I am not describing the salt but trying to effect the motion of the salt shaker toward me. If there is no connection with reality – no salt, no person with me at the table, for instance – my request will fail. But my request fails equally when my dinner companions are grumpy or, believing salt is bad for me, refuse to pass it to me.
By staying engaged with those who are now set as my opponents, I remain part of the argument that defines who they are and what they are about. If we as Christians stay engaged with Muslims, we will have a say in what Islam is. Necessarily this is very indirect. It is also reflexive – considered a danger by some. As long as our engagement is dialogical rather than monological (or merely in instance of the force of arms, technology or ideology), then they get a say in what my tradition is also. When we demonize we may be safe from influence from those outsiders (though I think that safety is largely illusory), but we also miss the opportunity of influencing them.
I have political opinions. For the most part, I think my political opinions are correct – and better than those of the people I disagree with. But I’m not sold out to politics. I am sold out to Jesus. Because I follow Jesus and seek to be an agent of his Kingdom, I cannot miss out on the opportunity of influencing others toward him, even if staying engaged takes time or is dangerous. Maybe it will have a century. Maybe a few centuries. But the possibility of influencing another tradition towards Christ is worth it.