Blundering Into the Truth: Ravi Zacharias, Barack Obama and The National Prayer Breakfast

In one of the very few times it has ever happened, the President of the United States allowed his seat to be used to admit something wrong happened in the name of religion, specifically his own. As he finished his talk at our nations recent national prayer breakfast, it became clear that not everyone was going to be happy. The most controversial aspect of his speech fell into this statement,

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And 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. 

I know it won’t do much good to argue with those who didn’t like what he said, but I do think the whole statement should be read in its entirety. You can do so here.

One such author and speaker who was rattled just a bit was Ravi Zacharias of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. His post, A Presidential Blunder: My Response To Obama’s Address At The National Prayer Breakfast, has received a lot of attention inside the Christian world. As a thinker, writer and speaker for a mostly Conservative audience, Ravi’s response was nothing short of a rhetorical challenge and dismissal. Ravi’s not alone. From simple frustration to out-right rancor, many have expressed disdain for the President’s comments. In Ravi’s words, actually in the title of his response, he claimed that this was a “Presidential blunder”. He didn’t waste time letting his readers know how foolish the President was in making such remarks. So with that, I would like to interact with a few of Ravi’s blunders and see where that takes us.

Ravi’s Blunder #1

The President obviously does not understand the primary sources of either faith for him to make such a tendentious parallel. The predominant delight in his remarks would be in the Muslim world and the irreligious…If a thinking person doesn’t know the difference between the logical outworkings of a philosophy and the illogical ones, to say nothing of the untruth perpetrated, then knowledge has been sacrificed at the altar of prejudice.

Ok – so I have to admit, I delight, along with scores of other Christians across the globe, with the remarks of the President. I’m not a Muslim or irreligious, I’m a Christian. The remarks of the President, taken in context, make a lot of sense and remind us that all religious traditions have had, currently have and will have their tradition and beliefs distorted by extremists. For Ravi to isolate just one of these examples, the Crusades, ignore all the others and then scold the President for comparing current issues of Islamic extremism with the actions of the Crusaders was a blunder. There isn’t a 1-to-1 correspondence being made here between the Crusades and ISIL or the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The correspondence is between religious extremists who justify acts of murder, terror and imperialism through the religion they have aligned themselves with.

Ravi’s Blunder #2

President Obama basically lectured Christians not to get on a moral high horse in their castigation of the ISIS atrocities by reminding them that the Crusades and slavery were also justified in the name of Christ…May I dare suggest that if Christians had been burning Muslims and be-heading them, he would have never dared to go to Saudi Arabia and tell them to get off their high horse.

Muslims vs Extremists

So, basically not all Muslims are the same and we have to stop talking about Islam in such monolithic terms. To suggest that President Obama should adopt a foreign policy by which he uses opportunities to visit Arab Muslim nations to scold them for being on their high-horse suggests that Ravi doesn’t see much difference between the Saudi Muslims and the extremists. Islam has as many traditions of interpretation just like Christianity and they are not all the same, religiously, historically or theologically.

And, on top of that, the Obamas haven’t shied away from subversive comments and actions in their international travel. In President Obama’s recent visit to India, he used his last words to challenge all of India and its Prime Minister with the need for more real religious freedom by quoting India’s own constitutional freedom of religion right. Immediately after, he flew to Saudi Arabia, where his wife refused to wear a hijab, subversively challenging the oppressive treatment of women in that country.

Saudi Arabia: President and First Lady Obama, With Saudi King Salman, Shake Hands With Members of the Saudi Royal Family

So while Christians aren’t beheading and burning Muslims, at least not in this century, Christians within the last 100 years in the U.S. were hanging and burning black bodies – people from the same background as our President. Billy Moyers and The American Conservative each wrote articles, listing off instances of white Americans, many of which were Christians, participating in the burning, lynching and public torture of black citizens in the American South, even as late as the 1960’s. These weren’t’ done under the cover of night or in a field far away from everyone – these were public events with food vendors, reporters and children present on their lunch break from school.

So, to have Ravi write by capitalizing on the Crusades, while ignoring America’s very recent history, in a month dedicated to the history of Black men and women, is an interesting commentary on Dr. Zacharias’s view of oppressed peoples. This is further complicated because India, Ravi’s country of origin, has historically undergone horrendous imperialism at the hands of both Christians and Muslims.

Ravi’s Blunder #3

That is why we sit in courtesy listening to the distortion of truth, the abuse of a privilege, and the wrong-headedness of a message. I cannot recall when I have heard such inappropriate words at so important an occasion, in such a time of crisis…This year’s National Prayer Breakfast speech was a blunder in thought. But there was a silver lining. In the end, President Obama blundered into the truth. Sin distorts… and only Jesus Christ restores the truth.

Nowhere in Ravi’s response does he affirm, without qualification, anything that the President said. Even at the end where he does affirm the President’s words, he does so only to further deride him. While no one would say that we cannot disagree, even vehemently with our President, to ignore the rest of Obama’s speech would require a certain disdain for his person, given that much of it should be agreeable to Ravi himself. Near the end of President Obama’s speech he honors a man, Kent Brantly, who almost died treating Ebola patients in Liberia and makes it clear that Kent had been working for Samaritan’s Purse.

It’s odd that Obama would mention a faith-based aid ministry, headed by Franklin Graham, a man who has publicly and repeatedly derided the President’s decisions, questioned his faith and opposed his politics. Welcoming and affirming people from organizations opposed to him is a very Christian thing for our President to do. President Obama is a better man than I because I’m openly frustrated that Ravi couldn’t offer a similar consolation to the President in his remarks regarding Christians and how they’ve struggled to love their enemies, just like people in any other religion.

Ravi’s Blunder #4

President Obama basically lectured Christians not to get on a moral high horse in their castigation of the ISIS atrocities by reminding them that the Crusades and slavery were also justified in the name of Christ. Citing the Crusades, he used the single most inflammatory word he could have with which to feed the insatiable rage of the extremists. That is exactly what they want to hear to feed their lunacy.

If I had the power to change what Ravi wrote, it would go something like this,

“…by reminding them that the Crusades AND slavery were also justified in the name of Christ. Citing the Crusades and slavery. while not exactly the same as ISIS, is an apt comparison given that the issue starts in the heart of humans, not in their religion. We justify horrors of all kinds against each other, atheist and theists alike. Religion becomes the excuse used for the condition of hate we feel towards each other, a hate I’m capable of just as much as any man…so though he cited the Crusades, an inflammatory word that has the ability to feed the rage of these extremists, it is the Moderate Muslim community who will benefit most from his willingness to identify forms of extremism in all religions, not just their own.”

While thousands of extremists will probably come to know what President Obama said in his speech, hundreds of millions of Moderate Muslims will also come to know what he said. As far as I know, most of them will appreciate his comments and agree with him along with countless other people around the globe.

Why is this important? While Dr. Zacharias may not know this, there is a corollary between the Crusades, the Colonial era and American slavery. If one researches literature referring to the Crusades, there is actually very little to no reference by scholars, Islamic or not, to the atrocities of the Crusades until the post-colonial era. Modern Islamic identification with the atrocities of the Crusades is actually tied to a different and much worse historical stain on the Western World’s conscience – Colonialism.

So, with a surge in literature dedicated to the history of the Crusades and their detriment in the post-colonial era, it isn’t too hard to imagine why. Modern European colonialism spread a religiously justified net of terror over the “discovered” world, a reign of terror that is aptly mirrored by their ancestors in the Crusades. The connection – religious justification! Between the Crusades and European expansionism during the colonial era, the comparison is quite apt given the religious justification for both. For the Crusaders, reclaiming the Holy Land and for Colonialists, Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, a doctrine still unrepudiated by the Catholic Church and American Law. As a result, the connection with American slavery is made and stands as only one component of the terrors unleashed upon the world in the name of progress and European domination.

What we fail to remember is that the Arab world has not forgotten Colonialism, it’s just that we in the West conveniently have. We don’t have to go far to find blame in our Western conscience because of colonialism, much of which was based in the Doctrine of Discovery, or for the American version, the Discovery Doctrine. Religious justification – Christians religious justification – underpins much of what happened in the colonial era. Here is an excerpt regarding the views held because of this dangerous doctrine.

Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian Monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered”, claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.

That the Crusades were discovered as a historic complement to colonialism is not a hard jump to make. On top of that, the Arab world thinks differently than the West. They don’t forget their history. When the Crusades are talked about, they are a trauma trigger. They represent the memory of colonialism, European expansionism and the bane of religious coercion through force, torture or death. The detriment of the colonial era is not going away and every single Western country benefits still today from the doctrine of discovery. While Moderate Muslims don’t identify with Muslim extremists, they also haven’t forgotten who cut up their borders, stole their artifacts, oppressed and exploited their people, and pillaged their countries’ goods, all within recent history.

Ravi’s Blunder #5

…the Crusades and slavery were also justified in the name of Christ.

African Americans haven’t forgotten slavery or Jim Crow either – that memory is not going away anytime soon. It is February, a month dedicated to the brave Black American citizens who have endured prejudices, fear of hangings, fear of being burned alive, and still today, fear of their young sons being shot unjustly by a police officer. As a result it would have been wise to honor all of these dynamics rather than isolating one comment among many. Skirting the issue of religiously justified racism in our country and its impact on the recent issues the Black community has had with the police wasn’t a wise thing to ignore given the “rage” these issues have produced. So while Ravi probably agrees with much of President Obama’s speech, he chose to, without class, highlight only one aspect and ignore all the others, belittling the President with his comments and taking offense where, in Christ, we are called to absorb that offense. Ravi’s last statement betrays a sentiment that our President, probably has no problem accepting,

This year’s National Prayer Breakfast speech was a blunder in thought. But there was a silver lining. In the end, President Obama blundered into the truth. Sin distorts… and only Jesus Christ restores the truth.

We all blunder into the truth, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ashamed of our blunders. So, for these and other blunders, Dr. Zacharias should be ashamed. But like he wrote, there is a silver lining – Ravi and Barack will get to sort this all out in the New Creation alongside their Lord Jesus Christ and a host of others witnesses who have also blundered their way into the truth.

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  • In response to a Facebook comment:

    Daniel – thanks for weighing in. I notice we have some friends in common and also notice you are living in a very interesting environment for us to be having this conversation. Hats off to you for your courage and for your station in life.

    Regarding your question about a substantive critique of Islam as it relates to their holy book and its ethical and religious demands, I have a few thing to respond with.

    As to the Quran, I have read a lot of it, but sadly not all of it. My research of Islam is limited and my interaction with friends who are Muslim is also limited compared to your experience. My experience is that I have visited every Near East country including Israel as well as the city of Bethlehem. I had the privilege of living in Persia and parts of Central Asia for a short time. I’ve also had the privilege of visiting and learning about Muslim peoples and cultures in India, London, U.K., South Africa and Malaysia.

    In all my travels, I learned three primary lessons about global Islam. 1. I learned that most Muslims are Moderate and many end up depending upon a form of folk Islam which is at times syncretized with their located context. 2. I learned that in the East and South, Islam is at the top of the list as the religion of choice for those who are seeking a religious identity not their own, especially when they have pre-existing angst towards the West. 3. I learned that conversion is not the primary manner of recruitment, but rather birth is. While the number of Muslims is growing, it largely through procreation rather than conversion.

    Given all of that, I am compelled to believe that Islam is not monolithic and cannot be treated as such, nor can the world Muslim be used to refer to the 1.5 billion adherents Islam claims. There are Islams, there are Muslims, there are different readings of the Quran, there are varied schools of thought and philosophy as well as teachers to follow. So when we talk about a “sobering critique of Islam”, I would like to know which Islam are we talking about? Which tradition are we referring to? Which reading of the Quran is held the highest, etc.?

    The first critique of Ravi is that he ignored the complexity of Islam and treated it as a monolithic whole.

    The second critique is that while he is concerned with the lunacy of the extremists and encouraging them in any way, President’s Obama’s comments actually encourage Moderate Muslims more so than the extremists, at least as I understand his words.

    The third critique is his dismissal of other religiously-justified violences committed in the name of our shared religion and focused on the only one he could get any mileage out of while conveniently ignoring religiously justified American Slavery, systematic annihilation of America’s first people, colonialism, Manifest Destiny, the unrepudiated doctrine of discovery, and the list goes on the farther back we go.

    Ravi was concerned with the current climate of extremist related activities. He made it clear that by making the statements Obama made, we are just encouraging them, etc. I find this erroneous first off, but even worse, he ignored the climate of his own context and the racialization issues surrounding police and young black men (and now old men) in the U.S. He did mention the history of slavery and Jim Crow but failed to go anywhere with that. He could have at least affirmed the President’s concerns regarding those religiously justified acts of terror by Christians and how it is spilling into our streets even today if he was really concerned with the current climate. Not to mention that this would have been a good month to side with both historical and contemporary issues of the oppressed of his own country.

    As to the claim that the Crusaders were attempting to regain land lost to the Muslims, I’m at a loss as to how to answer that. Eastern Christians weren’t the proprietors of Jerusalem or its surrounding regions. Historically, Jerusalem was lost by the Jews because they kept revolting against the Roman Empire and so their temple was destroyed and they were banned from entering the city. I may have my history wrong, but that’s what I remember researching. Any Christian involvement with Jerusalem after that would have come after Jerusalem and surrounding regions became occupied by Arab peoples.

    No one is claiming all religions are the same and have the same effect on people. There is a qualitative difference between Christianity and Islam -otherwise I wouldn’t be a Christian. BUT, there isn’t a qualitative between the violence in one human heart versus the violence in another. We are capable of the worst possible crimes and capable of hypocritically justifying via our religious affiliation, no matter what our religion is – Again – this was Obama’s point.

    Also, I and no one else is claiming that any of these events have a one to one correspondence. Yet, for at least the last 500 years, there is a connecting factor – Colonialism. It lasted longer than any single one of the atrocities mentioned and will have a lasting detriment for hundreds of year more. The dynamics of European expansionism into regions not their own mirrored the events of the Crusades and since colonialism only ended less than a hundred years ago, I don’t understand how it’s impossible to draw a line from the Crusades to the Colonial given that the same religious justification for both events came from the same religious body. As we know, one of Colonialism’s primary justifications, a justification throughout its history was religion – the Christian version. The Doctrine of Discovery is still a standing doctrine of the Catholic church and was most recently used in a U.S. Supreme Court Case just 7 years ago. This cannot be an anachronism because no one is attributing one event to the other. Rather, there are diachronic corollaries that are just very difficult to dismiss.

    The fact that religiously motivated extremists are wreaking havoc in our present era doesn’t negate the hundreds of years of the same activity committed by people from other religions. Christianity and Islam have been used as tools of oppression, exploitation and violence by many groups throughout their histories and even now into the present. 50-70 years ago, in the U.S., white Christians were burning black bodies and abducting, raping and murdering indigenous bodies and using the Christian religion as a justification to do so. There’s just no way around that.

  • Dholcroftiv

    Your assumptions determine your conclusions. This piece is hasty and equally as thoughtless as you claim Ravi’s to be.

    • In regards to your claims, I wondered if you could provide reasoning for them. If my assumptions determine my conclusions, can you explain how? If the piece is hasty and thoughtless, I am interested in the evidence you might suggest to make this statement. Thank you.