Bad theology kills.
For many, the subject of “theology” invokes the image of old white men with impressive beards and antiquated ideas sitting in ivory seminary towers writing really big books that nobody reads.
Yet within everything we think, say and do can be found a variety of implicit theologies, even if we are unconscious of them.
Theology – along with its secular twin, ideology – encompasses our very core beliefs as to how the universe functions and how we function within it.
It drives our very sense of purpose and provides us with the interpretive lenses through which we make sense of and find meaning in our daily lives.
And some theologies are good. Others are bad.
So, in an age of deconstructed absolutes, how then is it possible for one to distinguish the good from bad?
For the follower of Jesus, the answer is amazingly simple: Fruit.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us, “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. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-17).
To distinguish the true from false prophet, 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 theological system, one must simply look at its fruit:
â— Does the fruit of that system lead us to love God, neighbor and enemy as ourselves? Or does it result in self-aggrandizement, or separationist and supremacist attitudes?
â— Does it seek God’s Kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Or does it seek to promote the hegemony of some other lord, pharaoh, führer or flag?
â— Does it stand up for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the refugee? Or, quite plainly, does it not?
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 Middle Eastern context:
1. Colonialist paternalism
From the “white man’s burden” and “civilizing mission” of the 19th century to the modern American desire to “export freedom by force of arms” in the 21st century, the tragic history of Western imperialism in the Middle East is rife with examples of theological and ideological systems that have sought to promote, justify, downplay and excuse that which is little more than violent and deadly conquest, theft and exploitation.
With complete sincerity, yet degrading paternalism, we colonialists have justified our aggression by convincing ourselves that we have been acting, often on behalf of God, for the betterment of the colonized peoples.
Not only does bad theology kill, but it has justified the death of many Middle Eastern persons.
2. “Henotheistic crusaderism”
Henotheism, at its most basic, 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 mentality can be found throughout the history of human warfare, even among professed monotheists.
In this way of thinking, one’s own “tribe” becomes the chosen of God fighting an epic struggle against the forces of darkness and their sub-human minions.
“The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings” movies express this perspective clearly.
This theology has been manifested in the Crusades, the tragic massacres of the Lebanese civil war, Lebanon’s deeply sectarian politics, and the religiously tinged language of the “War on Terror.” And, we see it now in Syria.
This is the theology of “God and country.”
3. Manifest destiny
At its most basic, manifest destiny seeks to conquer, cleanse and colonize.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) context, French colonization of Algeria was profoundly destructive for the native Algerians.
Furthermore, the colonial Zionist project has been absolutely catastrophic to the lives, property and psyche of the native Palestinians, sending shockwaves throughout the entire region that reverberate to this day.
“Christian Zionism,” a default position within much of Western evangelicalism until recently, has provided theological justification, financial capital and political cover for decades of land confiscation, ethnic cleansing, settlement activity and apartheid-equivalent practices.
Speaking as a Western evangelical, there is far too much blood on our hands precisely because bad theology kills.
May we always carry our cross in everlasting service to a broken world in desperate need of God’s love, justice and deliverance. Like the messiah, let us spend ourselves in self-sacrificial love.
Jesse Wheeler is projects manager at the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. A longer version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.