In a recent interview with the French Catholic newspaper, La Croix, Pope Francis was asked about the connection between the fear of accepting migrants and the fear of Islam in the West. He responded by commenting upon the theme of conquest within Islam and the fact that such a theme can also be found within Christianity:
Today, I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.There is considerable scriptural evidence to support the Pope’s claim. Although the theme of conquest is frequently found throughout the New Testament, due to the constraints of space, I will limit my discussion here to the gospel of Matthew.
The commission of Matthew 28 also parallels Joshua 1, however. There God declares that everywhere Joshua’s foot treads has been given to him, to the very ends of the land (verses 3-4). God assures Joshua of his presence (verse 5), and charges him to obey all that the Law of Moses commanded him (verse 7).
The mission of the Church is thus implicitly framed as a continued conquest of the world in the name of Christ. This conquest is not, however, a mere escalation of the sort of conquest led by Joshua. Rather, Matthew and the rest of the New Testament present us with a theological vision of the Church’s mission as conquest that is both continuous and discontinuous from Old Testament conquest.
Recognition of the theme of conquest and the importance of the Joshua tradition for the New Testament writers should also challenge us to do serious business with some of the more difficult texts in our scriptures. Although it may often be thematically sublimated, the violent conquest of Canaan is never disowned in the New Testament. Indeed, the implicit identification of Jesus with the Angel of the Lord may exacerbate the theodical tensions that it poses, highlighting that the violence of Joshua is stubbornly continuous with the story of the salvation of Christ.
As we appreciate the complicated role played by themes and narratives of conquest within our own faith, we should be encouraged to greater reticence and sensitivity in judgments concerning the role played by the theme of conquest in Islam. Within our own faith, the violence of the theme of conquest cannot be entirely sublimated, yet it can exist alongside and be interwoven with profound visions of peace.
Having a first-hand acquaintance with the ambivalence of the theme of conquest, when engaging with Islamic theologies of jihad it behoves us to extend the kind of charitable and careful hearing we would desire for ourselves, eschewing the precipitous judgments to which we are so often tempted in the current political environment.
A long set of excerpts since Alastair Roberts has a habit of writing things that are longer than some folks on the internet are willing to read. :)