“Christian Militias” and the Unpredictable Nature of Religious Diversity

 By: Kenny Smith

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have taught that, “you cannot step into the same river twice,” because a river (like everything in the physical world) is continually changing and hence never the same. The implication of this insight for the study of religion can be profound: religions are also constantly changing, developing, becoming something new, and, to some degree, one can never step twice into the same church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, or religious tradition.

It is especially difficult for Westerners to think in these terms about religion.  Religions tend to have a great deal invested in the view that they represent unchanging truths, and so pointing to evidence of historical change may well be interpreted as an assault. Protestant ideas about a coming Rapture in which faithful Christians are plucked up and out of a hostile secular society, for example, are relatively new, arising in the late 19th century.  Though many Rapturists read this theology back into the Bible and conclude that such teachings can be traced to the days of Jesus of Nazareth.  Also, as a culture, for the past three centuries or so we have tended to imagine the religious landscape in terms of distinct, walled-off religious institutions, such as “Christianity,” “Islam,” Buddhism,” “Judaism,” and so forth.  Taken together, these factors lead us to expect unchanging and uniform religious traditions where none in fact exist.   

Take, for example, what we call “Christianity.” There are currently some 2.5 billion Christians worldwide. About 1.1 billion are Catholic, 800-900 million are Eastern Orthodox, and 500-600 million are Protestant.  There are enormous theological differences separating these three branches (to say nothing of the many differences in language, culture, ethnicity, economics, politics, and history). For many Catholics and Protestants, it is Jesus’ death that makes salvation possible.  In this view, he is thought to have “paid the price” for all human sin, thus wiping away even the “original sins” of Adam and Eve.  In many Eastern Orthodox Christianities, however, notions of “original sin,” which first emerged in the 4th century in Western Europe, never caught on.  Eastern Orthodox traditions tend to place much greater emphasis upon the birth of Jesus, in which God is thought to have taken physical form, and thus seriously “upgraded” human nature in important ways.

Catholics and Protestants, of course, differ profoundly as well.  In traditional Catholic teachings, the ideal (if not the only) path to God is through the religious institution that God Himself created and ordained, the Catholic (or “universal”) church, whereas for most Protestants one can go directly to God for forgiveness, atonement, understanding the Bible, knowing  how best to live, rather than relying upon an institution.  This may seem superficial, but it’s actually a very important difference about where religious authority (to determine what the Bible says, how to relate to God, how to live, how society should be structured, etc.) resides.  There is of course a great deal of diversity within each of these three branches.  Protestantism, for instance, is comprised of virtually thousands of denominations, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Pentecostals, being some of the largest and most well-known.  The concept Protestant” (like “river”) may lead us to expect a unity of belief and practice, but there are in fact enormously important differences here as well, differences so profound that one kind of Protestant might have serious doubts about whether other kinds are really Christian at all!  In many Pentecostal churches, for instance, one cannot be certain that one is “saved” (going to heaven after this life) unless one displays the “charismata,” (“gifts of the Holy Spirit”) such as publicly speaking in tongues (usually in a church setting). The very loud, frenetic, highly emotional, and seemingly out of control behaviors associated with this religious experience, however, would for many other Protestants be regarded as a sign of mental illness, or even demonic influence, certainly not the salvific power of the divine.

Within Baptist denominations, one debate that has been going on for centuries involves fundamental notions about God’s power and human free will.  Some (often called Predestinationists) argue that, because God is in full control of everything that happens, he must have already determined, from the very beginnings of time, who will be saved and who will be damned.  Others, however, argue that because God is infinitely good, he would surely leave human beings free to decide for themselves, rather than determining in advance everyone’s fate.  My purpose here is not to resolve such disputes, but only to point out why one kind of Protestant might fail to recognize other kinds as not properly Christian.       

At this point, some may want to argue that, if we think on a very general level, we will find things that are universal to all forms of Christianity, such as the belief that the Bible is the world of God, or that Jesus is the son of God.  But even these generalizations do not really hold up.  There are Christian groups, now and in past centuries, that did not see the Bible in this way, that look(ed) to other religious books and teachings, and had very different views of Jesus, for instance, seeing Jesus as primarily a moral teacher rather than a sacrificial victim whose blood “washed sin away.”  Typically, attempts to find a clear unity within “Christianity: (or any religious tradition, for that matter) dissolve utterly when we push on them just a bit and look into the ways different Christian groups have thought about their tradition.  This realization, which has lead scholars to think in terms of Christianities, can be overwhelming to those within the popular culture, and students new to the study of religion, who are not expecting it.  

But intra-religious diversity can also play out in other ways as well.  In an article for the New York Times, Kirk Johnson notes that, while Hutaree militia members in Adrian, Michigan (recently arrested for allegedly plotting an attack on local police officers), “were best known by their neighbors for their active use of guns and their increasingly heated talk about fighting back violently against the

government… their biggest and most surprising adversary was practically next door: the local branch of the Michigan Militia.”  While both groups “wear fatigues or camouflage, train in the woods with heavy weaponry and believe in threats to liberty from Washington… [the] Michigan Militia, which in past years had links to extremist groups with neo-Nazi flavorings, has moderated over the years, according to members and experts who track the organizations.  Meanwhile, the Hutaree (pronounced Hu-TAR-ay)… was going in the other direction, with increasing talk of violence.”  Apparently, these differences became so pronounced that when Hutaree members were fleeing arrest and asked Michigan Militia members for assistance, they were refused and turned in to the Michigan State Police, who passed the information on to the FBI.  Such an unexpected turn of events suggests that even far-right Christian militias are not monolithic structures.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/us/01michigan.html?hp

Let me take this argument one step further.  The data above suggests that various Christian militias may differ considerably in fundamental ways.  It may also be the case that there is considerable diversity within individual militias.  The Michigan Militia, for instance, contains one member who “converted to Islam in the late 1990s after a soul-searching separation from the Lutheran faith he had grown up with, and that he believed that he was the only Muslim in the militia.”     Frankly, when I read this I was stunned: surely, I thought, the world of Christian Militias was limited to Christians, or at least excluded Muslims.  Apparently not, at least in this case. It’s difficult to imagine an instance that more clearly illustrates the highly diverse, and hence unpredictable, nature of our times.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/us/01michigan.html?hp

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