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Islamic terrorism and the failure to separate the sacred from the civil

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 6 April 2004

Monotheism presents us with a serious problem. Whereas in polytheism the rivalry between the gods makes the ascendancy of one god impossible, monotheism leads to an inescapable logic of universal power. While polytheism resists the idea of unifying truth thereby producing social fragmentation, monotheism will tend to totalitarianism unless it is modified as it is in the Judeo/Christian tradition. The monotheistic God accrues philosophical superlatives like “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, “omnipresent” and begins to fill all spaces in life. As God takes on the properties of the superhero the believer is reduced to the dependent slave. This is worked out in the psychology of the believer but also in the structures of public life. God fills both the temporal and the eternal, the civil and the sacred. God becomes the king of the universe and the king of the nation and is jealous of civil rule.

Israel was dealing with this problem when the sons of Samuel failed to carry on their father’s tradition of justice and the people asked for a king over them “like other nations”. (1Sam 8) The controversy arose because God was thought to be king over Israel and the establishment of a human king risked idolatry, the displacement of God. This cannot be construed as the beginning of secular rule because the king of Israel was always understood to be God’s anointed and was expected to “walk in His ways”. There was never a separation of the sacred and the civil but a differentiation. The Old Testament is the history of how its kings failed to fulfill this expectation. In other words, the relationship between civil rule, how the life of the community was to be ordered, and the sacred, the underlying truth of things, was always as troubled as it remains today.

The differentiation of the roles of priest and civil ruler does not suggest, as in our time, that they have nothing to say to each other, quite the contrary. The faithful ruler was understood to be ordained by God and commissioned to carry out the will of God. This idea was the seed for the idea of the divine right of kings which continues in vestigial form in the relationship between the church of England and the monarchy as head of that church. The French revolution severed the connection between the sacred and civil and produced a new phenomenon: the secular. This is an order devoid of the transcendent and devoted to the working out of ideology. The “Terror” that resulted has been repeated in Nazism under Hitler and communism under Stalin and Mao. This is what happens when the civil authority is divorced from the truth that Christianity carries. On the other side, when the sacred takes over the civil we have a totalitarianism of a different kind. We have seen this in Calvin’s Geneva, Puritan New England and in the Spanish inquisition, to name but a few. Just as temporal rule without the sacred becomes totalitarian, so too when the civil is overtaken by the sacred.


The tragedy of the West in our time is the hegemony of secularism. This means that the sacred ceases to be in conversation with civil powers even if prayers are still said in parliament. When Tony Abbot, the Liberal Party minister for health, talks about the scandal of abortion, Mark Latham, the leader of the opposition, can only say that he has got on his moral high horse. Apparently a politician’s religious perspectives must be quarantined from public discourse. Sacred truth is seen to be private to the believer and to be forfeit in public. This is the phenomenon that prompted John Richard Neuhaus to coin the phrase “The naked public square” and to publish a book bearing that name. Public discourse “is not clothed with the “meanings” borne by religion, new “meanings” will be imposed by virtue of the ambitions of the modern state.” He observes that as nature abhors a vacuum, (produced by the dismissal of religious argument) other influences will fill the space and we will be worse off than we were before. That space has been filled largely with the shallow ideologies of life style. In Australia any conversation between politics and religion are of the blandest kind, restricted as they are to pondering how we can get the young to have the right values. Religion is reduced to the instrumental and loses its persuasive power.

Jesus recognised the differentiation between the civil and the sacred with his phrase: “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:21) That is, the emperor deserves obedience when ordering the community aright and God deserves worship. The two should not be reversed. It is also recognised in Jesus words to Pilate in the gospel of John that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Rather than pointing to a heavenly kingdom that believers attain after death, this phrase points to the differentiation between civil and sacred authority. The kingdom of God/heaven is an earthly reality that is even now coming into being. It is distinct from civil kingdoms in that it is the repository of truth whereas the civil does not:

Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice ."Pilate asked him, "What is truth?". (John 18:37,38)

Pilate here is representative of the civil powers and he does not know what truth is. A reading of the passage could be that John is telling us that the civil powers must seek truth in the one who came into the world to testify to the truth. This defines the difference between the civil and the sacred realms. To the civil realm is given the power and duty of ordering the community, to use force where it is necessary and even to protect the nation by war. But these powers and duties are to be informed by the sacred otherwise they will inevitably become demonic.

This ordering of the kingdom of the state and the kingdom of God as parallel authorities ensures that there can be no such thing as a theocracy, neither can their be a divinised civil power. It also means that religion cannot be relegated to the private realm of faith and divorced from politics as Mark Latham seems to think. The ministry of Jesus was highly political as his death as a criminal by the Roman authorities attests. His crucifixion is a condemnation of both the religious and the political powers of the day who colluded in his trial without enquiring about the truth. But the gospel is not itself a political ideology that throws its weight behind the left or the right, for or against democracy or monarchy. Even the much heralded “preference for the poor” by those involved in the social justice movement cannot stand because it polarises the kingdom between the rich and the poor. Rather, the gospel is the yeast in the dough that leavens the whole lump, rich and poor, left and right, monarchist and democrat alike. It will ferment in all political contexts. Any party that calls itself Christian misses the point and is guilty of trying to commandeer the gospel for its own populist purposes.

It is important that we understand how and why we in the West have arrived where we are and where weakness exists, because we are faced with a force that does not recognise the distinctions between the civil and the sacred: Islamic terrorism. While Islam has inherited monotheism from Judaism it has not strongly developed the distinction between the civil and the sacred realm of human life. There is always a tendency towards theocracy. This means that the sacred must take on the tasks of the civil which by its very nature it is not equipped to do. When the civil powers of government do not have religious legitimisation they will be poorly developed and this will result in corruption and poverty. Civil power will be taken over by the tribal resulting in the feudalism of Afghanistan, the rich and powerful, resulting in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia or by Islamic clerics as in Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. The failure of the Palestinian Authority to produce a lawful society is but another example of the failure of civil rule in Islam.


The aim of Islamic extremism is to establish theocracies, states under the rule of Allah which means under the rule of the clerics. Such a situation will be the breeding ground for terrorist cells because they operate in the absence of strong civic control. Even though Islam may be described as a religion of law, the absence of civil law and the institutions that support it will produce lawlessness. How else can we describe Afghanistan under the Taliban or the situation in Palestine?

The confusion between the civic and the sacred is nowhere more obvious than the designation of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, recently assassinated by Israel, as the founder and spiritual father of Hamas. When we in the West think of a spiritual father we summon up the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope or the Dalai Lama. That a spiritual father would promote and plan suicide missions aimed at killing civilians is unthinkable. Yet we are expected to contemplate such a person in Yassin. In the West the use of force by the police or army is confined to the civil authorities who must act on behalf of the community and under the law. By contrast, Islamic terrorist groups operate under no civil authority and under no law. They are often under the control of a single charismatic individual who knows how to use religious language to direct his followers into the most appalling acts. This cannot be equated with the acts of an elected civil authority that are designed to protect the state against violent aggression and which are in proportion to the threat. The suicide bombing of a bus of civilians is not morally equivalent to the violent actions of a state specifically directed towards defending its own citizens.

The tendency of monotheistic religion to take everything over is limited in Christianity by Jesus’ refusal to allow himself to be used for civil purposes, to be crowned king or to take the part of the zealots who would oppose Rome with force. It is also limited by the theology of the cross that tells us that the power of God is shown in weakness. “God is weak in the world.” The crucified God does not take civil power for His own. This is not true of Islam for whom God may not be identified with humanity as one who dies. Allah is rather the divine lawgiver, the strict and distant God that fills all spaces. The theology associated with Allah is a theology of glory and power un-tempered by death and suffering. It is no wonder that its enthusiasts lean towards theocracy, there is room for nothing else.

I know it is dangerous to be critical of another religion from the outside because of the danger of misunderstanding. Christianity has suffered and benefited by several hundred years of criticism. To simply seal religious thought off from criticism and discussion is unhealthy and unrealistic and will stand in the way of real dialogue between the faiths. The utterance of platitudes to do with tolerance will not do here. We must have real dialogue and that means that the critical gloves must come off.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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