Pope Francis has grabbed the headlines again with his comments about the relationship between Islam and violence. Responding to a question he said, “I do not like to speak of Islamic violence because everyday when I look through the papers, I see violence here in Italy.” He then went on to say that all religions have fundamentalists and are violent. Further, he added that “terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the center of the world economy.” Making money the center of the world economy “is the first form of terrorism. That is a basic terrorism against all humanity. Let’s talk about that.”
First, let me talk about the good before we get to the bad. One can’t help but be moved by the genuine humility of this pope. He exudes it in all of his comments, and his overwhelming message of wanting to live in peace with Muslims should be welcomed. Even as we aggressively fight Islamic terrorism, we should always make clear that we are not at war with Islam. I also appreciate the spirit of the Pope’s remarks. He wants to make sure we don’t forget our own sins. That we don’t live with the pious delusion that we have clean hands and are somehow not in need of repentance. This is what Hannah Arendt meant when she talked about Christianity’s greatest contribution to Western politics being the idea and practice of forgiveness. Humility looks to ourselves and our sins before we look to the sins of others. I couldn’t agree more.
But, as usual with Pope Francis, you have a “mixed fruit salad,” to borrow his own metaphor. While the pope is right that there are violent people in all religions, and our histories are indeed violent, he is wrong in equivocating the current cancer of Islamic terrorism with domestic murder in Western countries. Religious people can be and are violent, yes, but we recognize that this is sinful, wrong, and an affront to Christian morals. We don’t say the murder of an innocent person by a person of faith is a true expression of the faith. No, we say it is a perversion. What the radical form of Islam that fuels this violence says is violence is required as a true expression of the faith—to decapitate Coptic Christians, to slaughter hundreds of thousands of fellow Muslims as infidels, to light prisoners on fire in cages, to take Yazidi women as sex slaves, to drop homosexuals off the top of buildings. This is nothing less than a fanatical orgy of violence with divine sanction. This is a perversion of the Islamic faith but is nonetheless a pervasive one, and one that has gripped and effected large portions of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Asia.
We do no service to those who are fighting against these terrorist groups or their countless victims by equivocating, which is what the pope has done and is doing. Humility is a beautiful and wonderful virtue in the Christian faith. The Pope is a standing emblem of humility and I love him for it. But humility can also become excessive and perverse. It can blind us from making critical distinctions and paralyze us when what we need to take action.
The second comment the Pope made about the origins of terrorism having to do with “lack of options” and placing money at the center of the world economy is, to put it mildly, demonstrably false. The Pope plays into the hands of many who stubbornly persist in believing that all our problems can be solved with education and jobs. It is a failure to understand the real driving force behind this Islamic terrorism is not just a hand up. Poverty or education may exacerbate terrorism, but it is not the source. In fact, Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Middle Eastern studies professor Jitka Maleckova concluded, in an extensive review of the literature, “the evidence provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or an increase in educational attainment would, by themselves, meaningfully reduce international terrorism.”
I will continue to laud the Pope for his mission of caring for the least of these and living out the humility of the Christian faith. In his ministry and proclamations, however, he presents both the beauty and danger of humility. One can maintain the preeminence of humility in the Christian life while also rightly naming the sources of the contemporary scourge of terrorism that finds its motivation in a twisted religious fundamentalism. Humility is not a denial of the truth but an embrace of it, even when we know it may bring great discomfort and friction.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Pope Francis in April 2014. By Aleteia Image Department, via Flickr.
 “Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?” The New Republic, June 24, 2002, pp. 27-33.