There has been debate about whether the Sydney kidnapper deserves the title “terrorist”, or whether he was a violent man who attached religious symbols and language to his violence.

I have been following some of the debate, particularly from Christians online. Most resist a conflation of Islam and violent perpetrators. Others perceive this as dangerous naivety, and promote a discussion about religion and violence based on two things: their view on the truth about Islam and; the observable violence of large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East. Sometimes this discussion morphs into an argument over whether this or that violent Christian/Muslim/etc is a “real” Christian/Muslim/etc. This is a distraction. The Inquisitors were real Christians. The Taliban are real Muslims. None of the established religions have a centralised system for membership; they are too large, too old and too interesting for bureaucratic tidying.

The deeper issue is this: if the violence of its adherents invalidates a religion, what then? There are a number of questions, the answers to which would take us further in the discussion than the “terrorist vs madman” sideshow. Questions like: How strong is the link between the violence, and the theology and texts of the religion? Do the majority of the members practice and promote peace? Does the religion promote peaceableness, particularly towards those who are not members? Do key events and characters in the religion promote peace? Or, if you want a list: theology, witness, ethics, history, heroes.

Answering these questions would require expertise. Given that few us know much about one religion (and many of us less than that), is there another way to approach the religions, assess their propensity for violence and what to do about it? The government could appoint some experts and we could listen to them, but I doubt that would work.

Many social media critics of Islam end their posts with an inchoate cry for Australians to “wake up before it’s too late”, or to “do something now”. So how about we have an imaginative look at the “endgame” scenario of possible  “calls to action”?

[Sidenote: I am not criticising these cries for action. A current bugbear of mine is the tendency to denigrate those who criticise or fear Islam. The labelling of such people as “bigots”, “rednecks” etc is bullying, pure and simple, putting aside the gross misunderstanding of what is going on. That this comes from people who describe themselves as compassionate and accepting makes it all the more galling].

Let’s imagine that there emerged a consensus in Australian society that Christianity had a propensity for violence and abuse. This consensus arose after the final report of the royal commission into institutional child abuse, a hitherto non-existent interest in educating young people about the Spanish Inquisition, the emergence of Christian terrorist organisations in South America and the assassination of several politicians by a Christian movement calling themselves #GunsMakeAWay. ..

i. Official repression of Christianity. This would involve suppressing Christianity institutions, restricting public worship, filtering immigration based on religion, and a “religion” question on all job applications. It could also involve Christianity making specific “oaths of allegiance” that reject the violent verses in the Bible. The government could set up official, state-approved churches for Christians to worship, where only “peaceful” verses of the Bible were preached. Possibly a Bible without violence could even be produced. Setting aside the human rights abuses, this path simply would not work. China, where Christianity is suppressed, has growing numbers of Christians and a vibrant illegal house-church movement. Arguably, it would backfire, especially if the persecution encouraged more Christians to take their violent religion seriously.

ii. Isolation of Christianity: instead of official repression, the average Australian would refuse to associate with Christians, and cross the street when a crucifix-wearer came into view. The keyboard warriors could do the same online, writing long pieces on why Christians need to face up to the truth of violence in Christianity: the Biblical texts are clear, just look at Abraham and Isaac, the crucifixion, the Crusades etc. Only such honesty, and (probably) rejection of their faith, will qualify them to become fully fledged Australians. This approach could last a long time, although given that isolation breeds contempt, it wouldn’t be long before violence erupted.

iii. Indifference to Christianity. This would involve ignoring Christianity. For most average Australians, being lazily secular, this is the preferred option and probably achievable for a time, but not for long. The saturation of Christianity-related media will make it hard for indifference to be an option. In addition, people of other religions begin to migrate to Australia, favoured by the anti-Christian immigration policies. Their children go to school with the children of the indifferent Australians. Religion is hard to ignore anymore.

iv. Acceptance of Christianity: this would involve accepting Christianity as it is, with little or no critique. For many Australians who care about a harmonious community, this would be the preferred option. It assumes that all religions are equal, with basically the same human values. It has some positives – at least it allows people to get on for a time. But it is a simplistic  and basically dishonest view of religions, which does not allow them to be what they are: spikily different ways of resolving divine, human and social questions. Unquestioning acceptance of Christianity won’t last long.

v. Personal engagement with Christianity under the rule of law: this would involve the average Australian building personal relationships with Christians, without the Christian needing to renounce their beliefs. On the basis of trust and respect in these relationships, tough and honest questions could be asked and answered. Commonalities and differences could be shared. Asking these tough questions in the media is unlikely to provoke an open and honest answer – people tend to batten down the hatches when attacked publicly. But what about the violent Christians? The hope (perhaps innocent but often proven) is that those who know each other will not hurt each other. For those who do not refrain from violence, let them be subject to the law, as we all are.

Our imaginative “endgame” scenario finishes here. I am too overbearing a writer to hide my point that, as we respond to contemporary Islam, these options are choices now. Yes, I haven’t answered the question of whether Islam is “inherently violent”. It’s beside the point. Regardless of your view on whether or not Islam is inherently violent, the last option is the best. Honest conversations across religious boundaries, based on personal relationships, within the rule of law.

Can we imagine honest, robust, sympathetic, disagreeable, even fun (!) religious conversations with people who think differently from us? It’s almost comical to imagine them happening in school car parks, cafes, classrooms, homes, playgrounds, workplaces and streets. It’s been so long since conversations, everyday conversations, about religion were commonplace. But it’s our best hope.