Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology
I’ve often been embarrassed by my family. My father forgetting friends’ names, my brother’s triple-backups (‘just in case’), my sister and the ‘jelly incident’, my wife and—well, I still need to live with her. Their actions, attitudes and relationships reflect on me whether I like it or not. Sometimes this means I get free credit for their achievements, but at other times their mistakes or failures make life difficult.
So it is with my Christian family: calling our history chequered is euphemistic at best. While it is great to bask in the reflected glow of giants like Luther, Augustine and Bonhoeffer, Luther was often anti-Semitic, Augustine advised sending in the imperial storm troopers to wipe out heretics, and Bonhoffer was a conspirator in a terrorist attack . Now all these historical situations were more complex than my simple summaries, yet in each case these great theologians turned to the Bible and their Christian beliefs to justify violent decisions. Were these regrettable aberrations or does my spiritual family have a brutal streak?
Unfortunately, such examples can be multiplied down the centuries. Christian complicity, either passive or active, can be seen in the Crusades, the Holocaust, the conquest and exploitation of the Americas, African slavery, centuries of anti-Semitism, repressive patriarchy, apartheid and environmental abuse. As tempting as it may be to take a chainsaw to the rotten branches of the family tree, disinheriting the perpetrators of all these crimes is not so simple. Some of these abuses by those who claimed the name of Christ were acts of conscious disobedience, yet many were the result of attempts to implement what believers at the time were convinced was God’s will. Some were violent despite their Christian beliefs, but many acted violently because of them.
With the luxury of hindsight, we may criticise their theological deficiencies and the inadequacy of their exegesis, yet we must admit there is a serious prima facie case linking Christianity and violence. Is the nexus between Christian violence and the Bible entirely accidental and contingent, or is Christianity in some sense inherently violent? Is the river poisoned at its source? The Old Testament depicts, among other things, a deity whose colonialist promises are to be achieved through genocide. And the New Testament repeats and celebrates a narrative so grisly that when filmed recently it received an R-rating for violence: the protracted torture and execution of an insurrectionist on a suicide mission. Caricatures? Certainly—yet these are our authorised stories and the echoes of such parodies haunting the Church’s continuing story are no laughing matter.
No text can entirely determine its own reception and use—or abuse. Even and perhaps especially sacred texts are vulnerable to culturally motivated ‘re-appropriations’ that serve to buttress perspectives and practices valued for other reasons. How are we to diagnose these parasitic readings, which draw their vitality from the text, yet ultimately paralyse or kill the host upon which they feed? And if we are to privilege one reading as faithful to the text and rule out others as illegitimate, is this to commit semiotic violence? Some critics see a causal link between believing you have the Truth and intolerance towards other views.
The pervasiveness of violence in the history, practice and theology of Christianity poses pressing challenges to those of us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace.
Such questions were the stimulus for a recent collection of essays entitled Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, edited by Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs. The volume gathers papers originally presented at a conference held a few years ealier by the Centre of Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) of Wheaton College. The scholars represented are mainly, though not exclusively, evangelical. The collection is far from exhaustive, yet the various chapters address many aspects of the troubling nexus between Christianity and violence.
There are three highlights of the collection. First is a chapter by Dan McKanan comparing four competing theologies of divine rule in nineteenth century America and how each fed into (or arose out of) the slavery debate that first threatened, then helped rupture, the Union. McKanan suggestively asks:
Is God ultimately responsible for the violence that exists in nature and society? Can violent experiences ever disclose God’s presence in the world? Was God responsible for the violence of slavery? If so, why would he support the non-violent struggle to end it? If not, was he powerful enough to stop it? (pp.50-1).
Second, David P. Gushee summarises recent research into the motivations of rescuers in the Holocaust. In a Europe where the great majority of the citizens were baptised Christians (and a significant percentage of them committed ones), millions of Christians stood by in ignorance, apathy or even contributed active support as millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Communists, homosexuals and dissidents were systematically exterminated. What then motivated the few thousand (at least 14,000 have been identified) who saved around 250,000 Jews? If studies reveal that less than a quarter acted for explicitly religious reasons, what kind of Christianity spurred some to compassion and what kind anaesthetised the many to indifference or assent?
Third, the book concludes with the transcript of a public conversation between Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, two heavyweights of Christian Ethics with differing attitudes to violence. Hauerwas is a pacifist influenced by the Anabaptist tradition while Milbank is an Anglo-Catholic with an idiosyncratic spin on the concept of just war. These two are not only the most recognized contributors, but also the most philosophically dense. I found both their content and manner instructive as I eavesdropped on their amicable yet significant differences.
Beyond these three, there are also good chapters on: the developments in biblical exegesis that unpinned the Crusades; the coercive evangelism of the Conquistadores and their critics; suggestions for how history teachers can subvert the myth of redemptive violence; violence and the atonement; and one that seeks common ground between pacifists and just war theorists in implementing practices that make for peace.
There is also a useful Afterword from Alan Jacobs tackling the accusation of semiotic ‘violence’, the idea that proselytisation is a form of coercion and control on a par with physical brutality, if not worse, being covert. Discipline and punishment are made all the more insidious through internalisation: we become self-regulating and the violence achieved is ultimately by the self upon the self under the illusion of self-help. This charge has grown in popularity over recent decades, particularly from the disciples of Foucault, yet this move blurs the line between persuasion and coercion. Jacobs points out that calling persuasion ‘violence’ trivialises physical violence: I can reject a Coke advertisement or seeker service, but not a lynch mob: “We do not increase our understanding of the world by doing away with the distinction between irresistible acts of force and eminently resistible words of suasion” (p.234). I would have liked to have seen more extensive treatment of this issue throughout the body of the book, as the disappearing category of respectful disagreement cripples not only evangelism and apologetics, but also limits political discussions of the common good.
While there are many useful apologetic insights scattered throughout the essays, and a couple of attempts to summarise implications or mount a sustained defence against the charge, I suspect that many readers will be left with more queries than resolutions. The variety of issues covered is a strength of the collection (despite an obvious bias towards an American audience), but the complexity of most of them raises important questions beyond the scope of any single essay. Two are perhaps most crucial: ‘Is God himself violent?’ and ‘What is the relationship between the Church and the State?’ The various authors have different implicit answers, yet these foundational matters are rarely addressed directly. For those wishing to explore the former, there is an excellent treatment of God’s violence and its relation to human action in the final chapter of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996). A similarly dense account of the latter, including extensive interaction with answers spanning two millennia of Christian tradition, is Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology (Cambridge: CUP, 1996). Neither is light reading, but both attempt a more rigorous theological account than is possible in a collection of essays.
In the face of the myriad accusations against the church’s historical and continuing hypocrisy, there are important mitigations, qualifications, refutations and counter-accusations to be made. Must Christianity Be Violent? is a useful, though far from exhaustive, collection of them. Yet stopping here is seriously deficient. All these responses are of obvious apologetic import, yet perhaps more significantly, the violence all-too-often present in the history, practice and even theology of Christianity needs to be taken seriously for our own discipleship. If we’ve been graciously granted peace with God yet continue to find ourselves participating in cycles of violence, our response to accusations must begin with that characteristically Christian act: repentance. Apologetics begins with apology. We need to ask first not ‘which members of the family am I embarrassed to be associated with’, but ‘in what ways might others be embarrassed by me?’: the telegraph pole in my eye before the toothpick in my sister’s.
Excuse, mitigation and counter-accusation may have their small place, but at the most crucial level, apologetics is deeds before words: Live such good lives among the nations that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).
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