Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Doesn’t Religion Promote Violence?
Doesn’t Religion Promote Violence?
In 1930, between the two world wars, the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell made this claim:
Religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will first be necessary to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion. Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? An Examination and a Criticism, pg 47.
People of every religion have perpetrated violence and sought support in their respective sources of authority.
Rejection of violence dripped from Jesus’s lips. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,” he instructed his disciples, “turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). And when those same disciples tried to resist his arrest with swords, Jesus rebuked them and healed their victim (Luke 22:50–51). His radical commandment “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) flipped the script that flows from human nature and has shaped most ethical systems in human history: morality applies to my in-group; outsiders can be virtuously destroyed. And Jesus’s words sprang to life as Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross and he prayed for their forgiveness (Luke 23:34). His first followers continued this path of love in the face of violence, and many went to their deaths for proclaiming Jesus as Lord. But how does all this square with the last two thousand years of Christian history?
Crusading language was deployed on both sides in the wake of 9/11. George W. Bush warned, “This crusade, this war on terrorism. It’s gonna take a while”; and Osama Bin Laden wrote, “We hope that these brothers will be the first martyrs in the battle of Islam in this era against the new Jewish and Christian crusader campaign that is led by the Chief Crusader Bush under the banner of the cross.”3 So, what, if anything, did the medieval Crusades have to do with present-day conflicts?
The Crusades were, in historian Robert Louis Wilken’s words, “a Christian counter offensive against the occupation of lands that had been Christian for centuries before the arrival of Islam.” “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in First Things, Jan 2009.
Jerusalem was first taken by Muslim forces in 637. This conference launched the first Crusade. Its aim was to retake Jerusalem.Tens of thousands of Muslims were killed, including women and children.
While we must understand the desire to retake Jerusalem in its historical context and the centuries of conquest by Muslim armies that Eastern Christians had sustained, this needless slaughter of women and children represented a stunning failure of what many people view is Christian ethics.
But the repeated New Testament directives against violence make the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians unjustifiable from any recognizably Christian perspective.
It is a tragic reality of Christian history: despite the biblical bonds of brotherhood across differences, despite Jesus’s command to his followers to love even their enemies, despite Jesus’s own repudiation of violence and the way the early Christians gladly faced martyrdom, the last two thousand years have seen people who claimed to be Christians repeatedly embroiled in violence against each other.
Can we not turn to a more peaceful religion than Christianity?
What about Buddhism?
Many see Buddhism as the outlier on the global religious scene. If Islam and Christianity conjure up visions of jihads and Crusades, Buddhism evokes peaceful meditation. Yet, we must also be appalled by the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Doctors Without Borders estimated that nine thousand Rohingya, including a thousand children, died after attacks like this.
A 2018 New York Times op-ed entitled “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” reminded us that there is “no shortage of historical examples of violence in Buddhist societies.” The article cites Sri Lanka’s civil war from 1983 to 2009, which was fueled by “specifically Buddhist nationalism”; violence in modern Thailand; violence within the Dalai Lama’s own sect; and “a growing body of scholarly literature on the martial complicity of Buddhist institutions in World War II–era Japanese nationalism.” The point is not that Buddhism is particularly violence inducing. Millions of Buddhists lead peaceful lives. But if we think of Buddhism as a religion free of blood, we deceive ourselves, and we will overlook Buddhist-perpetrated violence—particularly when targeted against Muslims.
The 2016 Martin Scorsese film Silence draws attention to another counterintuitive reality. We tend to romanticize traditional Eastern religions. But Silence gave voice to the persecution of Christians (European-origin and Japanese) at the hands of the Shinto-Buddhist government in seventeenth-century Japan. Tens of thousands of Christians were executed in ways so atrocious that martyr accounts struggled to describe them.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict will give most of us pause before we declare the Jewish record violence-free. So, was Bertrand Russell right? Can we safely conclude that slaying the dragon of religion would usher in the golden age of peace?
Communist Dream, Communist Nightmare
Jesus’s championing of the poor and oppressed has rung loud through the centuries. He claimed he had come “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), and the first Christians took this very seriously. Goods were held in common. Those who owned land and houses sold them, and the money was distributed to those in need (Acts 4:32–35). By the fourth century, Christians had invented hospitals, established welfare systems, and cared for the needy.
Karl Marx he saw how far supposedly Christian countries had fallen short of the biblical promise. He concluded that Christianity was not a key to release the poor but a drug to tranquilize them. “Religion,” he wrote, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.” Early Writings, 244.
Sixty-one million people killed in the former Soviet Union. Thirty-five million slaughtered in the People’s Republic of China. Not to mention human rights abuses perpetrated by smaller Communist states like Romania, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, and so on.
R. J. Rummel comments:
Of all religions, secular and otherwise, that of Marxism has been by far the bloodiest. . . . Marxism has meant bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal prison camps and murderous forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and fraudulent show trials, outright mass murder and genocide. “The Killing Machine that is Marxism,” WND, Dec 5, 2004.
Let’s think about the Holocaust for a moment. This genocide emanated from a country that had been majority “Christian” (Lutherans) for centuries. If the evils of Communism are a blot on atheism, were the evils of the Nazis a Christian stain?
Claiming to guard Germany from atheistic Communism, he invoked God in his earliest speeches and declared in Mein Kampf, “I believe to-day that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.” Pg 38.
In 1933, shortly after assuming power, he oversaw the signing of a Concordat between the Vatican and the German Reich that ostensibly protected church freedoms and interests. Hitler worked to harness the power of religion for his own ends. But for all the ways in which Christians failed to oppose Hitler’s devastating rise, the religion he harnessed was not Christianity. According to Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth movement, “the destruction of Christianity was explicitly recognized as a purpose of the National Socialist movement.” “Word for Word / The Case Against the Nazis; How Hitler’s Forces Planned to Destroy German Christianity,” New York Times, Jan 13, 2002.
The Nazis endorsed what they called “Positive Christianity,” changing the Bible to fit their ends. First, Jesus was rebranded as Aryan. Nazi-era Bibles removed the Old Testament and edited the Gospels to purge references to Jesus’s Jewishness, his missional prioritization of the Israelites, and his fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture. Nazis edited New Testament texts in other ways to align with their ideology. For instance, Jesus’s world-changing Sermon on the Mount was purged of deep compassion for the weak and made militaristic. The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, pg. 106-110.
Hitler Youth were taught prayers resembling the Lord’s Prayer, but addressed to the Führer:
Adolf Hitler, you are our great Führer.
Thy name makes the enemy tremble.
Thy Third Reich comes, thy will alone is law upon the earth.
Let us hear daily thy voice and order us by thy leadership, for we will obey to the end and even with our lives.
We praise thee! Hail Hitler! Hitler Youth, 1922-1945: An Illustrated History, pg 87.
Anti-Semitism was stoked by Martin Luther’s intense disappointment that the Protestant Reformation had not brought about the massive turning to Jesus of the Jews that he had hoped for. This mentality among Germans like Lutherans who claimed to be Christian made the increasing victimization of Jews easy to swallow.
Hitler came to power three years after Russell had declared that “religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment.” But if Hitler spawned a new religion to support his racist ideology, he also sought to justify it by science. He argued in Mein Kampf:
If Nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such a case all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile. Pg 125.
In Hitler’s view, the Aryan race was simply superior, and maintaining racial purity was an evolutionary ethic:
The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature. Only the born weakling can look upon this principle as cruel, and if he does so it is merely because he is of a feebler nature and narrower mind; for if such a law did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all. Pg 125.
One of Hitler’s strongest intellectual influences was nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche believed that God had been declared functionally dead by the Enlightenment rationalism. In Twilight of the Idols, he wrote, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident. . . . By breaking one main concept out of [Christianity], the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” The Portable Nietzsche, 504-505.
What about Democracy?
Perhaps the answer is simply the establishment of liberal democracy. Liberal democracy has proved to be correlated with a range of goods. As Pinker remarks, democracies “have higher rates of growth, fewer wars and genocides, healthier and better-educated citizens, and virtually no famines.” Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, pg 200.
To us in the West today, democracy seems to be a self-evident good, as native to modernity as science or the Internet. There are two problems with this view.
First, we forget Christianity’s relationship with the growth and spread of democracy. This road has been neither straight nor smooth. Christians have both helped to cultivate democratic ideals of equality and perpetuated repressive ideas of statism and elitism. We must not romanticize a complex past. Yet the biblical ethic of human equality regardless of status, its insistence that leaders are servants, and the Bible’s realistic view of human nature have enabled countries whose public soil has been tilled by Christianity to embrace the distribution of power that democracy represents.
The link between Christianity and democracy is evident beyond the West. Political scientist Robert Woodberry wrote that the historic prevalence of Protestant missionaries “explains about half the variation in democracy in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania and removes the impact of most variables that dominate current statistical research.” “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review, 2012, pg 244.
Missionaries have been “a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.” Pg 244.
The second factor we forget when we perceive liberal democracy as the natural form of government is its questionable compatibility with the second most widespread belief system - Islam. Islamic Shariah Law prescribes a political structure and set of laws that are hard to wed to democracy. In 2017, only six of the fifty-seven member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation were deemed democracies by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
In countries where leaders implement Sharia law, it is rather hard to establish liberal democracies.
Democracy does not just happen, nor is its spread inevitable. To hatch and survive, democracy must be nested in the right philosophical foundations. Countries where Christian belief and practice have declined still cling to a Christian philosophical heritage that demands equal human value, religious liberty, and care for the poor. Even in India, the democratic model was drawn from a tradition of British liberalism and American models, which in turn rested on their Christian heritage. Whatever our beliefs about Jesus, if we long for the global spread of democracy, the spread of Christianity—not least its ascendency in China—may be our best hope.
The Deeper Problem
But this brings us back to the problem diagnosed by Marx: the failure of Christians to deliver on the New Testament promise. Why did the Crusaders indulge in unnecessary slaughter? Why did so many German churches support Hitler? How did majority-Christian America embrace slavery?
First, we cannot assume that everyone who identifies as a Christian authentically is one. Second, the Bible teaches us to expect moral failure from Christians.
The Central Violence of the Christian Faith
Staked at the heart of Christianity is a symbol of extreme violence—the brutal, torturous, state-sponsored execution of an innocent man. At the cross, the most powerful man who ever lived submitted to the most brutal death ever died, to save the powerless. Christianity does not glorify violence. It humiliates it.
Our most fundamental problem is not lack of education or democracy or opportunity but the gruesome reality the Bible calls sin. The strange claim of Jesus’s resurrection is that it offers us hope that evil will not ultimately triumph, and that anyone who gives up his or her life to follow Christ will find it.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Evangelicals without the Blowhards,” Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and human rights activist Nicholas Kristof writes: “Go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.” New York Times, June 31, 2017.
Does religion cause violence? It certainly can. But millions of people are driven by their faith to love and serve others. And Christianity, in particular, has served as a fertilizer for democracy, a motivation for justice, and a mandate for healing. The #MeTooMovement, which pushes for respect for women, and the Black Lives Matter movement, to the extent it supports equality for blacks, will find friends and supporters among Christians. If we think the world would be less violent without Christianity, we may need to check our facts.
Next month: “How Can You Take the Bible Literally?”