I’ve been thinking about what you said at breakfast, and several lights have gone off in my head as I’ve been thinking. The real issue between us regarding Christianity is not moral or philosophical…it’s more historical than anything else, and political. And this fits in with everything I’ve been studying and thinking lately. So let me see if I can clarify the issue a bit.
Your contention is that “religion divides and causes violence, so why would I want to be a part of that?” There’s three things that could be said in response.
1) The first point is that “religion” is a pretty unhelpful term. In some sense, almost anything is a “religion,” in the sense of an ideology that causes people to act in a certain way. Atheism can be a religion. Even agnosticism, if held tenaciously, can be a sort of religion. The Enlightenment taught a religion of human autonomy and autonomous reason. But that’s a bit beside the point. Even with the organized, historic religions, there are many many differences (incidentally, this is where I disagree a bit with the book I just lent you), and to make an accusation against all of them together is like saying, “You know, I can’t stand food—food is evil, because it makes people sick.” In our present day, and historically since its foundation, Islam has tended to be by far the most violent, and the most eager to use war to succeed. An accusation against Islam is one that Christianity would completely agree with, so you can’t use Islam’s faults as a critique of Christianity. Of course, Christianity has some violence to answer for as well, which I’ll get to, but I think it’s important to be honest and make proper distinctions in your accusations.
2) History is really a large part of our disagreement. Many, perhaps including you, seem to think that history is an open book, with easily known facts, and trends that are easily understood. But anyone who really studies history knows that history is often as opaque as philosophy, and far messier, with different theories and interpretations going in and out of style all the time. So you feel content to appeal to history as a justification for your claim about religion, as if it’s that simple. But what you’re really appealing to is a particular version, a particular story of history, a story that many historians, I know, would disagree with. Of course, perhaps your story is right, but it’s important to realize that it is not self-evidently right, and there are other narratives which might prove far more compelling.
On my reading of history, your claim is just plain wrong. Here’s the other side of the story: for a very long time, you had various nations and tribes, each with their own sets of gods, making war on one another because they believed their gods would give them success over others. (At this time there was no distinction between religion and politics.) When Christianity came in, it preached a God who ruled over all nations, and hence, it made no sense for one nation to go to war against another in his name. It made possible for the first time the idea of many nations living together peacefully. Now, I don’t say it always lived out this idea, but in previous paganism, this wouldn’t have made sense—the gods were always fighting, so the nations had to as well. Of course, at the time of Christianity, there was a rival notion of peace being preached, that of the Roman Empire, which promised to allow all religions and unite all in peace. The only price they had to pay was slavery, and ruthless punishment if they disobeyed. So the Roman Empire brought peace within its bounds, but at the cost of great violence to create and maintain it. When Christianity came in, preaching and promising peace, it did it by serving. In medieval times, there were of course still wars going on, even between Christian nations, but more often than not, the Church intervened to force them to make peace, rather than to shed blood. It is a historical fact that Church authorities were usually the leaders in making peace treaties, though they made their mistakes as well. When Christianity divided after the Reformation, civil governments promised to pick up the slack and take over as the uniters of society. This they have tried to do for the last four hundred years. (The Enlightenment also tried to propose universal reason as the uniter of society and the solution to all differences and violence, however, it ran into the problem that different people have different ideas of reason, which turns out not to be universal, and how to persuade those who disagree? Ultimately, the Enlightenment types had to embrace the violence of revolution and the aid of the state to accomplish its goals. The French Revolution, and later, under a modified ideology of the Russian Revolution followed this pattern, and neither came close to the success they dreamed of.) What has happened then is a return to the Roman methodology—unity and peace through force and conquest. Hence the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, Soviet expansionism, etc. (As I said, Hitler killed more each day, probably each hour, than the Inquisition did in its entire history) Curiously, you blame precisely this—the attempt to force agreement through conquest—on religion, when it is precisely post-religious societies that have sought this kind of unifying mechanism.
3) The third point to make is that, yes, indeed, Christianity has much to answer for. I believe the narrative I just gave is substantially correct, and that Christianity has prevented far more wars than it has caused, but even so, we have a lot to answer for, and we come to the discussion table red-handed. However, this is not a damning criticism, if it can be proved that those who resorted to violence in the name of Christianity were clearly misunderstanding their faith. Everyone makes this sort of defense—Marxists can argue that Stalin didn’t get Marx right, and that’s why he did all those horrible things. If someone said to you, “Look how your daughter has gone off and become a fundamentalist—what’s wrong with your teaching?”) you would protest that it was precisely against what you had raised her to be that she went off and became a fundamentalist. You should at least be open to the possibility that the violence done in the name of Christianity has been a misuse of the name of Christianity. I do not wish to disown any of my Christian brothers throughout history, but many of them do need to be rebuked and called to look more closely at the content of their faith, and many of them have given Christianity a bad name.
I could attempt to prove that Christianity properly understood is innocent of your charge by examining historical counterexamples, but I want to go right to the heart. In our charter, our guidebook, our constitution to which we are all committed, the message is clear: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”—in other words, if someone really needs punishing (and occasionally, I think you will agree, people do), God will decide, but that’s not our job. Our job is to show love and mercy. James tells us “True religion in the sight of God is to visit widows and orphans in their distress,” and when Jesus is asked if he is truly the Messiah he proves his credentials by answering “Go and tell John the things that you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them.”
Just to pick from one of the hymns we sang in church this morning (actually from the Psalms):
“The Father to the fatherless, / Defence of widows in distress, / Is in His habitation. / He in the goodness of His grace / Gives lonely ones a dwelling place; / He grants them consolation. / He leads the captive out to see / The joys of newfound liberty / For bounteous is God’s mercy.”
What is the gospel? Paul says, “How beautiful are the feet of he who brings the gospel of peace,” and later says that Christ “came and preached peace to those that are far off, and peace to those that are near,” that “he made both one, abolishing the enmity, thus making peace.”
In other words, I think Christianity, far from being the cause of violence is the only tool we have in order to stop violence and war, that far from trying to bring others into line by force, Christianity believes in bringing grace to others by showing mercy and service to those who are in need. We have many mistakes in the past to atone for, but we also have much success to build on, and I think an honest look around at history, and Christian ministry in the world today, will prove that point.