I have a lot of friends who were perturbed (I would use disturbed, but perturbed is the right word) by President Obama’s speech at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast. They were perturbed that he would have the gall to caution ‘us’ (meaning Christians) not to get on our high horse in regards to violence in the name of Islam, as we have our fair share of religious violence in our history. He cited the Crusades, which for many Christians who want to keep from addressing the log in our own eye and only see the log in Islam’s eye (to call it a speck would be to make too light of current world issues), is tantamount to trying to equate apples to oranges. Because, still for many Christians, Islam was much to blame for the Crusades, and the Christians were only defending themselves, they say. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the fact that any violence done by Christians is anti-Christ.
But, this is not the only problem.
The other problem is that the Crusades are hardly the only historical example of violence done in the name of Jesus by Christians. The Crusades are a distant memory for all of us, Muslims and Christians. One doesn’t have to harken back to the 12th-14th centuries to find examples of anti-Muslim Christian violence. We really only need to go back to the 1990s, if not more recently to anti-Muslim violence in the form of what is now called ‘hate crime’.
In the 1990s in Bosnia, Christian militias massacred tens of thousands of Muslims in the Bosnian/Serbian ‘war’. “Metropolitan Niklaj, the highest-ranking church official in Bosnia, has publicly endorsed the architects of the ethnic-cleansing policy as followers of ‘the hard road of Christ,’ for example, and ‘Serbian priests have blessed militias on their return from kill-and-plunder expeditions’” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 318). Ethnic cleansing in the name of Christ? Surely we can avoid taking responsibility for these horrors simply by claiming that the killers ‘weren’t really Christians’, right? I mean, Christians don’t do things like this.
Or do they?
Again in the 1990s, another mass-genocide occurred in Rwanda. Though not an example of Christian on Muslim violence, it’s still an example that deserves a bit of self-reflection. A seemingly tribal dispute (between tribes that were created by colonialism, not by Rwandans themselves) turned into somewhere between 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis being massacred by their rival (and underdog) Hutu neighbors. Rwanda was, at the time, touted as a missionary success story, with the mass population of Rwanda, both Tutsis and Hutus being converted to Christianity. But instead of following the way of Christ, many Christian Hutus, including priests, masterminded and carried out the slaughter of Tutsis within the walls of their own churches, where Tutsis gathered seeking a safe-haven. Not only were the perpetrators themselves largely Christian, but the very fact that these tribal distinctions existed was a direct result of Christian colonial influence. But, Christians don’t do things like this.
We could give the example of World War II as well, with the Christians of Germany largely remaining silent (and therefore being complicit) in the mass-genocide of Jews, Pols, homosexuals, and mentally/physically disabled people. Or, on the flip-side, the Catholic pilot who dropped the nuclear bomb on the then largely Catholic Nagasaki, Japan, whose operation was blessed by a Catholic priest, should give us the reason to pause and reflect.
As I read about much of this today, I began thinking about how the Church and individual Christians have largely ignored Jesus’ ethic of non-violence. This makes us hypocritical on two fronts: First, we are hypocritical when we denounce Muslim violence today as ‘barbaric’ and ‘unthinkable’. When we do this, we deny our human propensity towards violence, and our own history of doing the same to others. Second, we are hypocritical in that we also think that there is such a thing as justifiable violence – that somehow we imagine that Jesus would have us kill our enemies in the name of justice.
The crazy thing is, this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught, both about violence and justice. Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us. “How can I kill the one’s I’m supposed to love? My enemies are men like me” sang prophetic/justice artist Derek Webb. Jesus tells us that God shows mercy on the righteous and the unrighteous, and that following God’s lead is the path to perfect justice (Matt. 5:43-48). Things can only be set to right by our willingness to figure out what it means to love the evil out of our enemies, overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Richard Hays wrote, “One reason that the world finds the New Testament’s message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless. On the question of violence, the church is deeply compromised and committed to nationalism, violence, and idolatry” (343). This is the painful truth. We don’t believe that peacemaking actually works in practice because we have compromised our allegiance to the Savior of the world with allegiance to our families, our countries, and our base-sensibilities.
God, forgive us.
Walk on the pathway of peace by creatively loving the one whom you perceive to be your enemy. Put on peace this Lenten season.