Violence in The Name of Jesus

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.

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3 thoughts on “Violence in The Name of Jesus

  1. There is some speculation as to how non violent the historical Jesus actually was…remember, a substantial portion of his story is entirely absent from the bible. Hailed by his followers as the “messiah” his emergence almost certainly has its roots within the movement of Messianic Judaism, which was prevalent at the time. This form of Judaism was often violent and combative, as well as being decidedly anti Roman. The Romans, at the time, were in effect circling the walls of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans, it fell to a certain Vespasian, a general who had just wiped out the Druids and all of their records. Much speculation exists that the peaceful Jesus we have all come to love was actually a fabrication designed to subvert religious culture in the most pro Roman way possible.

    If that be the case, everyone might not be quite as un Christ like as you think.

    Good write. Good point.

    1. You are correct in stating that religious violence was a part of Jewish culture in Jesus’ day. But so was non-violent resistance. Josephus recounts two non-violent protests by the Jews in Jerusalem that proved effective in the very decade that Jesus began his ministry. In one, protesting against Pilate’s efforts to abolish Jewish practice in Jerusalem by setting up Roman effigies, the Jews petitioned Pilate to remove the effigies for six days. Pilate had his soldiers surround the Jews, and gave the command for them to draw their swords. All of the protestors fell to the ground exposing their necks, willing to die rather than let their law be trampled by Rome. Impressed, Pilate commanded that the effigies be removed. Again, Emperor Gaius Calligula entered Jerusalem and commissioned a statue to be erected at the entrance to the Temple to solicit worship of himself. In general protest, the Jews quit working their fields for more than a month, stating they were willing to risk the lives of their children, wives, and selves rather than let this abomination occur. Moved by their non-violent protest, Petronius, the legate of Syria, asked Emperor Calligula himself to de-commission the project. He did.
      There is no evidence whatsoever that the Gospels are pro-Roman – the opening sentence of Mark is our first indication: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Gospel was the Roman Empire’s word for news of a great victory in battle. Caesar was called the ‘son of God’. To call Jesus the ‘Son of God’ in tandem with using the word ‘gospel’ at the beginning of the Gospel indicate the anti-Roman and incredibly political nature of the Gospel, and indeed all of the Gospels. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder is a good introduction to a new way of seeing Jesus. You should check it out.

  2. As a whole, the Jews were a fairly warlike bunch of folks…not much has changed. The movement known as Messianic Judaism was even moreso this way and it is from people who subscribed to the messianic prophecies that Jesus arose. Remember, it was the temple itself that incited Jesus to rend clothes and overturn tables. This echoes the supposed conflict between the Priest hood and the messianics just prior to the second and final time the Romans trashed the temple.

    You don’t have to look hard in the New Testament to find pro Roman sentiment, especially when it comes to the works of Paul regarding slavery, but it does exist in the Gospels. “Render unto Caeser” comes to mind right off, although I realize many interpretations exist for this passage.

    I’m not at all arguing the point of your post. I, too, have a lot of friends who were bothered by, from what I saw, the Fox News’ analysis of what was said, which was likely one sided. The speech itself made a good point about religious tolerance and how no religion should point the finger at another when it comes to atrocities…except for maybe the Buddhists…but I could be wrong about that.

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