How Should Christians Think About Religious Violence?

Religious violence is a terrible thing. Chances are high that you’d agree, especially in the West, especially if you’re reading this. But recently, in a video that has made the rounds online, some American college students give us a different impression.

The video is of a reporter hanging out in the commons area of a college campus, holding a clipboard and trying to get students to sign a petition in support for ISIS. The point of the video, I think, is to make a statement about our general ignorance. But then there is a dialogue with one student who seems to defend ISIS, not because she is Muslim, but because, in her words, “Every religion has their moments. Don’t get me started on the Christians, on what they did to the non-believers once upon a time.”

“Every religion has their moments.” As misguided as this response is, I can’t imagine anything more consistent with the pluralist perspective of our secular society. This logic basically excuses ISIS by the fact that so-called Christians have also done terrible things in history. And that statement — that fact — opens the door to the greater issue of injustices committed by the church at large over the past 2,000 years.

Without a doubt, injustices committed by the church are an obstacle for many to believe the gospel, and we need to know how to think about them. What do we do about historical violences committed by the church that obstruct our neighbors from putting their faith in Jesus? There are three subquestions that help us: 1) What kind of obstacle does it present? 2) Why did these violences happen? and 3) How do we resolve this problem?

1. What Kind of Obstacle Is It?

The obstacle of injustices committed by Christians is not an intellectual obstacle. What I mean is that the existence of such injustices cannot play a determinative role on the existence of God. God either exists or he doesn’t. Yes, we can certainly stumble and be disturbed by the violence of so-called Christians, but the reality of those violences cannot mean that Jesus is not raised from the dead. He is either raised or he’s not. It is bad logic to say: “So-called followers of Jesus have done terrible things, therefore Jesus is not raised from the dead.”

So this isn’t an intellectual obstacle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real obstacle. We are more than walking brains, you know. We are affectional creatures. Our emotions are just as real as our intellects — and there are people who have damaged emotions when it comes to the gospel. Either they can’t get past the facts of historical violence by so-called Christians, or they themselves have been victims of violence committed by the church. There is a category of real people who feel this way, and while the reality of violence doesn’t determine their unbelief, it at least influences it.

This is a real and serious issue, but I should clarify: It is a real and serious issue when it’s sincere. But there is a whole other group of friends out there, I’m afraid, who use this violence obstacle as a smoke-screen. It can be convenient to hoist up this issue as an obstacle to faith when really people just want to do what they want to do. Religious violence becomes an easy alibi for people who just want to keep God out of their bedrooms. You get what I mean?

I have a nominal Catholic friend who told me that the church had failed him. The abuse scandal was too horrible, and therefore, it caused him to lose his faith. And while I want to be sensitive here, and show even more repulsion than him about this scandal, it is hard to believe that it made him lose his faith, especially knowing how much he enjoys gambling. We need to be sensitive and honest, but the fact is, religious violence can easily get hoisted up as a big deal by people who aren’t losing any sleep over it.

2. Why Has Violence Happened?

Whatever kind of obstacle it presents, the fact of injustices committed by the church are still there and we need to know why. George Lindbeck’s groundbreaking book, The Nature of Doctrine, might help us. In this book, put simply, Lindbeck focuses on what you say and what you do. His approach is loaded with faults, in my opinion, but he brings an important situation to our attention: 1) We have truth claims; and 2) We act in relation to those truth claims.

The tough questions become what that relationship is like between our doctrine and our doing. According to Lindbeck, words themselves are virtually meaningless and what we do with words — the actions that accompany words — are what really matter. He makes words themselves — our theological positions — a blank coloring page that we’re supposed to fill in with the crayons of our action. Our actions, not our words, are what have the authority, says Lindbeck.

But that’s not quite right. We need to go a step further:

“Yes, there are 1) truth claims; and 2) we act in relation to those truth claims;

But no, how we act out these truth claims is not what determines their meaning.

What is true is true, and it is possible to act in a way that does not correlate to the truth we claim. That last sentence is really important. It is possible for people to espouse a doctrine in word and then act contrary to it in deed. It is possible, in the words of the apostle Paul, for our conduct to not be “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). We don’t determine truth by our actions, the truth convicts us and either says of our action that it is faithful or out of step. We don’t create authority by what we do, what we do is under authority — and sometimes we can be wrong. But why can we be wrong? The short answer here, in the most profound theological terms, is because people are idiots. We are broken, fallible creatures, and we make errors.

“We don’t create authority by what we do; what we do is under authority.”

But the only reason we can call errors errors is because we don’t create authority and meaning, but we are accountable to authority and meaning.

3. How Do We Resolve This Problem?

Because actions matter, and because truth by itself has real authority, it becomes very important that we always hold our actions accountable to what the Bible teaches. Our practices must constantly be checked by our gospel. Which means we must be relentless in understanding our gospel. We must live under the gospel, and focus on the gospel. We should go to sleep thinking about the gospel and wake up thinking about the gospel, and then put gospel in our coffee cups. We eat gospel and breathe gospel and speak gospel and sing gospel and cry gospel and write gospel. We saturate our lives with the gospel. And not so that we get stuck in doctrine alone, or that we become armchair experts in orthodoxy, but so that we make sure the way we live corresponds to the truths we love. We want to walk in the step with the truth of the gospel. And therefore we ask again and again, “What does the gospel say?”

When it comes to religious violence — to sins committed by the church — we can say with authority, based upon our gospel and the words of Jesus, that so-called Christians have been wrong. Jesus told us to put down our swords and trust him, and that is just what he meant.

Do you remember the scene in Matthew 26 when Jesus is arrested? A group of thugs, servants of the high priest as they’re called, arrive in the garden with clubs and swords. They come to arrest Jesus, laying hands on him and seizing him, until one of the disciples draws a sword, swings it, and cuts off a bad guy’s ear. Now, this is the moment. Here is where the whole universe freezes for an instance and everybody’s looking, waiting, wondering: “Okay, here we go, how’s this going to be?” Guns are drawn, tempers are flaring, hearts are racing. How’s this going to go down?

And what does Jesus say?

He says put down your sword (Matthew 26:52).

Cutting into the thick air of that dark morning, stunning the adrenaline that had already started swinging, charting the course for himself and his people, Jesus said these words: Put down your sword. Muhammed didn’t say that. Vishnu didn’t say that. Jesus said that, and that is what he meant, both for his people then, in the middles ages, and now. If Jesus wanted swords to fly, he would have had 12,000 angels on the ground at Gethsemane doing the swinging. All he had to do was say the word (Matthew 26:53). But he didn’t. He said for us to put down our swords, which is our answer to the obstacle of violences committed by so-called Christians. It is wrong. Whether it’s the medieval Crusades or the African slave-trade, they’ve been wrong because Jesus says so.

Rated “R” for a Reason

In an ideal world, our truth claim “put down your sword” would resolve the obstacle of injustices committed by so-called Christians. Because the truth claim has authority in itself, those who act contrary to it are regarded as idiots and dismissed as a reflection of Christianity itself. But it is not an ideal world (for several reasons). And that leads us to a bigger issue in secular society.

Part of the problem with religious violence is the fact that many can’t stomach any connection at all between God and violence. This is what Charles Taylor calls the “anthropological turn.” Basically, it is man-centeredness — believing that God only cares about human flourishing. The common stance in our society is that if there is a God, then he must be all about us. And in a framework like that, there’s no category for wrath, or sacrifice, or violence of any kind.

The problem here, of course, is that although the truth of Christianity forbids our violent actions towards others, the truth of Christianity is still extremely violent. Whereas the secular mindset might wish to completely banish God from anything violent, we believe that God himself was the victim of the most violent act in history. At the center of our faith is God himself, in the man Jesus Christ, being brutalized on a cross in our place. We believe that the world was turned upside down when the back of Jesus was shredded to pieces. We believe that our hope for everlasting joy was secured by the pints of blood that soaked into the ground of Golgotha.

Jesus became a lamb slain for us. That is violent.

But it is not violence as an action by us against the enemy, but by the enemy against our Savior in our place, and then sometimes against us (2 Timothy 3:12). Weapons are wielded, you see, and swords are swung, but Jesus and his people will not be behind these weapons, we will be beneath them.

Jesus told Peter to put his weapon away, and then, in a matter of hours after he said that, weapons were taken up against Jesus and he was crucified for us. And just like Jesus, we never take the lives of others, but we give our lives out of love for others, even if our love is rated “R” for their sake. As Peter would say later about our suffering: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).


Related resources: