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Christianity has holy texts and traditions that promote violence as well as love, and Christian institutions and individuals have acted violently as well as peacefully. The relationship between Christianity and violence is the subject of controversy because some of its teachings advocate peace, love, and compassion, whereas other teachings have been used to justify violence and hatred.
Definition of violence
Abhijit Nayak writes that:
The word "violence" can be defined to extend far beyond pain and shedding blood. It carries the meaning of physical force, violent language, fury and, more importantly, forcible interference.
Terence Fretheim writes:
For many people, ... only physical violence truly qualifies as violence. But, certainly, violence is more than killing people, unless one includes all those words and actions that kill people slowly. The effect of limitation to a “killing fields” perspective is the widespread neglect of many other forms of violence. We must insist that violence also refers to that which is psychologically destructive, that which demeans, damages, or depersonalizes others. In view of these considerations, violence may be defined as follows: any action, verbal or nonverbal, oral or written, physical or psychical, active or passive, public or private, individual or institutional/societal, human or divine, in whatever degree of intensity, that abuses, violates, injures, or kills. Some of the most pervasive and most dangerous forms of violence are those that are often hidden from view (against women and children, especially); just beneath the surface in many of our homes, churches, and communities is abuse enough to freeze the blood. Moreover, many forms of systemic violence often slip past our attention because they are so much a part of the infrastructure of life (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism).
Heitman and Hagan identify the Inquisition, Crusades, Wars of Religion and antisemitism as being "among the most notorious examples of Christian violence". To this list, J. Denny Weaver adds, "warrior popes, support for capital punishment, corporal punishment under the guise of 'spare the rod and spoil the child,' justifications of slavery, world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity, the systemic violence of women subjected to men." Weaver employs a broader definition of violence that extends the meaning of the word to cover "harm or damage", not just physical violence per se. Thus, under his definition, Christian violence includes "forms of systemic violence such as poverty, racism, and sexism."
Religion and violence
It has been argued by some that all religions in some way promote violence. Religion also has been used as justification for violence that is motivated by personal or cultural reasons, but even in that case, "hooks" that justify violence can be identified in those religions.
Religious critic Christopher Hitchens has argued that all religions promote violence; namely that religions have sometimes used war, violence, and terrorism to promote their religious goals, that religious leaders have contributed to secular wars and terrorism by endorsing or supporting the violence, and that religious fervor has been exploited by secular leaders to support war and terrorism.
Regina Schwartz, scholar of religion and English, has written that religions that promote exclusivity inevitably foster violence against those who are considered outsiders.
Miroslav Volf says that his religion, Christianity, is intrinsically nonviolent, but has suffered from a "confusion of loyalties". He proposes that "rather than the character of the Christian faith itself, a better explanation of why Christian churches are either impotent in the face of violent conflicts or actively participate in them derives from the proclivities of its adherents which are at odds with the character of the Christian faith." He believes that "(although) explicitly giving ultimate allegiance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many Christians in fact seem to have an overriding commitment to their respective cultures and ethnic groups."
John Teehan says that "this approach to religious violence may be understandable but it is ultimately untenable and prevents us from gaining any useful insight into either religion or religious violence." He takes the position that "violence done in the name of religion is not a perversion of religious belief... but flows naturally from the moral logic inherent in many religious systems, particularly monotheistic religions..." However, Teehan acknowledges that "religions are also powerful sources of morality." He asserts that "religious morality and religious violence both spring from the same source, and this is the evolutionary psychology underlying religious ethics."
Bible and violence
Ra'anan S. Boustan states that "(v)iolence can be found throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament." Philip Jenkins describes the Bible as overflowing with "texts of terror".
Among common examples of violence in Christianity, J. Denny Weaver lists "(the) crusades, the multiple blessings of wars, warrior popes, support for capital punishment, corporal punishment under the guise of 'spare the rod and spoil the child,' justifications of slavery, world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity, the systemic violence of women subjected to men". In the view of many historians, the Constantinian shift turned Christianity from a persecuted into a persecuting religion.
Miroslav Volf has identified the intervention of a "new creation", as in the Second Coming, as a particular aspect of Christianity that generates violence. Writing about the latter, Volf says: "Beginning at least with Constantine's conversion, the followers of the Crucified have perpetrated gruesome acts of violence under the sign of the cross. Over the centuries, the seasons of Lent and Holy Week were, for the Jews, times of fear and trepidation; Christians have perpetrated some of the worst pogroms as they remembered the crucifixion of Christ, for which they blamed the Jews. Muslims also associate the cross with violence; crusaders' rampages were undertaken under the sign of the cross."
The statement attributed to Jesus "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword" has been interpreted by some as a call to arms for Christians. Mark Juergensmeyer argues that "despite its central tenets of love and peace, Christianity—like most traditions—has always had a violent side. The bloody history of the tradition has provided images as disturbing as those provided by Islam or Sikhism, and violent conflict is vividly portrayed in the Bible. This history and these biblical images have provided the raw material for theologically justifying the violence of contemporary Christian groups. For example, attacks on abortion clinics have been viewed not only as assaults on a practice that Christians regard as immoral, but also as skirmishes in a grand confrontation between forces of evil and good that has social and political implications.":19–20, sometimes referred to as Spiritual warfare.
Historically, according to René Girard, Christianity embraced violence when it became the state religion of Rome: "Beginning with Constantine, Christianity triumphed at the level of the state and soon began to cloak with its authority persecutions similar to those in which the early Christians were victims."
The Biblical account of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho has been used to justify genocidal Holy war, including war waged on one Christian sect by another.:3 Chirot also interprets 1 Samuel 15:1-3 as "the sentiment, so clearly expressed, that because a historical wrong was committed, justice demands genocidal retribution.":7–8 Just war theory, on the other hand, is a doctrine of military ethics of Roman philosophical and Catholic origin studied by moral theologians, ethicists, and international policy makers, that holds that a conflict can and ought to meet the criteria of philosophical, religious or political justice, provided it follows certain conditions.
In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: "'The knight of Christ may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently; for he serves Christ when he strikes, and saves himself when he falls.... When he inflicts death, it is to Christ's profit, and when he suffers death, it is his own gain."
In Ulrich Luz's formulation; "After Constantine, the Christians too had a responsibility for war and peace. Already Celsus asked bitterly whether Christians, by aloofness from society, wanted to increase the political power of wild and lawless barbarians. His question constituted a new actuality; from now on, Christians and churches had to choose between the testimony of the gospel, which included renunciation of violence, and responsible participation in political power, which was understood as an act of love toward the world." Augustine's Epistle to Marcellinus (Ep 138) is the most influential example of the "new type of interpretation."
Just war theorists combine both a moral abhorrence towards war with a readiness to accept that war may sometimes be necessary. The criteria of the just war tradition act as an aid to determining whether resorting to arms is morally permissible. Just War theories are attempts "to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of organized armed forces"; they attempt "to conceive of how the use of arms might be restrained, made more humane, and ultimately directed towards the aim of establishing lasting peace and justice."
The just war tradition addresses the morality of the use of force in two parts: when it is right to resort to armed force (the concern of jus ad bellum) and what is acceptable in using such force (the concern of jus in bello). In more recent years, a third category — jus post bellum — has been added, which governs the justice of war termination and peace agreements, as well as the prosecution of war criminals.
The concept of justification for war under certain conditions goes back at least to Cicero. However its importance is connected to Christian medieval theory beginning from Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. According to Jared Diamond, Saint Augustine played a critical role in delineating Christian thinking about what constitutes a just war, and about how to reconcile Christian teachings of peace with the need for war in certain situations.
Jonathan Riley Smith writes,
The consensus among Christians on the use of violence has changed radically since the crusades were fought. The just war theory prevailing for most of the last two centuries — that violence is an evil which can in certain situations be condoned as the lesser of evils — is relatively young. Although it has inherited some elements (the criteria of legitimate authority, just cause, right intention) from the older war theory that first evolved around a.d. 400, it has rejected two premises that underpinned all medieval just wars, including crusades: first, that violence could be employed on behalf of Christ's intentions for mankind and could even be directly authorized by him; and second, that it was a morally neutral force which drew whatever ethical coloring it had from the intentions of the perpetrators.
W.E. Addis et al. have written that Christianity has always had a place for violence: "There have been sects, notably the Quakers, which have denied altogether the lawfulness of war, partly because they believe it to be prohibited by Christ (Mt. v. 39, etc), partly on humanitarian grounds. On the Scriptural ground they are easily refuted; the case of the soldiers instructed by in their duties by St. John the Baptist, and that of the military men whom Christ and His Apostles loved and familiarly conversed with (Lk 3:14, Acts 10, Mt 8:5), without a word to imply that their calling was unlawful, sufficiently prove the point."
Christian terrorism' comprises terrorist acts by groups or individuals who use Christian motivations or goals for their actions. As with other forms of religious terrorism, Christian terrorists have relied on interpretations of the tenets of faith – in this case, the Bible. Such groups have cited Old Testament and New Testament scriptures to justify violence and killing or to seek to bring about the "end times" described in the New Testament.
After the Constantinian shift, Christianity became entangled with government. While anthropologists have shown that throughout history the relationship between religion and politics has been complex, there is no doubt that religious institutions, including Christian ones, have been used coercively by governments, and have themselves used coercion. Examples include: during the Christian persecution of paganism under Theodosius I, forced conversions of pagan tribes in medieval Europe, the Inquisition, including its manifestations in Goa, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain, forced conversion of indigenous children in North American and Australia, and, since 1992, against Hindus in Northeast India.
Support of slavery
Early Christianity variously opposed, accepted, or ignored slavery. The early Christian perspectives of slavery were formed in the contexts of Christianity's roots in Judaism, and as part of the wider culture of the Roman Empire. Both the Old and New Testaments recognize that the institution of slavery existed.
The earliest surviving Christian teachings about slavery are from Paul the Apostle, who frequently referred to himself as a "Slave of Christ", perhaps implying that he was a slave and Jesus was his master, although it may have just been an expression. Paul did not renounce the institution of slavery. Conversely, he taught that Christian slaves ought to serve their masters wholeheartedly.
Nearly all Christian leaders before the late 17th century recognised slavery, within specific Biblical limitations, as consistent with Christian theology. In early Medieval times, the Church discouraged slavery throughout Europe, largely eliminating it. That changed in 1452, when Pope Nicholas V instituted the hereditary slavery of captured Muslims and pagans, regarding all non-Christians as "enemy of christ."
Genesis 9:25-27, the Curse of Ham, says: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem." This verse has been used to justify racialized slavery, since "Christians and even some Muslims eventually identified Ham's descendents as black Africans". Anthony Pagden argued that "This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find an unassailable argument—rooted in whatever the most persuasive contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural science—why one part of the human race should live in perpetual indebtedness to another."
Rodney Stark makes the argument in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, that Christianity helped to end slavery worldwide, as does Lamin Sanneh in Abolitionists Abroad. These authors point out that Christians who viewed slavery as wrong on the basis of their religious convictions spearheaded abolitionism, and many of the early campaigners for the abolition of slavery were driven by their Christian faith and a desire to realize their view that all people are equal under God.
Many modern Christians are united in the condemnation of slavery as wrong and contrary to God's will. Only peripheral groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other Christian hate groups on the racist fringes of the Christian Reconstructionist and Christian Identity movements advocate the reinstitution of slavery. Full adherents to reconstructionism are few and marginalized among conservative Christians. With these exceptions, all Christian faith groups now condemn slavery, and see the practice as incompatible with basic Christian principles.
Violence against Jews
A strain of hostility among Christians to Judaism and the Jewish people developed from the early years of Christianity and persisted over the ensuing centuries, driven by numerous factors including theological differences, the Christian drive for converts decreed by the Great Commission, misunderstanding of Jewish beliefs and practices, and a perceived Jewish hostility toward Christians, and culminated in the Holocaust, which has driven many within Christianity to reflect on the relationship between theology, practices, and that genocide.
These attitudes were reinforced in Christian preaching, art and popular teaching over the centuries containing contempt for Jews.
Modern Antisemitism has been described as primarily hatred against Jews as a race with its modern expression rooted in 18th century racial theories, while anti-Judaism is described as hostility to Jewish religion, but in Western Christianity it effectively merged into antisemitism during the 12th century.
Christian opposition to violence
In the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians refused to engage in military combat. In fact, there were a number of famous examples of soldiers who became Christians and refused to engage in combat afterward. They were subsequently executed for their refusal to fight. The commitment to pacifism and rejection of military service is attributed by Allman and Allman to two principles: "(1) the use of force (violence) was seen as antithetical to Jesus' teachings and service in the Roman military required worship of the emperor as a god which was a form of idolatry."
In the 3rd century, Origen wrote: "Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength." Clement of Alexandria wrote: "Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins." Tertullian argued forcefully against all forms of violence, considering abortion, warfare and even judicial death penalties to be forms of murder.
- Moral absolutism
- Religious intolerance
- Medieval inquisition
- Persecution of traditional African religion
- Christianity and capital punishment
- Christians in the military
- Christianity and domestic violence
- God's Army (revolutionary group)
- Iron Guard
- Islam and violence
- Islamic terrorism
- Jewish terrorism
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Mormonism and violence
- National-Christian Defense League
- Religious hate groups
- Religious terrorism
- Selengut, Charles (2008-04-28). Sacred fury: understanding religious violence. p. 1.
- Avalos, Hector (2005). Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
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- International encyclopedia of violence research, Volume 2. Springer. 2003.
J. Denny Weaver (2001). "Violence in Christian Theology". Cross Currents. Retrieved 2010-10-27.
I am using broad definitions of the terms "violence" and "nonviolence." "Violence" means harm or damage, which obviously includes the direct violence of killing -- in war, capital punishment, murder -- but also covers the range of forms of systemic violence such as poverty, racism, and sexism. "Nonviolence" also covers a spectrum of attitudes and actions, from the classic Mennonite idea of passive nonresistance through active nonviolence and nonviolent resistance that would include various kinds of social action, confrontations and posing of alternatives that do not do bodily harm or injury.
- Hitchens, Christopher (2007). God is not Great. Twelve.
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- The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism By Regina M. Schwartz. University of Chicago Press. 1998.
- Volf, Miroslav. "The Social Meaning of Reconciliation". Retrieved 2010-11-17.
- Teehan, John (2010). In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 145–147.
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- see e.g.: John Coffey, Persecution and Toleration on Protestant England 1558-1689, 2000, p.22
- Volf 2008, p. 13
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- Daniel Chirot. Why Some Wars Become Genocidal and Others Don't. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.
- http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/ The first philosophers of just war were Aristotle and Cicero, and the first theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
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- Christians and War: Thomas Aquinas refines the "Just War" Theory
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- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery ISBN 978-0-691-11436-1 (2003)
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- Origen: Contra Celsus, Book 7 (Roberts-Donaldson)
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- "Members of several small Christian sects who try to literally follow the precepts of Jesus Christ have refused to participate in military service in many nations and have been willing to suffer the criminal or civil penalties that followed."Encyclopædia Britannica 2004 CD Rom Edition — Pacifism.
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