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You are here, christianity and violence.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center it was not unusual to hear that the attack “changed everything.” “Everything” is certainly an exaggeration, but 9/11, as the terrorist attack is sometimes called, did change a good many things, including our relation to religion. For the attack, in which more than 3,000 lives were lost and the economic life of the nation was disrupted in a major way, was in part motivated by religion. 

Religion, we were led to conclude, is alive and well today, and is a force not only in private but also in the public lives of people around the globe.

The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence…. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

This is not what the mainstream sociologists of the 20 th century, who followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emil Durkheim, were predicting. Instead of slowly withering away or lodging itself quietly into the privacy of worshipers’ hearts, religion has emerged as an important player on the national and international scenes. It is too early to tell how permanent this resurgence of religion will be. The processes of secularization may well continue, though likely not in the older sense of an overall decline of religious observance, but rather in the newer sense of the diminishing influence of religion in contemporary societies. Nevertheless, religion is presently alive and well on the public scene.

In many people’s minds, the reassertion of religion as a political factor has not been for the good. It seems that the gods have mainly terror on their minds, as the title of Mark Jurgensmeyer’s book on the global rise of religious violence suggests. 1 Among the intellectual elite in the Western cultural milieu the contemporary coupling of religion and violence feeds most decisively on the memories of the wars that plagued Europe from the 1560s to the 1650s, in which religion was “the burning motivation, the one that inspired fanatical devotion and the most vicious hatred.” 2 It was these wars that contributed a great deal to the emergence of secularizing modernity. As did key Enlightenment figures, many contemporaries see religion as a pernicious social ill that needs aggressive treatment rather than a medicine from which cure is expected. Did not the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack appeal to religion as the primary motivating force for their act? In the recent war in the Balkans, did not the Serbs fight for the land on which the holy sites of their religion stood? Is not difference between Catholicism and Protestantism at the heart of the civil war in Northern Ireland? Is not religion a major factor in clashes in India? The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence—at least in the public perception. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

In this essay I will contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and argue that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments. This may seem a bold claim. Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify my thesis. I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and does not continue to be employed to foster violence. Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made. Not only have Christians committed atrocities and engaged in less egregious forms of violence during the course of their long history, but they have also drawn on religious convictions to justify them. Moreover, there are elements in the Christian faith, which, when taken in isolation or when excessively foregrounded, can plausibly be used to legitimize violence. Second, I will not argue that Christianity has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions. I am not sure whether this is or is not the case, and I am not sure how one would go about deciding the issue. 

What I will argue is that at least when it comes to Christianity the cure against religiously induced and legitimized violence is almost exactly the opposite of what an important intellectual current in the West since the Enlightenment has been suggesting. The cure is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion. I don’t mean, of course, that the cure against violence lies in increased religious zeal; blind religious zeal is at the heart of the problem. Instead, it lies in stronger and more intelligent commitment to the faith as faith. In terms of how Christian faith is conceived, my thesis is this: The more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity which serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose content is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be. “Thin” but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; “thick” and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace. 3 This thesis amounts to the claim that approaching the issue of religion and violence by looking at the quantity of religious commitment—more religion, more violence, less religion, less violence—is unsophisticated and mistaken. The most relevant factor is, rather, the quality of religious commitments within a given religious tradition.

I will support the above thesis by countering some influential arguments about the violent character of Christianity. This is only half of what I would need to do to make my thesis plausible, a negative half. The other, positive half would be to show that at Christianity’s heart, and not just at its margins, lie important resources for creating and sustaining a culture of peace. 4 In the past, scholars have argued in a variety of ways that the Christian faith fosters violence. In a representative way I will engage two arguments which, in my estimation, go to the heart of the matter.

Some scholars, like Regina Schwartz in her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism , argue for the Christian faith’s complicity in violence by pointing to the fact that, along with Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a monotheistic religion and therefore, Schwartz argues, an exclusive and violent religion. “Whether as singleness (this God against the others) or totality (this is all the God there is), monotheism abhors, reviles, rejects, and ejects whatever it defines as outside its compass.” 5 Given that the belief in one God “forges identity antithetically,” it issues in a mistaken notion of identity (“we are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them’”) and contributes to violent practice (“we can remain ‘us’ only if we obliterate ‘them’”).

This argument should be taken seriously. And yet it is not clear that an affirmation of divine oneness as such leads to violence. Does not the monotheistic claim to universal truth work also against the tendency to divide people into “us” and “them”? If one accepts the belief in one God, in an important sense everybody is “in,” and everybody is “in” precisely on the same terms. True, “being in on the same terms” may feel like violence if you don’t want to be “in” or you want to be “in” on different terms. But take monotheism away, and the division and violence between “us” and “them” hardly disappears, and if “us” or “them” are religious, they each will appeal to their good to wage war. This is in fact what happens whether religion is monotheistic or tribal. In a polytheistic context violence may reassert itself with even more force, because it will necessarily be justified by locally legitimized or arbitrary preferences, against which, in the absence of a divinity that overarches the parties, there now can be no higher court of appeal. Even if monotheism is taken vaguely and abstractly as belief in one God without further qualification, it is not clear that it is likely to generate more violence than polytheism or atheism.

None of the monotheist religions espouses such vague and abstract monotheism, however. Specifically Christian monotheism contains a further important pressure against violence, especially violence caused by self-enclosed and exclusive identities of the type criticized by Schwartz. For Christian monotheism is of a Trinitarian kind. What difference does Trinitarianism make? 6 One of the socially most important aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity concerns notions of identity. To believe that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is to believe that the identity of the Father, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father’s identity is from the start defined by the Son and the Spirit, and therefore it is not undifferentiated and self-enclosed. One cannot say without qualification that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit because to be the Father means to have the Son and the Spirit present in one. The same holds true, of course, of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father and one another.

Moreover, the divine persons as non-self-enclosed identities are understood by the Christian tradition to form a perfect communion of love. The persons give themselves to each other and receive themselves from each other in love. None has to wrest anything from others, none has to impose anything on others, and none needs to secure himself from the incursions of others. Far from being a life of violence, the life of the divine being is characterized by mutually uncoerced and welcomed generosity.

It would be difficult to argue that such monotheism fosters violence. Instead, it grounds peace here and now in the “transcendental” realm, in the love and peacefulness of the divine being. The argument for inherent violence of Christianity’s monotheism works only if one illegitimately reduces the “thick” religious description of God to naked oneness and then postulates such abstract oneness to be of decisive social significance. I do not dispute that such reduction in fact happens within the Christian community. I do contend, however, that this is a sign that the Christian faith has not been taken seriously enough, rather than that it is inherently violent.

So far I have argued that Christian faith may generate violence in its “thin” but not in its “thick” form—when a “thick” character of divine being’s differentiated and complex identity is reduced to an undifferentiated “One.” But what about the argument that some very “thick” and “concrete” Christian convictions generate violence? Central here are the convictions about the world’s creation and redemption.

It is a basic Christian claim that God created the world. In her influential book Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Ruether starts with the observation that in the Hebrew Bible, the creator is like an artisan working on material outside his own nature. God does so, she argues, by “a combination of male seminal and cultural power (word-act) that shapes it ‘from above’.” 7 In such an account, creation is a result of an imposition of form on formless matter from outside by an alien force. Hence creation is an act of violence.

So what is wrong with this account of creation? Everything—almost. Even if we assume that creation is best described as “forming” pre-existing mate- rial, one would have to argue that this material is “something,” and that it is a specific kind of some- thing, which deserves respect. But it is not clear at all that chaos, which according to this account of creation God formed, is a “something.” And if the chaos were a “something,” why would it not be something analogous to a boulder from which an artisan can fashion a sculpture? For all the sparks flying off his chisel, Michelangelo working on David can hardly be described as perpetrating violence. For he activity of “forming” to do violence, the entity that is formed must possess an integrity of its own that demands respect. If someone were to smash Michelangelo’s David into pieces, this would be an act of violence.

On the whole, however, the Christian tradition has not understood creation as “forming.” Instead, it has underscored that God the creator is not a demiurge working on pre-existing matter; God created ex nihilo , out of nothing. The consequences of this understanding of creation for its putative violent character are significant. As Rowan Williams puts it in On Christian Theology, when we say that God creates we do not mean that God “imposes a definition” but that God “creates an identity.” He continues, “Prior to God’s word there is nothing to impose on.” 8 From this it follows that creation is not exercise of an alien power over something and therefore not an act of violence.

Creation, then, is not a violent act. Indeed, one may even argue that short of having a doctrine of creation, relationships between entities in the world, especially human beings, will be necessarily violent. If identities are not created, then boundaries between identities must be emerging out of interchanges between these entities. And these interchanges themselves must be described as violent, since boundaries, precisely because they are always contested, must be described as arbitrary from a vantage point that transcends either of the contesting entities. Given scarce resources, boundaries will always be the products of power struggles, even if those power struggles take the form of negotiations. Moreover, no appeals for arbitration between the contending parties can be made to something which ultimately stands outside the power struggle.


If creation is not a violent act, Christian convictions about creation do not generate violence—provided, of course, that they are not stripped of their specific texture and reduced to the formula “x imposes order upon y.” But what about the new creation ? What about God’s activity to redeem creation from consequences of sin? Clearly, the new creation is not creatio ex nihilo (out of nothing), but creatio ex vetere (out of old creation), and that “old” and “sinful” creation does possess an integrity of its own (even if it is an integrity in tension with its true character), and can and does assert its will over against God. In redeeming the world, God intervenes into the existing sinful world in order to transform it into a world of perfect love. Is this intervention not violent and does it therefore not generate violence on the part of human beings?

The most radical critique of redemptive divine engagement as violent and violence inducing comes from post-structuralist thinkers. For them, any determinacy of the goal to be achieved by divine trans- formation of this world and any specificity about the agent of transformation already breeds violence. On their account, for what needs to come, in contrast to what is, not to be violent, it must always remain completely other and cannot be expressed as “onto-theological or teleoeschatological program or design.” 9 Any and every Messiah is problematic because by necessity he would exclude something or someone. Hence the only acceptable goal of desirable change is “absolute hospitality,” a posture of welcoming the stranger without any preconditions, just as the only acceptable engagement to achieve it is “radical and interminable, infinite…critique.” 10

“Absolute hospitality” seems generous and peaceful, until one remembers that unrepentant perpetrators and their unhealed victims would then have to sit around the same table and share a common home without adequate attention to the violation that has taken place. The idea ends up too close for comfort to the Nietzschean affirmation of life, in which a sacred “yes” is pronounced to all that is and “But thus I willed it” is said of all that was, with all the small and large horrors of history.11 Absolute hospitality would in no way amount to absence of violence. To the contrary, it would enthrone violence precisely under the guise of non-violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied. Hospitality can be absolute only once the world has been made into a world of love in which each person would be hospitable to all. In the world of injustice, deception, and violence, hospitality can be only conditional—even if the will to hospitality and the offer of hospitality remain unconditional.

Transformation of the world of violence into a world of love cannot take place by means of absolute hospitality. It takes radical change, and not just an act of indiscriminate acceptance, for the world to be made into a world of love. The Christian tradition has tied this change with the coming of the Messiah, the crucified and the resurrected One, whose appearance in glory is still awaited. Is this messianic intervention violent? Does it sanction human violence? The answer is easy when it comes to the Messiah’s first coming. Jesus Christ did not come into the world in order to conquer evildoers through an act of violence, but to die for them in self-giving love and thereby reconcile them to God. The outstretched arms of the suffering body on the cross define the whole of Christ’s mission. He condemned the sin of humanity by taking it upon himself; and by bearing it, he freed humanity from its power and restored their communion with God. Though suffering on the cross is not all Christ did, the cross represents the decisive criterion for how all his work is to be understood. Does the belief in the Crucified generate violence? 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 a time 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 too associate the cross with violence; crusaders’ rampages were undertaken under the sign of the cross.

However, an unbiased reading of the story of Jesus Christ gives no warrant for such perpetration of violence. The account of his death in 1 Peter sums up the witness of the whole New Testament well: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (2:21-24). If there is a danger in the story of the cross in relation to violence, it is the danger that it might teach simply to acquiesce to being mistreated by others, not the danger of inciting one to mistreat others. Whenever violence was perpetrated in the name of the cross, the cross was depleted of its “thick” meaning within the larger story of Jesus Christ and “thinned” down to a symbol of religious belonging and power—and the blood of those who did not belong flowed as Christians transmuted themselves from would-be followers of the Crucified to imitators of those who crucified him.

Finally, what about the Messiah who is still to come in glory? He will come with grace for his fol- lowers. But does not the book of Revelation portray him as a Rider on a white horse whose “eyes are like a flame of fire,” whose robe was “dipped in blood,” from whose “mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down nations” and who is coming to “tread in the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:11-16)? Some New Testament scholars have attempted to re-interpret the Rider so as to make him fit the generally non-violent stance of the New Testament. What is right about such efforts is that in Revelation the martyrs are the true victors so that, paradoxically, the “Beast’s” victory over them is their victory over the “Beast.” In this they mirror Jesus Christ, the slaughtered Lamb, who conquered his enemies precisely by his sacrificial death. 12

Yet, the Rider is not simply the Lamb; he is the Lamb in his function as the final judge. But why is the final judgment necessary? Without it, we would have to presume that all human beings, no matter how deeply steeped in evil they are, will either eventually succumb to the lure of God’s love or, if they don’t, willingly embrace not only the evil they do but the destructive impact of evil upon their own lives. This belief is not much more than a modern superstition, borne out of inability to look without flinching into the “heart of darkness.” True, evil is self-contradictory and, if unchecked, is bound to self-destruct. But evildoers are so much “better” as evildoers, the better they are at knowing how to keep making themselves thrive while wreaking havoc on others. No doubt, goodness can and does overcome evil. But the power of evil rests in great part in the fact that the more one does evil the thicker the shield becomes that protects the evil from being overcome by good. The book of Revelation rightly refuses to operate with the belief that all evil will either be over- come by good or self-destruct. It therefore counts with the possibility of divine violence against the persistent and unrepentant evildoer. Those who refuse redemption from violence to love by the means of love will be, of necessity, excluded from the world of love.

How should we understand this possible divine violence? In the context of the whole Christian faith, it is best described as symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. Will God finally exclude some human beings? Not necessarily. I called the divine “violence” “possible.” For it is predicated on human refusal to be made into a loving person and therefore to be admitted into the world of love. Will some people refuse? I hope not—and the Bible along with the best of the Christian tradition has never affirmed with certainty that some will refuse and therefore be excluded. 

It is possible (though not necessary) that the coming about of the new creation will require divine violence of exclusion of what is contrary to the world of perfect love. The crucial question for our purposes is whether this possible divine violence at the end of history sanctions actual human violence in the middle of it? The response that resounds throughout the New Testament, including the book of Revelation, is a loud and persistent “No!” Though imitating God is the height of human holiness, there are things which only God may do. One of them is to deploy violence. Christians are manifestly not to gather under the banner of the Rider on the white horse, but to take up their crosses and follow the Crucified. If they were to do otherwise, once again, they would be involved in “thinning” out a “thick” element of faith and making a mischievous use of it. They would be arrogating for themselves what God has reserved only for himself, to transpose the divine action from the end-time to a time in which God explicitly refrains from deploying violence in order to make repentance possible, and, finally, to transmute a possibility of violence into an actuality. “Thick” reading of Christian eschatological convictions will not sanction human violence; to the contrary, it will resist it.

Let me underscore one more time that my point in this lecture is not that the Christian faith has not been used to legitimize violence, or that there are no elements in the Christian faith on which such uses plausibly build. It was rather that neither the character of the Christian faith (it being a religion of a monotheist type) nor some of its most fundamental convictions (such as that God created the world and is engaged in redeeming it) are violence inducing. The Christian faith is misused when it is employed to underwrite violence.

How does such misuse happen and how should we prevent it? If we strip Christian convictions of their original and historic cognitive and moral content and reduce faith to a cultural resource endowed with a diffuse aura of the sacred, we are likely to get religiously legitimized and inspired violence in situations of conflict. If we nurture people in historic Christian convictions that are rooted in its sacred texts, we will likely get militants for peace, if anything. This, I think, is a result not only of a careful examination of the inner logic of Christian convictions; it is also borne by a careful look at actual Christian practice. As R. Scott Appleby has argued in his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred, on the basis of case studies, contrary to a widespread misconception, religious people play a positive role in the world of human conflicts and contribute to peace not when they “moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs,” but rather “when they remain religious actors.” 13

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. His recent books include  Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (1998), both winners of Christianity Today book awards. A member of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia, Professor Volf was involved for a decade in international ecumenical dialogues. A native of Croatia, he regularly teaches and lectures in Central and Eastern Europe. 

1  Mark Jurgensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

2  R. Scott Appleby,  The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion,Violence, and Reconciliation  (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999) 2.

3  The best way to explain my use of “thick” and “thin” is to compare it with usage by others. Clifford Geertz has made popular the use of the contrasting pair “thick” and “thin” ( Interpretation of Cultures  [New York: Basic Books, 1974] 3–30). In his book  Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad  (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), Michael Walzer has introduced an altered sense of “thick” and “thin” as he applied them  to moral argument. “Thin” for me is, for instance, when the words “under God” on the Pledge of Allegiance are drained of specific religious content so that they become more a cultural tradition than a theological assertion; “thick” is when “God” in the said phrase refers to the God of Jesus Christ or to Allah or to Jahwe, which would make the phrase unconstitutional under the “no establishment” clause. I am concerned to show how “thinning” of religious practice opens religious convictions to be misused to legitimize violence because it strips away precisely what in “thick” religious faith guards against such misuse, whereas Walzer is concerned to show that morality is “thick” from the beginning and that the “thin” morality as universal always resides within the “thick” as particular (Walzer, 4).

4  See my  Exclusion and Embrace  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

5  Regina Schwartz,  The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism  (Chicago: The University of Chicago  Press, 1997) 63.

6  For the following see Miroslav Volf, “ ‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the  Shape of Social Engagement,”  Modern Theology  14:3 (July 1998): 403-23.

7  Rosemary Radford Ruether,  Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 77.

8  Rowan Williams,  On Christian Theology  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 68.

9  Jacques Derrida,  Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International , trans.  Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994) 75.

10  Derrida,  Spectres of Marx , 90.

11  See Friedrich Nietzsche,  Thus Spoke Zarathustra , in  The Portable Nietzsche , trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1954) 139, 253.

12  See Richard Bauckham,  The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)  74, 90.

13  Appleby,  Ambivalence of the Sacred , 16.

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faith and violence essay

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Religious violence is on the rise. What can faith-based communities do about it?

People from the Holy Blossom Temple Synagogue and the Fairlawn United Church form a "Ring of Peace" outside The Imdadul Islamic Centre, during prayers, to show solidarity in condemning the deadly shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada February 3, 2017.

Local Christians and Jews formed a 'ring of peace' around the Imadul Islamic Centre after it was bombed in Toronto in 2017 Image:  REUTERS/Mark Blinch

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faith and violence essay

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Religious violence is undergoing a revival. The past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in violent sectarian or religious tensions. These range from Islamic extremists waging global jihad and power struggles between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East to the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims across Africa. According to Pew, in 2018 more than a quarter of the world's countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes.

The spike in religious violence is global and affects virtually every religious group. A 2018 Minority Rights Group report indicates that mass killings and other atrocities are increasing in countries both affected and not affected by war alike. While bloody encounters were recorded in over 50 countries , most reported lethal incidents involving minorities were concentrated in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, India, Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hostilities against Muslims and Jews also increased across Europe, as did threats against Hindus in more than 18 countries. Making matters worse, 55 of the world’s 198 countries imposed heightened restrictions on religions, especially Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia and Turkey.

How is it that religions - which supposedly espouse peace, love and harmony - are so commonly connected with intolerance and violent aggression? Social scientists are divided on the issue. Scholars like William Cavanaugh contend that even when extremists use theological texts to justify their actions, “religious” violence is not religious at all - but rather a perversion of core teachings. Others such as Richard Dawkins believe that because religions fuel certainties and sanctify martyrdom, they are often a root cause of conflict. Meanwhile, Timothy Sisk claims that both hierarchical religious traditions (such as Shi´ism) and non-hierarchical traditions (such as Buddhism) can both be vulnerable to interpretation of canon to justify or even provide warrants for violent action.

 Religious violence has been rising for years

For millennia, every religious tradition has either fallen victim to or sanctioned violence. Consider Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas who laid the foundations of the 'just war' doctrine in the cases of self-defense, to prevent a tyrant from attacking, and to punish guilty enemies. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others have long invoked violence in the name of religion. In some cases, as when state and religion are intertwined, mass violence may arise. Unfortunately, the risk of sectarian violence is unlikely to go away: more than 84% of the world's population identify themselves with a religious group.

Violence inspired by religious intolerance is easier described than defined. It spans intimidation, harassment and internment to terrorism and outright warfare. Usually it arises when the core beliefs that define a group’s identity are fundamentally challenged. It is ratcheted-up by ‘in-group’ communities against other ‘out-group’ communities, often with the help of fundamentalist religious leaders. Some researchers such as Justin Lane refer to the sense of threat among insiders as "xenophobic social anxiety", which - when combined with political and cultural exclusion and social and economic inequality - can escalate into extreme physical violence.

Religious leaders are often criticized for not doing enough to stem religious violence. By not publicly condemning every act of extremism, entire faith communities are presumed to be somehow complicit. This is unfair . Indeed, there are millions of people of faith who are actively involved in helping the poor and marginalized and fostering reconciliation in the aftermath of war. They may be mobilized through their churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, or work through international humanitarian agencies and missions overseas. While regularly accused of fanning the flames of sectarian violence, religious leaders are frequently trying to do the opposite, including mediating peace agreements and promoting non-violence .

In an era of turbulence and uncertainty, interfaith action may offer an important antidote to religious violence. Religious communities can and do offer a reminder of the core principles of our common humanity. While not the exclusive preserve of faith-based groups, the conscious spread of values of empathy, compassion, forgiveness and altruism are needed today more than ever. The persistent calls for patience, tolerance, understanding, face-to-face dialogue and reconciliation are more important than ever given today’s spiralling polarisation and the dangerous anonymity provided by social media.

In fact, ecumenical groups have played a behind-the-scenes role in some of the world's most successful peace efforts. High-level mediators like Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped lay the groundwork for peace agreements, from mediating between rival South African factions in the 1990s to averting a bloodbath in Kenya in 2008 . The World Council of Churches and All African Conference on Churches have also played a role in mediating peace agreements since the 1970s. Italy’s Sant-Egidio has supported interfaith dialogue and campaigns to prevent and resolve conflicts and promote reconciliation from Albania to Mozambique . And groups like Islamic Relief, among others, have long supported mediation and reconciliation activities in war-torn communities.

Faith-based groups have also frequently led the way in shaping international treaties and social movements to make the world safer. While far from the media headlines, Quakers, for example, have helped launch treaties banning landmines and other weapons of war , supported the development of protocols to outlaw child soldiers , and instigated action on conflict prevention, peace-building and human rights. While religious groups have adopted varying positions toward capital punishment, many of them are unified in their opposition to the use of torture , advocate for banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and support grassroots campaigns to promote human rights and reconciliation.

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Countering sectarian and religious conflict in the middle east, the keys to preventing conflict between countries.

With notable exceptions, interfaith efforts to prevent violence and promote peace suffer from a credibility problem. Part of the reason for this is that religious groups frequently adopt a ‘thousand flowers bloom’ approach to peace-building – fielding multiple activities without solid evidence of their effectiveness. According to Catherine Osborn , interfaith institutions can be effective, but success often comes down to the extent to which religious leaders can work with the ‘internal policers’ within their communities to cool down hotheads and prevent escalation. In the end, religious groups must hold themselves to the highest standard. This requires, at a minimum, doing no harm. It also means being accountable about what strategies work, and which do not.

A related challenge is that most interfaith measures to promote peace and reconciliation are seldom documented, much less evaluated. As a result, the persistent and patient support provided to high-level policy initiatives goes unrecorded, with other organizations often quick to take the credit. A number of today’s most successful arms control and peace-building norms are the fruit of interfaith dialogue, even if this is not always acknowledged. This gap could be bridged, however, by developing partnerships with universities and undertaking robust monitoring and evaluation. This way, interfaith groups could better understand what aspects of the peace architecture are working, and which activities to discard.

Finally, religious groups and the interfaith community could usefully get more proactive about peace-making. This will require leaving the safe zone of like-minded religious organizations and engaging more fulsomely with international agencies and the business community. Religious leaders should also become more literate with new technologies, not least social media, finding ways to promote positive values both on- and offline. And successful instances of interfaith cooperation - including through powerful networks like Religion for Peace - need to be better marketed. This is because signals and symbols of collective action across religious divides are needed more than ever in our disorderly and fractured world.

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The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence

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30 Religion and Violence from Christian Theological Perspectives

CHARLES KIMBALL is presidential professor and director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. He is the author of five books, including When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs and When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • Published: 12 March 2013
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This chapter reviews the movement from pacifism to Just War and Crusade. It also tries to demonstrate the ways prominent Catholic and Protestant leaders have harshly used violent measures within their communities, and determines contemporary manifestations of these three approaches among twenty-first-century Christians. The Crusades constitute the third type of response to war and peace among Christians, joining the ongoing Just War and pacifist traditions. The Inquisition within the Catholic Church and the city-state of Geneva under John Calvin's leadership within the emerging Protestant movement are elaborated. These examples show how pervasive the use of violence in the name of religion had become. The Just Peacemaking Paradigm is the alternative to pacifism and Just War theory, an effort that tries to change the focus to initiatives which can help prevent war and foster peace.

A survey of Christian history reveals three distinct attitudes and approaches to the use of violence by those who claim to follow Jesus: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade. A brief consideration of these three approaches illustrates the connection between temporal political power and a theological justification for violence among adherents in what is now the world’s largest religious tradition. While these models emerged primarily in relation to real or perceived external threats, the theological frameworks have also been employed to justify the use of violence within the Christian communities over many centuries. This chapter outlines the movement from pacifism to just war and crusade, illustrates ways prominent Catholic and Protestant leaders have advocated and employed harshly violent measures within their communities, and identifies contemporary manifestations of these three approaches among twenty-first-century Christians.

From Pacifism to the Just War Doctrine and Crusades

Many New Testament texts present an image of Jesus proclaiming and embodying a gospel of love. Jesus rejected the mantle of a military savior many zealots were anticipating and some urged on him. Jesus’s teachings and behavior focused instead on a distinctly different approach to conflict and injustice. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, teachings that include a promised blessing for the peacemakers, those who work earnestly to make peace will be called “children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NRSV). Jesus turned conventional wisdom upside down by telling his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43). As he was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’s followers drew a sword and struck the servant of the high priest. Jesus immediately said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

The book of Acts records stories of the earliest Christian communities, including major points of tension and disagreement alongside an experiment in communal living in which people gave up private ownership so that everyone’s needs could be met. The letters of Paul speak frequently about the centrality of love and the call to a ministry of reconciliation. Writing to the Christians at Rome, Paul underscored their responsibility: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17−18, 21) Paul also speaks directly to the relationship between religion and governing authorities as he presents the theological framework that guided the Christian communities for the first three centuries. In Romans 13, Paul insists on submission to government authorities:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there are no authorities that exist except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…for the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing [ i.e., punishing bad conduct ]. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due. (Romans 13:1−2, 6−7)

The later pastoral letter of 1 Timothy, which purports to be written by Paul, urges followers of Jesus to pray for those in positions of authority:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1−2)

The followers of Jesus were pacifists for the first three centuries (Cadoux, 1982 ). Numerous early church leaders and documents underscore the unwavering commitment to nonviolence. It appears that only a handful of Christians were soldiers prior to the fourth century. John Ferguson puts it succintly:

Christianity and war were incompatible. Christians were charged with undermining the Roman Empire by refusing military service and public office: they answered that human life was sacred to them, that they were…given over to peace, that God prohibits killing even in a just cause, without exception, that the weapons of the Christian were prayer, justice and suffering. (Ferguson 1978 : 103)

Constantine’s rise to power early in the fourth century was the decisive turning point. Engaged in a multisided contest for leadership in the Roman Empire, he prevailed in a decisive battle the day after reportedly having had a vision of a white cross with the Greek inscription “In this sign you will conquer.” Shortly after two of the worst waves of Roman government persecution, Christianity was now on the way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine was able to consolidate his rule over a period of two decades (Carroll 2001 : 165−207). From this point forward, Christianity in Europe became linked with state power. Threats to the state now became threats to the church. While the pacifist tradition did not disappear, it was marginalized as most church leaders sought to redefine the responsibilities of Christians within the state.

Some prominent religious leaders began to distinguish between clergy, whose vocation required total dedication, and laity, whose duty as citizens included military service. Late in the fourth century, Ambrose (c. 340−397 ce ) furnished the first ingredients of what would develop into the Christian doctrine of the just war: the conduct of war must be just and monks and priests should abstain (Bainton 1960 : 88−91). Augustine (354−430 ce ), the highly influential thinker and theologian, then developed elements of the code of war. Augustine’s writings reflect his views on sin and punishment, the challenge of living in this world and not yet in the city of God, and the threat posed by barbarians storming the gate. Church historian Roland Bainton summarized Augustine’s views in this way:

The war must be just in its intent—which is to restore peace…. Those wars may be defined as just which avenge injuries…. The war must be just in its disposition, which is Christian love…. Love does not preclude a benevolent severity, nor that correction which compassion itself dictates…. (War) is to be waged only under the authority of the ruler…. The conduct of the war must be just…. Faith must be kept with the enemy. There should be no wanton violence, profanation of temples, looting, massacres, or conflagration. Vengeance, atrocities, and reprisals were excluded, though ambush was allowed. (Bainton 1960 : 95−98)

Various Christian approaches to war and peace during the following centuries are visible in numerous texts, edicts, and oaths reflecting the conflicting influences. The dominant themes, however, reveal a chaotic era when diverse religious views and military campaigns were intertwined among groups within and on the fringes of the empire: Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Saxons, Norsemen, Slavs, Berbers, and others. For centuries, Europe was beset with major wars and local conflicts. A well-known story of Clovis, a ruthless military hero who converted the Franks to Christianity, illustrates the reversal from early church understandings and practices. Clovis offered this response to the crucifixion of Jesus: “If I and my Franks had been there, it never would have happened!” The Saxons were converted by force during a long series of wars against Charlemagne (c. 742−814 ce ), the king of the Franks and emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne fought against “pagans and infidels” with the papal blessing (Ferguson 1978 : 106−107).

The convoluted story of church history includes efforts to redefine the criteria for Christians’ participation in war. We now find many instances of clergy engaging in battle. Roland Bainton reports, for example, that ten German bishops fell in battle between 886 and 908 and quotes the archbishop of Mainz who claimed he had personally dispatched nine men in battle using a mace (Bainton 1960 : 104). A monk named Gratian is credited with introducing the concept of the just war into legal discourse during the middle of the twelfth century. Many people developed and refined criteria depending on the nature of the war and the status of the combatants. The doctrine of the just war was finalized in the sixteenth century:

There were four basic criteria: (i) it must be proclaimed by lawful authority; (ii) the cause must be just; (iii) the belligerents should have a rightful intention, to advance good or avoid evil; (iv) the war must be fought by proper means. Additional criteria are sometimes found: (v) action should be against the guilty; (vi) the innocent should not suffer; (vii) war must be undertaken as a last resort; (viii) there must be a reasonable chance of success. (Ferguson 1978 : 111)

Woven into the many positions put forward between the fourth and eleventh centuries, one finds arguments suggesting that pagans, heretics, and infidels were guilty of opposing the law of God. This view was widely held during the centuries when the behavior of many European Christians was arguably furthest removed from the teachings and example of Jesus: the era of the Crusades.

The first Crusade was instigated by Pope Urban II in November 1095. At a meeting in Clermont, France, Pope Urban II delivered an impassioned sermon in which he called on the Franks to march to the East with the dual purposes of helping the Byzantines and then liberating Jerusalem from Muslim control: “You are obligated to succor your brethren in the East, menaced by an accursed race, utterly alienated from God. The Holy Sepulcher of our Lord is polluted by the filthiness of an unclean nation…. Start upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher to wrest that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves” (Bainton 1960 : 111−112).

The appeal produced a powerful response that day with the crowd reportedly shouting, “God wills it!” In the next few months, the message spread through sermons, papal letters, and word of mouth in France, Italy, and parts of Germany. Far from being a just war declared by a king, volunteers now came forward to fight in a war instigated by the church. With little preparation or adequate provisions, many began marching toward Jerusalem under the banner of the cross. The first was launched with several organized groups taking different routes toward Constantinople and eventually Jerusalem. From the outset, the righteous zeal of these soldiers for God produced horrific behavior. Before leaving Germany, some crusaders massacred more than 1,500 Jews at Speier, Worms, Mainz, and Metz, considering them also to be “enemies of Christ” (Johnson 1980 : 245). The vast majority of those in this first wave of crusading pilgrims died of hunger, exposure, disease, and in battle far from Jerusalem.

In a 1995 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary titled The Crusades, historian Christopher Tyerman stresses how this new approach to war reflected a dramatic theological reorientation: “Whereas in 1066 soldiers who fought at Hastings had to do penance for their slaughter, on the first Crusade the slaughter itself was considered a penitential act.” Many of the crusaders became savage extremists. Crusaders often returned to camp carrying the heads of Muslims on spears or forcing prisoners to carry the heads of their comrades on spears. Near Antioch, Radulf of Caen described cannibalism as “[o]ur troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots. They impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.” All along the routes to Jerusalem, crusaders terrorized and massacred Jews and many Orthodox Christians as well.

The first Crusade was instigated ostensibly to expel the Turks from Jerusalem. By the time the crusaders reached the sacred city, however, the Turks were no longer in control. Egyptians ruled the city of 100,000 where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were functioning well in a multicultural setting. Nevertheless, on July 15, 1099, the crusaders breached the defenses of Jerusalem and began slaughtering wantonly. They set fire to the Great Synagogue where the Jews had gathered for safety, burning them alive. They stormed the Noble Sanctuary (or Temple Mount) where thousands of Muslims had gathered that Friday for prayers. Fleeing into the al-Aqsa mosque, the Muslims paid a huge ransom in return for worthless guarantees of their safety. The next day they were all slaughtered. Raymond of Agiles summarized the gruesome scene:

Some of our men (and this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and the bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. Now that the city was taken it was worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang the ninth chant to the Lord. (Bainton 1960 : 112−113)

The marches toward and capture of Jerusalem set in motion a series of countercrusades and new crusades that continued for some five centuries. In addition to the organized initiatives focused on the Holy Land, various lesser crusades were mounted with other destinations as the clashes with Muslims played out from Spain to central Europe to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The leadership of the Catholic Church was intimately involved in this dynamic process, organizing and often motivating crusaders with the promise of an indulgence or forgiveness for the temporal penalties of sin for a penitent person who performed some arduous or virtuous task designated by the church. The abuse of indulgences was one of the major factors sparking the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther and others.

The Crusades represent the third type of response to war and peace among Christians, joining the ongoing just war and pacifist traditions. The just war doctrine evolved between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. During the same time period, the pacifist tradition that defined the early church was suppressed but not eliminated. It continued through the centuries, particularly among some monastic groups, the most notable being Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181−1226 ce ) and the Franciscans. Francis was a pacifist, and his movement rejected the view that the Crusades were an appropriate way to spread the Gospel. In the later Middle Ages, a number of pacifist groups surfaced among the Waldensians, the Hussites, and some followers of John Wycliffe. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, we find prominent individuals advocating a pacifist stance and the rise of the historic peace churches: the Anabaptists (mostly today known as the Mennonites), the Brethren, and the Quakers.

There is another major part of the wider Christian community that is often overlooked, especially among Christians in Europe and the West, namely, the Oriental Orthodox churches. The Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox churches are among the oldest Christian communities. Declared heretical in the mid-fifth century by Catholic and Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christians presumably for overemphasizing the divinity of Christ rather than affirming Jesus as fully God and fully human, these churches—along with the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorians)—have always comprised the large majority of Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. (Precise demographic information is often not available for these Middle Eastern Christian communities. Most estimates put their total number at between 12 and 14 million in the first decade of the twenty-first century.) Dominated by the Byzantine Empire and, for the last fourteen centuries, by various forms of Muslim rule, these self-standing churches have highly developed organizational structures and have remained largely independent of the political systems in which they function. These Middle Eastern Christian communities parallel somewhat the experiences of minority Jewish communities living in the Diaspora. They have maintained and perpetuated strong religious communities while continually negotiating space for their churches while others held political power over them. Rather than engage in just wars or Crusades, these Christians have nurtured their communities for almost 2,000 years following the guidance of the Apostle Paul: “If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.” (For an extended treatment of the overview in this section, see Kimball 2008 : 169−182 and Kimball 2011 : 58–83.)

The Inquisition and Calvin’s Geneva

The theological justifications for the use of violence against external threats to the Holy Roman Empire paved the way for theological arguments and actions deemed necessary to stifle dissent and preserve the religious and political status quo. Two prominent examples—the Inquisition within the Catholic Church and the city-state of Geneva under John Calvin’s leadership within the emerging Protestant movement—illustrate how pervasive the use of violence in the name of religion had become by time many Western Christians embraced the idea of the Crusades or holy war.

The Catholic Church established the Office of the Inquisition in 1215. Under the rubric of protecting the doctrines of the church from error and saving errant Christians from the fires of hell, inquisitors secretly gathered information about possible heretics in a given region. If substantive proof was not available, hearsay evidence was sufficient. Charges were brought against suspects—who may or may not even know why they were on trial—and they were given an opportunity to confess. Various forms of torture were sanctioned—the rack, water torture, and leg screws were frequently employed—to extract confessions. The rate of confession was about 90 percent. Severe physical and financial penalties were meted out for those who confessed. Those found guilty were often burned slowly at the stake.

The Inquisition was primarily concentrated in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Initially, such Christian groups as the Waldensians and Cathars in France were a primary target. For several centuries, inquisitors were engaged literally in witch hunts. Targeted attacks on Protestants and creative thinkers such as Galileo reflect another phase of the Inquisition over the centuries. By the nineteenth century, most of the gruesome practices had ceased. However, the Office of the Inquisition remained until 1965 when it was reshaped into the Office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the Second Vatican Council. In 1998, Pope John Paul II called on the church for an examination of conscience and advocated an exploration of the Inquisition, which he called “a tormented phase in the history of the Church.” He then ordered the opening of centuries of previously secret Vatican archives for scholarly scrutiny (Kimball 2008 : 159−161).

The deadly use of church-state powers directed at presumed heretics was one of many types of abuse that fueled the Protestant Reformation. The two most prominent names associated with the reform movements of the sixteenth century were Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland. Just twenty-four years after Luther launched the Reformation when he issued his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, John Calvin implemented his vision for the church and state in Protestant Geneva.

A lawyer and theologian, Calvin in 1541 promulaged his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which provided the structure to discipline individuals in the city-state. Pastors and elders formed a disciplinary institution called a consistory. Severe punishments were inflicted on anyone expressing opinions contrary to the doctrines of the church, for not attending church, or for failing to master the catechism. Men or women convicted of adultry were subject to the death penalty. In one of the most notorious cases, Michael Servetus, who directly challenged Calvin’s theology, was convicted of heresy in Geneva and then executed by fire in 1553. Historian Francois Wendel reports that Calvin’s attitude and behavior was not unusual among the reformers:

Servetus suffered the fate that hundreds of heretics and Anabaptists suffered at the hands of Protestant authorities…. Calvin was convinced, and all the reformers shared this conviction, that is it was the duty of a Christian magistrate to put to death blasphemers who kill the soul, just as they punished murderers who kill the body. (Wendel 1963 : 97)

The justification for violence in the name of the Christianity can be observed among Protestants in many settings throughout Europe and North America during the last five centuries. Multiple religious wars raged for more than one hundred years following the Protestant Reformation. Harsh forms of corporal punishment—including the death penalty for various offenses—were meted out in England under the Anglican rule initiated by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and by Puritans in America within the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the same time, revival of the pacfist tradition gained ground in Europe and took root in America through William Penn and the Quakers who settled in Pennslyvania.

Violence and Christian Theology in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a wide variety of theological approaches to religiously sanctioned violence can be seen among those who identify as followers of Jesus. A few selected examples from predominantly Christian countries illustrate the continuing role of pacficism, just war theory, and holy war or Crusade in various churches and church-related groups.

With ominous signs on the horizon, an international conference of Christians gathered in Switzerland in 1914 in an effort to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe. The war, however, began during the conference. Two of the participants—an English Quaker and a German Lutheran—pledged that they would find a way to work for peace even though their countries were now at war. This pledge was the foundation for an international and ecumenical Christian organization committed to nonviolent conflict resolution: the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The US branch of the FOR was formed one year later in 1915. In the century since its formation, the FOR has become an interfaith movement with branches and groups in more than forty countries with active participation by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. The FOR encouraged nonviolent resistance to World War II, led the opposition to internment of Japanese Americans, and endeavored to rescue Jews and others fleeing Naziism. The organization grew in prominence in conjunction with two of its most highly visible members—Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh—who embodied pacifism in the civil rights movement and in oppostion to the war in Vietnam. (See www.forusa.org .)

The FOR, which enjoys strong support among Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and most other Christian communions, has worked closely with numerous Christian organizations seeking to reclaim what they understand to be Jesus’s message of nonviolence. These groups include Pax Christi (Catholic), the American Friends Service Committee (Quaker), the Mennonite Central Committee (Mennonite), and Sojourners (a Washington, DC−based evangelical Christian organization founded in the 1970s that draws support equally from evangelical and mainline Protestants as well as Catholics), and organized peace fellowships within most major denominations.

Serious and thoughtful reflection on the just war criteria surfaces among many Christian leaders when major international conflicts arise. In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States and various European and Middle Eastern countries began gearing up for war. In the United States, many Protestant leaders and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released statements underscoring how the proposed war with Iraq failed to meet several of the just war criteria. Had all the options been exhausted? What of the “right intention”? If the reason for mobilization and war centered on the naked aggression of Saddam Hussein toward the hapless people of Kuwait, why did the United States and others not respond militarily to the desparate pleas for assistance from Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites when Saddam Hussein’s government was crushing them? Many Christian leaders raised serious questions about the proportionality of the response, a point that turned out to be especially well founded. Although casualities on the Allied side were far below initial Pentagon estimates, more than 150,000 Iraqis and several thousand Kuwaitis were killed in the war. The number of civilian casualties in the decade following the war was almost certainly much higher.

The overwhelming majority of indigenous Middle Eastern Christians urged Christians in the West to oppose the war and work actively for peace. In late 1990 and early 1991, the Middle East Council of Churches—a body comprised of all the major Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant communions in the region—issued a number of statements and documents reflecting the strong concensus among Middle Eastern Christians. Many American Christian leaders, including Edmond Browning, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church—the head of the church in which both President George H. W. Bush and then Secretary of State James Baker were members—embraced the call of the Middle Eastern Christian leaders and made their views known publicly. Browning was a member of an ecumenical delegation whose visit to Iraq included a meeting with then President Saddam Hussein. The group issued a public statement titled “War Is Not the Answer: A Message to the American People” (Delegation to the Middle East, Sojourners 1991).

At the same time, there were many highly visible Christian leaders who strongly supported the march toward war with Saddam Hussein. Many prominent evangelical Christians with television ministries in the United States framed the impending conflict as a modern day holy war. Among those who promulgated a premillennial, dispensational theology, many boldly connected the coming Gulf War as the prelude to their much anticipated battle of Armegeddon. In this view, human history was about to end and the call to support the United States and others was linked to support for Israel in what were presumed to be the end times.

Another manifestion of holy war/Crusade theology moved front and center in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the years following the horrific attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a number of vocal and visible evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant leaders presented Islam as the focus of evil in the world and an imminent threat to Christianity. As with some Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda, some American Christian leaders portrayed the challenges facing God’s people quite starkly as nothing less than the struggle of good versus evil, Christianity versus Islam (or vice versa).

As has always been the case, these three Christian theological approaches to religion and violence have real-world consequences. For Christians who might be inclined toward the just war theory, new global realities now challenge that worldview. The efficacy of limiting war by the merits of carefully considered criteria is ever more dubious. Arguments about the failure to meet the church’s requirements have rarely prevented political and military leaders from pursuing war. In addition, the haunting presence of many types of weapons of mass destruction—not only chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons but also readily available chemical fertilizer and commercial airplanes—in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world community cannot be casually set aside. In the context of the twenty-first century, a growing number of Christian thinkers have been examining the traditional models and considering new approaches.

Over the past two decades, a number of Christian ethicists, theologians, and experts in conflict resolution have produced an alternative to pacifism and just war theory: the just peacemaking paradigm. This effort seeks to shift the focus to initiatives that can help prevent war and foster peace. These Christian scholars and activists developed ten key practices and detailed guidelines for peacemaking:

Support nonviolent direct action.

Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

Use cooperative conflict resolution.

Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.

Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

Foster just and sustainable economic development.

Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. (Stassen 1998 )

For 2,000 years, Christians have wrestled with questions about their religion and the role of violence. For more than 1,700 years, followers of Jesus have embraced vastly different approaches to what the earliest community understood to be Jesus’s teachings. The unpredecented circumstances of multireligious societies in an economically and ecologically interconnected world of nation-states have spurred a new generation of theologians and ethicists to fashion contemporary responses by asking once again with a clear sense of urgency, “What would Jesus do?”

Bainton, Roland H . Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace . Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960 .

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Cadoux, C. John . The Early Christian Attitude toward War . New York: Seabury Press, 2nd ed., 1982 .

Carroll, James . Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001 .

Delegation to the Middle East. “ War Is Not the Answer: A Message to the American People ” Sojourners (February–March 1991 ): 5.

Ferguson, John . War and Peace in the World’s Religions . New York: Oxford University Press, 1978 .

Johnson, Paul . A History of Christianity . New York: Atheneum, 1980 .

Kimball, Charles . When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs . San Francisco: HarperOne, 2nd ed., 2008 .

Kimball, Charles . When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011 .

Stassen, Glen , ed. Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War . New York: Pilgrim Press, 1998 .

Wendel, Francois . Calvin . London: Collins, 1963 .

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Bullet candles

The myth of religious violence

The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple

A s we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims , raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith” , and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems ? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

A rosary hangs from a Ukrainian soldier's machine gun near the eastern Ukrainian town of Pervomaysk.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

It was these European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create what has been called “the myth of religious violence”. It was said that Protestants and Catholics were so inflamed by the theological passions of the Reformation that they butchered one another in senseless battles that killed 35% of the population of central Europe. Yet while there is no doubt that the participants certainly experienced these wars as a life-and-death religious struggle, this was also a conflict between two sets of state-builders: the princes of Germany and the other kings of Europe were battling against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and his ambition to establish a trans-European hegemony modelled after the Ottoman empire.

If the wars of religion had been solely motivated by sectarian bigotry, we should not expect to have found Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same side, yet in fact they often did so. Thus Catholic France repeatedly fought the Catholic Habsburgs, who were regularly supported by some of the Protestant princes. In the French wars of religion (1562–98) and the thirty years war, combatants crossed confessional lines so often that it was impossible to talk about solidly “Catholic” or “Protestant” populations. These wars were neither “all about religion” nor “all about politics”. Nor was it a question of the state simply “using” religion for political ends. There was as yet no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes. People were fighting for different visions of society, but they would not, and could not, have distinguished between religious and temporal factors in these conflicts. Until the 18th century, dissociating the two would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.

By the end of the thirty years war, Europeans had fought off the danger of imperial rule. Henceforth Europe would be divided into smaller states, each claiming sovereign power in its own territory, each supported by a professional army and governed by a prince who aspired to absolute rule – a recipe, perhaps, for chronic interstate warfare. New configurations of political power were beginning to force the church into a subordinate role, a process that involved a fundamental reallocation of authority and resources from the ecclesiastical establishment to the monarch. When the new word “secularisation” was coined in the late 16th century, it originally referred to “the transfer of goods from the possession of the church into that of the world”. This was a wholly new experiment. It was not a question of the west discovering a natural law; rather, secularisation was a contingent development. It took root in Europe in large part because it mirrored the new structures of power that were pushing the churches out of government.

A US army soldier shhots at Taliban fighters

These developments required a new understanding of religion. It was provided by Martin Luther, who was the first European to propose the separation of church and state. Medieval Catholicism had been an essentially communal faith; most people experienced the sacred by living in community. But for Luther, the Christian stood alone before his God, relying only upon his Bible. Luther’s acute sense of human sinfulness led him, in the early 16th century, to advocate the absolute states that would not become a political reality for another hundred years. For Luther, the state’s prime duty was to restrain its wicked subjects by force, “in the same way as a savage wild beast is bound with chains and ropes”. The sovereign, independent state reflected this vision of the independent and sovereign individual. Luther’s view of religion, as an essentially subjective and private quest over which the state had no jurisdiction, would be the foundation of the modern secular ideal.

But Luther’s response to the peasants’ war in Germany in 1525, during the early stages of the wars of religion, suggested that a secularised political theory would not necessarily be a force for peace or democracy. The peasants, who were resisting the centralising policies of the German princes – which deprived them of their traditional rights – were mercilessly slaughtered by the state. Luther believed that they had committed the cardinal sin of mixing religion and politics: suffering was their lot, and they should have turned the other cheek, and accepted the loss of their lives and property. “A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.”

Dawn of the liberal state

By the late 17th century, philosophers had devised a more urbane version of the secular ideal. For John Locke it had become self-evident that “the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable.” The separation of religion and politics – “perfectly and infinitely different from each other” – was, for Locke, written into the very nature of things. But the liberal state was a radical innovation, just as revolutionary as the market economy that was developing in the west and would shortly transform the world. Because of the violent passions it aroused, Locke insisted that the segregation of “religion” from government was “above all things necessary” for the creation of a peaceful society.

Hence Locke was adamant that the liberal state could tolerate neither Catholics nor Muslims, condemning their confusion of politics and religion as dangerously perverse. Locke was a major advocate of the theory of natural human rights, originally pioneered by the Renaissance humanists and given definition in the first draft of the American Declaration of Independence as life, liberty and property. But secularisation emerged at a time when Europe was beginning to colonise the New World, and it would come to exert considerable influence on the way the west viewed those it had colonised – much as in our own time, the prevailing secular ideology perceives Muslim societies that seem incapable of separating faith from politics to be irredeemably flawed.

This introduced an inconsistency, since for the Renaissance humanists there could be no question of extending these natural rights to the indigenous inhabitants of the New World. Indeed, these peoples could justly be penalised for failing to conform to European norms. In the 16th century, Alberico Gentili , a professor of civil law at Oxford, argued that land that had not been exploited agriculturally, as it was in Europe, was “empty” and that “the seizure of [such] vacant places” should be “regarded as law of nature”. Locke agreed that the native peoples had no right to life, liberty or property. The “kings” of America, he decreed, had no legal right of ownership to their territory. He also endorsed a master’s “Absolute, arbitrary, despotical power” over a slave, which included “the power to kill him at any time”. The pioneers of secularism seemed to be falling into the same old habits as their religious predecessors. Secularism was designed to create a peaceful world order, but the church was so intricately involved in the economic, political and cultural structures of society that the secular order could only be established with a measure of violence. In North America, where there was no entrenched aristocratic government, the disestablishment of the various churches could be accomplished with relative ease. But in France, the church could be dismantled only by an outright assault; far from being experienced as a natural and essentially normative arrangement, the separation of religion and politics could be experienced as traumatic and terrifying.

During the French revolution, one of the first acts of the new national assembly on November 2, 1789, was to confiscate all church property to pay off the national debt: secularisation involved dispossession, humiliation and marginalisation. This segued into outright violence during the September massacres of 1792, when the mob fell upon the jails of Paris and slaughtered between two and three thousand prisoners, many of them priests. Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors: “The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women … The roads are littered with corpses.”

Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.

To die for one’s country

When Napoleon’s armies invaded Prussia in 1807, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte similarly urged his countrymen to lay down their lives for the Fatherland – a manifestation of the divine and the repository of the spiritual essence of the Volk . If we define the sacred as that for which we are prepared to die, what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of the nation had come to replace God. It is now considered admirable to die for your country, but not for your religion.

As the nation-state came into its own in the 19th century along with the industrial revolution, its citizens had to be bound tightly together and mobilised for industry. Modern communications enabled governments to create and propagate a national ethos, and allowed states to intrude into the lives of their citizens more than had ever been possible. Even if they spoke a different language from their rulers, subjects now belonged to the “nation,” whether they liked it or not. John Stuart Mill regarded this forcible integration as progress; it was surely better for a Breton, “the half-savage remnant of past times”, to become a French citizen than “sulk on his own rocks”. But in the late 19th century, the British historian Lord Acton feared that the adulation of the national spirit that laid such emphasis on ethnicity, culture and language, would penalise those who did not fit the national norm: “According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.”

The Enlightenment philosophers had tried to counter the intolerance and bigotry that they associated with “religion” by promoting the equality of all human beings, together with democracy, human rights, and intellectual and political liberty, modern secular versions of ideals which had been promoted in a religious idiom in the past. The structural injustice of the agrarian state, however, had made it impossible to implement these ideals fully. The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities. More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratised forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of modernity to an elite fell behind. Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.

A candlelight vigil in 2007 at the Arlington West Memorial in Santa Barbara, California, to honour American soldiers killed in the Iraq war.

Yet this toleration was only skin-deep, and as Lord Acton had predicted, an intolerance of ethnic and cultural minorities would become the achilles heel of the nation-state. Indeed, the ethnic minority would replace the heretic (who had usually been protesting against the social order) as the object of resentment in the new nation-state. Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment in the United States, instructed his secretary of war in 1807 that Native Americans were “backward peoples” who must either be “exterminated” or driven “beyond our reach” to the other side of the Mississippi “with the beasts of the forest”. The following year, Napoleon issued the “infamous decrees”, ordering the Jews of France to take French names, privatise their faith, and ensure that at least one in three marriages per family was with a gentile. Increasingly, as national feeling became a supreme value, Jews would come to be seen as rootless and cosmopolitan. In the late 19th century, there was an explosion of antisemitism in Europe, which undoubtedly drew upon centuries of Christian prejudice, but gave it a scientific rationale, claiming that Jews did not fit the biological and genetic profile of the Volk, and should be eliminated from the body politic as modern medicine cut out a cancer.

When secularisation was implemented in the developing world, it was experienced as a profound disruption – just as it had originally been in Europe. Because it usually came with colonial rule, it was seen as a foreign import and rejected as profoundly unnatural. In almost every region of the world where secular governments have been established with a goal of separating religion and politics, a counter-cultural movement has developed in response, determined to bring religion back into public life. What we call “fundamentalism” has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularisation that is experienced as cruel, violent and invasive. All too often an aggressive secularism has pushed religion into a violent riposte. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation, convinced that the liberal or secular establishment is determined to destroy their way of life. This has been tragically apparent in the Middle East.

Very often modernising rulers have embodied secularism at its very worst and have made it unpalatable to their subjects. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic of Turkey in 1918, is often admired in the west as an enlightened Muslim leader, but for many in the Middle East he epitomised the cruelty of secular nationalism. He hated Islam, describing it as a “putrefied corpse”, and suppressed it in Turkey by outlawing the Sufi orders and seizing their properties, closing down the madrasas and appropriating their income. He also abolished the beloved institution of the caliphate, which had long been a dead-letter politically but which symbolised a link with the Prophet. For groups such as al-Qaida and Isis, reversing this decision has become a paramount goal.

Ataturk also continued the policy of ethnic cleansing that had been initiated by the last Ottoman sultans; in an attempt to control the rising commercial classes, they systematically deported the Armenian and Greek-speaking Christians, who comprised 90% of the bourgeoisie. The Young Turks, who seized power in 1909, espoused the antireligious positivism associated with August Comte and were also determined to create a purely Turkic state. During the first world war, approximately one million Armenians were slaughtered in the first genocide of the 20th century: men and youths were killed where they stood, while women, children and the elderly were driven into the desert where they were raped, shot, starved, poisoned, suffocated or burned to death. Clearly inspired by the new scientific racism, Mehmet Resid, known as the “execution governor”, regarded the Armenians as “dangerous microbes” in “the bosom of the Fatherland”. Ataturk completed this racial purge. For centuries Muslims and Christians had lived together on both sides of the Aegean; Ataturk partitioned the region, deporting Greek Christians living in what is now Turkey to Greece, while Turkish-speaking Muslims in Greece were sent the other way.

The fundamentalist reaction

Secularising rulers such as Ataturk often wanted their countries to look modern, that is, European. In Iran in 1928, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the laws of uniformity of dress: his soldiers tore off women’s veils with bayonets and ripped them to pieces in the street. In 1935, the police were ordered to open fire on a crowd who had staged a peaceful demonstration against the dress laws in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Policies like this made veiling, which has no Qur’anic endorsement, an emblem of Islamic authenticity in many parts of the Muslim world.

Following the example of the French, Egyptian rulers secularised by disempowering and impoverishing the clergy. Modernisation had begun in the Ottoman period under the governor Muhammad Ali, who starved the Islamic clergy financially, taking away their tax-exempt status, confiscating the religiously endowed properties that were their principal source of income, and systematically robbing them of any shred of power. When the reforming army officer Jamal Abdul Nasser came to power in 1952, he changed tack and turned the clergy into state officials. For centuries, they had acted as a protective bulwark between the people and the systemic violence of the state. Now Egyptians came to despise them as government lackeys. This policy would ultimately backfire, because it deprived the general population of learned guidance that was aware of the complexity of the Islamic tradition. Self-appointed freelancers, whose knowledge of Islam was limited, would step into the breach, often to disastrous effect.

If some Muslims today fight shy of secularism, it is not because they have been brainwashed by their faith but because they have often experienced efforts at secularisation in a particularly virulent form. Many regard the west’s devotion to the separation of religion and politics as incompatible with admired western ideals such as democracy and freedom. In 1992, a military coup in Algeria ousted a president who had promised democratic reforms, and imprisoned the leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which seemed certain to gain a majority in the forthcoming elections. Had the democratic process been thwarted in such an unconstitutional manner in Iran or Pakistan, there would have been worldwide outrage. But because an Islamic government had been blocked by the coup, there was jubilation in some quarters of the western press – as if this undemocratic action had instead made Algeria safe for democracy. In rather the same way, there was an almost audible sigh of relief in the west when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt last year. But there has been less attention to the violence of the secular military dictatorship that has replaced it, which has exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak regime.

After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms. Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.

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Thomas Merton

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Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice

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Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice Hardcover – August 15, 2022

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Merton’s classic Faith and Violence makes a powerful case for a theology of resistance that speaks with enduring urgency.

Violence in the modern world is a complex matter. The majority of the world’s most egregious acts of violence are not perpetrated at the level of the individual―rather, they occur at the hands of systematically organized bureaucracies. It is this “white-collar” violence that Merton addresses in Faith and Violence . Writing at the height of the Vietnam war, Merton masterfully illustrates the disastrous consequences of wielding and promoting violence. As an alternative, he proposes that Christians retrieve and embody a conception of love that seeks to win over one’s adversaries as collaborators rather than crushing or humiliating them. Merton’s poignant reflections deal with issues ranging from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement and the mid-20th century Death of God movement.

  • Print length 300 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher University of Notre Dame Press
  • Publication date August 15, 2022
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 0.69 x 8.5 inches
  • ISBN-10 0268206155
  • ISBN-13 978-0268206154
  • See all details

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Editorial Reviews

“Merton . . . provided a theology of Christian concern and commentary that America and the church in America desperately needs. This book is valuable for an authentic Christian testimony on the tragic years of the 1960’s.” ― Christian Living

“Thomas Merton’s courage, honesty and concern for all humanity and for his own people particularly is so terrifyingly positive that many of his own country and faith might find him extremely disconcerting. That surely is his strength. Faith and Violence is a meaningful book--direct and powerful--to which young minds in schools and colleges of this country should be exposed, both for its profound ideas and for the rich variety of its English prose style.” ― The Courier-Journal & Times

“Although it comes from a man who has chosen a life of silence and contemplation, this is an impassioned book, showing that the cloister may be a retreat from, but not necessarily an escape from the world, if one is genuinely committed to the Christian faith. Merton’s chief concern is not with the haphazard violence of oppressed individuals that is expressed in riots but with what he calls ‘white-collar violence, the systematically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction of man. . . . His thinking is radical, but unless one is committed to the belief that the status quo is the will of God, what he proposes deserves serious consideration.” ― Pulpit Digest

“ Faith and Violence is a Merton reader for our time. . . . Its thrust is simple: that ‘theology today needs to focus carefully upon the crucial problem of violence.’ Carefully and crucial are the key words there--the ones that interiorly bind together the pieces collected in the volume. The pieces, in turn, attempt to give a wide, interior acquaintance with the violence that Christianity has made peace with in the West. . . . Merton’s ability to mine [his themes] is often startling--and taken as a whole his is a valuable sourcebook in an area (theology and violence) that inspires much alarm and dogmatism, but little open and perdurable thought.” ― New Book Review

About the Author

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani for twenty-seven years, serving as Novice Master for over a decade. A prolific writer, his works include Faith and Violence , published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ University of Notre Dame Press (August 15, 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 300 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0268206155
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0268206154
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.09 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.5 x 0.69 x 8.5 inches
  • #6,939 in Christian Rites & Ceremonies Books
  • #42,604 in Catholicism (Books)
  • #105,909 in Theology (Books)

About the author

Thomas merton.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has millions of copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

After a rambunctious youth and adolescence, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism and entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), the most ascetic Roman Catholic monastic order.

The twenty-seven years he spent in Gethsemani brought about profound changes in his self-understanding. This ongoing conversion impelled him into the political arena, where he became, according to Daniel Berrigan, the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960's. Referring to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time, Merton was a strong supporter of the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." For his social activism Merton endured severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.

During his last years, he became deeply interested in Asian religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. After several meetings with Merton during the American monk's trip to the Far East in 1968, the Dali Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known. It was during this trip to a conference on East-West monastic dialogue that Merton died, in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, the victim of an accidental electrocution. The date marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of his entrance to Gethsemani.

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As a theologian, Martin Luther King reflected often on his understanding of nonviolence. He described his own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” in his first book,  Stride Toward Freedom , and in subsequent books and articles. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King,  Stride , 80). Both “morally and practically” committed to nonviolence, King believed that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” (King,  Stride , 79;  Papers  5:422 ).

King was first introduced to the concept of nonviolence when he read Henry David Thoreau’s  Essay on Civil Disobedience  as a freshman at  Morehouse College . Having grown up in Atlanta and witnessed segregation and racism every day, King was “fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system” (King,  Stride , 73).

In 1950, as a student at  Crozer Theological Seminary , King heard a talk by Dr. Mordecai  Johnson , president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson, who had recently traveled to  India , spoke about the life and teachings of Mohandas K.  Gandhi . Gandhi, King later wrote, was the first person to transform Christian love into a powerful force for social change. Gandhi’s stress on love and nonviolence gave King “the method for social reform that I had been seeking” (King,  Stride , 79).

While intellectually committed to nonviolence, King did not experience the power of nonviolent direct action first-hand until the start of the  Montgomery bus boycott  in 1955. During the boycott, King personally enacted Gandhian principles. With guidance from black pacifist Bayard  Rustin  and Glenn  Smiley  of the  Fellowship of Reconciliation , King eventually decided not to use armed bodyguards despite threats on his life, and reacted to violent experiences, such as the bombing of his home, with compassion. Through the practical experience of leading nonviolent protest, King came to understand how nonviolence could become a way of life, applicable to all situations. King called the principle of nonviolent resistance the “guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” ( Papers  5:423 ).

King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him (King,  Stride , 84). Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit” as well: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him” (King,  Stride , 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word  agape , which means “understanding,” or “redeeming good will for all men” (King,  Stride , 86). The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “The universe is on the side of justice” (King,  Stride , 88).

During the years after the bus boycott, King grew increasingly committed to nonviolence. An India trip in 1959 helped him connect more intimately with Gandhi’s legacy. King began to advocate nonviolence not just in a national sphere, but internationally as well: “the potential destructiveness of modern weapons” convinced King that “the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence” ( Papers  5:424 ).

After  Black Power  advocates such as Stokely  Carmichael  began to reject nonviolence, King lamented that some African Americans had lost hope, and reaffirmed his own commitment to nonviolence: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence” (King,  Where , 63–64). He wrote in his 1967 book,  Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? : “We maintained the hope while transforming the hate of traditional revolutions into positive nonviolent power. As long as the hope was fulfilled there was little questioning of nonviolence. But when the hopes were blasted, when people came to see that in spite of progress their conditions were still insufferable … despair began to set in” (King,  Where , 45). Arguing that violent revolution was impractical in the context of a multiracial society, he concluded: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil” (King,  Where , 62–63). 

King, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 13 April 1960, in  Papers  5:419–425 .

King,  Stride Toward Freedom , 1958.

King,  Where Do We Go from Here , 1967.

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Understanding the Relationship Between Christianity and Violence

Lloyd Steffen's new book explores the meaning of violence in Christianity through insecurity and identity.

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Emily Collins

  • Lloyd Steffen

Christian people hold viewpoints on violence that extend from radical pacifism to nonviolent resistance to just war to crusade. Wondering why people hold the viewpoints that they do, Lloyd Steffen , professor of religion studies and University Chaplain, reviewed the history of Christianity and violence, finding elements of social psychology Christians have used to explain their participation in violence.

Steffen explores these concepts in his latest book, Christianity and Violence , published in the Cambridge University Press Elements s eries .

"Religious people can act violently and when they do they employ religious justifications for violence, even if the religion places a heavy emphasis on peace, justice, forgiveness, love and nonviolence,” says Steffen. “Christians over the centuries have appealed to sacred scriptures and theology to endorse slavery, white supremacy, inquisition, war, colonial oppression and varieties of racism, sexism and all manner of violence. They have also appealed to Scripture and theology to oppose these same things. The violence is not in the religion itself but in the uses to which Christian people employ the religion for various purposes," he adds.

Violence as a Response to Insecurity and Identity

In many examples of violence, a combination of four elements can be found — insecurity and vulnerability, the dialectic of violence and nonviolence, the issue of punishment and identity stabilization, and actions to protect Christian identity while seeking social harmony.

Looking back to the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe as an example, Steffen found insecurities grounded in fear led people to attempt to control uncontrollable events. Further, increased anti-Semitic views were a result of this insecurity, as it was widely believed that the plague was a consequence of divine wrath against Christians.

“Human beings seek to understand the cause of natural events; this is a universal psychological reality,” explains Steffen. “Violence represented direct action aimed at exerting control over the uncontrollable; and it was also a fear-driven response, a lashing out against otherwise uncontrollable forces threatening life and Livelihood.”

In other examples, including racism and sexism, Steffen found violence emerged when Christians felt their identity was being threatened.

"Christians like many non-Christians resort to violence as a response to insecurity and various kinds of threats to identity and well-being," explains Steffen. "What Christians will do that non-Christians will not is appeal to Christian values to justify the stances they take."

How Christians move forward is a question of ethics, says Steffen, noting that religion is not an agent itself, but a framework used to make decisions that can be either destructive or life-affirming.

"This way of looking at religion actually elevates the importance of ethics and for this simple reason — every religious person has to make decisions about what kind of religious person they are going to be. That is an ethics issue even more than a purely religious question," says Steffen.

Steffen suggests a deeper understanding of the relationship between Christianity and violence could lead Christians to rethink how they exemplify their Christian identities in the world.

"Knowing that Christian beliefs have been used to justify violence and visit harm to people should, it seems to me, lead to reflection on how to enact nonviolent values important in Christian teaching — love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and respect for the dignity of all people.”

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Collection of essays answers fundamental questions of nonviolence in Christianity

faith and violence essay

by John Dear

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It's hard to handle the profound challenges of Gospel nonviolence, especially when they stand in such stark contrast to our culture, our country, our world, even our church. That's why this new collection of essays, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (edited by Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock Pub., 2012, with a foreword by Stanley Hauerwas and an afterword by Shane Claiborne), is such an important book for these painful times.

You'll say I'm biased, since an essay of mine on Jesus' civil disobedience in the temple is included, but I say this is a necessary book, even required reading for every Christian struggling to accept the nonviolence of Jesus in this world of permanent warfare.

I agree with my friend, evangelical activist and author Shane Claiborne, who writes in the afterword that this book will become "a classic, a handbook for Christian peacemakers around the world."

Yes, we need to fight for justice and peace, but nonviolently. So maybe a better title might have been A Faith Not Worth Killing For . The point: Christians do not kill, no matter what the cause, no matter how noble, no matter how holy. We do not kill. End of story.

If only that were true. In some remote non-Christian corners of the world, people think that to be a Christian requires killing. Western Christians kill in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; they threaten to kill now in Iran. Isn't killing what it means to be a Christian? they might ask. Of course not. The tragic truth is that the Gospel forbids killing; it commands universal, nonviolent love.

The editors asked pastors, activists and scholars to confront the basic questions of Gospel nonviolence and gathered them together in a one-of-a-kind collection that will feed the mind and stir the soul. I urge everyone interested in following the nonviolent Jesus to get this book (available from wipfandstock.com ).

"I should like to think that this book represents a new stage in the conversation between Christians about the viability of nonviolence as a stance necessary if we are to be adequate witnesses to Jesus Christ," theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes. "Too often, past discussions of Christian alternatives for justifying Christian participation or nonparticipation in war or other forms of violence address their interlocutor as if he or she is tone deaf. By contrast, the authors of the essays in this book take seriously objections to their commitment to nonviolence. As a result, these essays help pacifist and non-pacifist alike better understand that a commitment to Christian nonviolence is not so much a position but rather a declaration that requires ongoing reflection."

  • Isn't pacifism passive?
  • What about the protection of third party innocents?
  • What would you do if someone were attacking a loved one?
  • What about Hitler?
  • Must Christian Pacifists Reject Police Force?
  • What about those men and women who gave up their lives so that you and I could be free?
  • Does God expect nations to turn the other cheek?
  • What about war and violence in the Old Testament?
  • What about Romans 13: 'Let every soul be subject'?
  • Didn't Jesus say he came not to bring peace but a sword?
  • What about the Centurion?
  • Didn't Jesus overturn tables and chase people out of the temple with a whip?
  • What about the warrior Jesus in Revelation?

I've spent my life traveling the world speaking about the nonviolence of Jesus, and write this from the Yorkshire Dales in the north of England after having addressed a thousand Christians at the annual Greenbelt Festival near London. These were almost the exact questions I was asked. They are the standard questions raised by everyone when they are first confronted with the nonviolence of Jesus. That's why I think this book is so important: It deals with every one of our basic questions, objections and problems about the nonviolent Jesus. If we want to become mature Christian disciples, we need to deal with these questions.

I found many helpful insights, such as the conclusion of Samuel Wells' essay about Jesus' question regarding peace or the sword: "Jesus does not call for a sword of violence. That is not the way of peace. But sometimes a sword of division is called for. This is not the nature of peace, but it is sometimes the inevitable result of witnessing to the truth of Christ. To avoid division at all costs may sometimes be the substitution of a bland peace for a truer, more hard-earned one. Sometimes the sword of division is needed, that healing may more truly come."

In his conclusion, editor Tripp York tells the story of St. Maximilian of Tebessa, who was executed in 295 for refusing to fight for the Roman military.

"I cannot serve in the army; I am a Christian," St. Maximilian famously told the proconsul. "Cut off my head if you like, but I cannot be a soldier of the world. I am a solider of my God. My service is for my own Lord. I cannot engage in worldly warfare. I have already told you that I am a Christian."

Maximilian's testimony and martyrdom were standard fare in the first three centuries. To be a Christian meant you were nonviolent, which meant you refused to join the military or serve the empire, so you were probably killed.

"What we need to ask now is this: How did a once predominantly nonviolent movement like Christianity ever become so thoroughly entrenched in a warrior mythos?" Tripp York asks. "How has Jesus been so easily co-opted into a mentality by which many of his followers are willing to kill to preserve their own life, their family, or their nation? How is it possible that so many Christians throughout history and today are capable of killing in the name of the very one who demands that we love our enemies?"

"It seems we have strayed a long way from the path of Jesus," York concludes. "We are told by politicians, moviemakers, and no shortage of priests and ministers that the only good, responsible, and moral way to deal with our enemies is through violence. That Christians ever found themselves in a position of having to have a discussion on the ethics of waterboarding, much less stockpiling nuclear arms, is proof that our understanding of God certainly has nothing in common with Jesus. Jesus freely gave his life for his enemies, and then, no surprise, demanded that we do the same. For what else could he have meant when he commanded us to pick up our cross and follow him?"

"This conversation about violence is one of the most urgent conversations of our day," Shane Claiborne writes in his afterword. "We have tried the 'eye for an eye' thing over and over. We have learned the 'pick up the sword, die by the sword' less all too well. We see the collateral damage of the myth of redemptive violence nearly every day -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and among the soldiers themselves whose suicide deaths outnumber combat deaths. But as Jesus promises us: 'there is a better way.'"

Shane Claiborne continues:

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For will put fresh wind in the sails of a postmodern generation that is quickly moving away from the triumphalistic, militant, God-and-country Christianity of American theocracy and toward the peaceable, humble, uncompromisingly nonviolent Christianity of Christ again. At the end of the day, that's what we need -- a Christianity that looks like Jesus again, and that takes the cross seriously. After all, we can look at the Bible and find verses that justify violence and nonviolence. We can look at history and find strong arguments to make a case for war and to make a case for pacifism. But in the end we must ask, what looks the most like Jesus?

If we want to see what love looks like as it stares evil in the face, we need only look at the cross. It is the cross that shows us the nonviolent love of God, a God who loves enemies so much he dies for them ... for us. It is that cross that makes no sense to the wisdom of this world and that confounds the logic of smart bombs. That triumph of Christ's execution and resurrection was a victory over violence, hatred, sin, and everything ugly in the world. And it is the triumph of the glorious resurrection that fills us with the hope that death is dead -- if only we will let it die.

As the early Christians said, "For Christ, we can die, but we cannot kill." That is a truth at the heart of the Gospel: there is something worth dying for, but nothing in the world worth killing for.

John Dear will lead a daylong retreat, "Blessed are the Peacemakers," Sept. 29 in Los Angeles. He will speak on "Thomas Merton and the Wisdom of Nonviolence" Oct. 6 in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. To see John's 2012 speaking schedule, go to John Dear's website . His new book, Lazarus, Come Forth! , explores Jesus as the God of life calling humanity (in the symbol of the dead Lazarus) out of the tombs of the culture of war and death. John's talk at last year's Sabeel conference in Bethlehem is featured in the new book Challenging Empire . John is profiled with Dan Berrigan and Roy Bourgeois in a new book, Divine Rebels by Deena Guzder (Lawrence Hill Books). This book and other recent books, including Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings ; Put Down Your Sword and A Persistent Peace , are available from Amazon.com.

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Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy - By Ronald E. Osborn

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2011, Religious Studies Review

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Modern Theology

Eric Gregory

This article takes up a charge often directed to neo-Augustinians by neo-Anabaptists that their defense of just war lacks adequate theological foundations. It is the case that most contemporary just war advocates, even within Christian ethics, no longer embed their accounts within a distinctively theological context, let alone a robust appeal to a doctrine of God or divine providence attentive to the divine One who really entered history, suffered defeat, and conquered death. This development can be seen as a form of self-denial for the sake of consensus and casuistry. In so doing, however, they confirm the claim of many Christian pacifists that just war reasoning betrays the radical creativity of Christian virtue in the name of some external (often duty-based) notion of responsibility and retributive justice. My project differs. It taps into resurgent interest in political theology as a way to remedy this neglect at least a little. I focus on two aspects of political theology that bear primarily on the relation of the temporal and the eternal: providence and suffering. They are rooted in fundamental theology, guided by the memory of being grafted as strangers into the God of Israel, the same God who showed compassion for Esau even while blessing Jacob. Just war tradition is an act of compassion rooted in providence and the inevitable suffering faced in history. The point is to re-theologize a living tradition that generations of the ecumenical church bequeathed to us as an exercise of their Christian imagination within their historical contexts where they took all of history seriously as God's time. Wary of idolatry, we should strive for more than critique or a disappointing choice between Christendom or Church as the only theological word to the nations.

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With the United States withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran developing nuclear weapons with clear animosity toward Israel, and multiple Arab governments in transition, a discussion of “Holy War” or Just War Theory is highly relevant.

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At least three trends mark the terrain of Christian peace studies in the Anglophone world in recent years: a renewed debate about the place of active nonviolence and the just war tradition in Catholic social teaching, the rise of restorative justice in efforts to reconcile after violence, and a turn toward indigenous peace practices for resolving local conflicts. These three trends reflect robust dialogue amongst Christian scholars, working across disciplines, to engender greater peace and justice in the world today.

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The truth about whether Islam is a religion of violence or peace

faith and violence essay

Lecturer, History and Political Thought, Western Sydney University

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Milad Milani does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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faith and violence essay

Islam has a history of violence. Muslims can be violent. Denying this is not at all different to denying that Islam is peaceful and that all Muslims are pacifists. The dichotomy is simply false.

The Qur’an contains injunctions that call both for peace and for violence. The problem is not that they are there; the difficulty is that non-violent and militant Muslims appear equally justified. For some, the peace of God is through his sword; for others, it is found in his unbounded mercy. For example:

The servants of the All-merciful are those who walk in the earth modestly and who, when the ignorant address them, say, ‘Peace’. (Q 25:63) Fight them, and God will chastise them at your hands and degrade them, and He will help you against them, and bring healing to the breasts of a people who believe. (Q 9:14)

Part of the problem is that there are concerns about religious content that are not dealt with openly. And there are just too many hard conclusions made about religious texts, often made by those who know less than they claim.

Looking at the three major religious traditions that believe in one God (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), all three make reference in their religious texts to both violence and peace.

So the fact that a religious text contains violent verses doesn’t make it a violent religion. But it’s also a fact that a religious text containing peaceful verses doesn’t make that religion peaceful either.

‘By their fruit you will recognise them’

Violence is not new to the history of religions, nor is it a phenomenon solely attached to the history of Islam.

Christians and Buddhists also have a track record of fanaticism, such as the bombing of abortion clinics and hardliner Buddhists in Myanmar .

Religious content may be a catalyst for violent action, but it should be remembered that its reading relies heavily on human interpretation. To put it mildly, “ The world is bleeding to death through misunderstanding .”

Of course “ it can never be right to kill in the name of God ”, but it should also be dawning on all peoples that it is time to let go of pretensions that anyone knows the will of God.

This point directly underlines Darren Aronofky’s recent film portrayal of the biblical story of Noah. Whether you like the movie or not, it communicates an important message: the absolute silence of God.

In the film, Noah is forced to wrestle with his deepest, darkest self to understand and make decisions that will affect the lives of others. When Noah, played by Russell Crowe (and shown in the clip below), is about to kill the twin daughters born to his daughter-in-law – because he thinks it is the will of God – at length he cannot. He cannot find it in himself to perform such an act.

The film is a timely reminder that sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we make the right choices. And that is what is at the heart of any debate on religion, religious content and its interpretation: the choices we make.

Rather than listening to the claims and counter-claims about what “authentic” Islam really stands for, we might be better to pay more attention to how advocates of their faith choose to live their lives.

That way, it might be easier to avoid making assumptions about what the religion might mean, and instead focus more on how the faithful live.

The enemy of peace is not religion, but those who pursue acts of terror and violence against the innocent in the name of religion.

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The Protesters and the President

Over the past week, thousands of students protesting the war in gaza have been arrested..

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.

From “New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

Free, free, Palestine!

Free, free Palestine!

Free, free, free Palestine!

Over the past week, what had begun as a smattering of pro-Palestinian protests on America’s college campuses exploded into a nationwide movement —

United, we’ll never be defeated!

— as students at dozens of universities held demonstrations, set up encampments, and at times seized academic buildings.


response, administrators at many of those colleges decided to crack down —

Do not throw things at our officers. We will use chemical munitions that include gas.

— calling in local police to carry out mass detentions and arrests. From Arizona State —

In the name of the state of Arizona, I declare this gathering to be a violation of —

— to the University of Georgia —

— to City College of New York.


As of Thursday, police had arrested 2,000 students on more than 40 campuses. A situation so startling that President Biden could no longer ignore it.

Look, it’s basically a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of what’s right. There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.

Today, my colleagues Jonathan Wolfe and Peter Baker on a history-making week. It’s Friday, May 3.

Jonathan, as this tumultuous week on college campuses comes to an end, it feels like the most extraordinary scenes played out on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles, where you have been reporting. What is the story of how that protest started and ultimately became so explosive?

So late last week, pro-Palestinian protesters set up an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles.

From the river to the sea!

Palestine will be free!

Palestine —

It was right in front of Royce Hall, which I don’t know if you are familiar with UCLA, but it’s a very famous, red brick building. It’s on all the brochures. And there was two things that stood out about this encampment. And the first thing was that they barricaded the encampment.

The encampment, complete with tents and barricades, has been set up in the middle of the Westwood campus. The protesters demand —

They have metal grates. They had wooden pallets. And they separated themselves from the campus.

This is kind of interesting. There are controlling access, as we’ve been talking about. They are trying to control who is allowed in, who is allowed out.

They sort of policed the area. So they only would let people that were part of their community, they said, inside.

I’m a UCLA student. I deserve to go here. We paid tuition. This is our school. And they’re not letting me walk in. Why can’t I go? Will you let me go in?

We’re not engaging with that.

Then you can move. Will you move?

And the second thing that stood out about this camp was that it immediately attracted pro-Israel counterprotesters.

And what did the leadership of UCLA say about all of this, the encampment and these counterprotesters?

So the University of California’s approach was pretty unique. They had a really hands-off approach. And they allowed the pro-Palestinian protesters to set up an encampment. They allowed the counterprotesters to happen. I mean, this is a public university, so anyone who wants to can just enter the campus.

So when do things start to escalate?

So there were definitely fights and scuffles through the weekend. But a turning point was really Sunday —


— when this group called the Israeli American Council, they’re a nonprofit organization, organized a rally on campus. The Israeli American Council has really been against these pro-Palestinian protests. They say that they’re antisemitic. So this nonprofit group sets up a stage with a screen really just a few yards from the pro-Palestinian encampment.

We are grateful that this past Friday, the University of California, stated that they will continue to oppose any calls for boycott and divestment from Israel!


And they host speakers and they held prayers.

Jewish students, you’re not alone! Oh, you’re not alone! We are right here with you! And we’re right here with you in until —


And then lots of other people start showing up. And the proximity between protesters and counterprotesters and even some agitators, makes it really clear that something was about to happen.

And what was that? What ended up happening?

On Monday night, a group of about 60 counterprotesters tried to breach the encampment there. And the campus police had to break it up. And things escalated again on Tuesday.

They stormed the barricades and it’s a complete riot.


Put it down! Put it down! Put it down!

I went to report on what happened just a few hours after it ended.

And I spoke to a lot of protesters. And I met one demonstrator, Marie.

Yeah, my first name is Marie. M-A-R-I-E. Last name, Salem.

And Marie described what happened.

So can you just tell me a little bit about what happened last night?

Last night, we were approached by over a hundred counterprotesters who were very mobilized and ready to break into camp. They proceeded to try to breach our barricades extremely violently.

Marie said it started getting out of hand when counterprotesters started setting off fireworks towards the camp.

They had bear spray. They had Mace. They were throwing wood and spears. Throwing water bottles, continuing fireworks.

So she said that they were terrified. It was just all hands on deck. Everyone was guarding the barricades.

Every time someone experienced the bear spray or Mace or was hit and bleeding, we had some medics in the front line. And then we had people —

And they said that they were just trying to take care of people who were injured.

I mean, at any given moment, there was 5 to 10 people being treated.

So what she described to me sounded more like a battlefield than a college campus.

And it was just a complete terror and complete abandonment of the university, as we also watched private security watch this the entire time on the stairs. And some LAPD were stationed about a football field length back from these counterprotesters, and did not make a single arrest, did not attempt to stop any violence, did not attempt to get in between the two groups. No attempt.

I should say, I spoke to a state authorities and eyewitnesses and they confirmed Marie’s account about what happened that night, both in terms of the violence that took place at the encampment and how law enforcement responded. So in the end, people ended up fighting for hours before the police intervened.


So in her mind, UCLA’s hands-off approach, which seemed to have prevailed throughout this entire period, ends up being way too hands off in a moment when students were in jeopardy.

That’s right. And so at this point, the protesters in the encampment started preparing for two possibilities. One was that this group of counterprotesters would return and attack them. And the second one was that the police would come and try to break up this encampment.

So they started building up the barricades. They start reinforcing them with wood. And during the day, hundreds of people came and brought them supplies. They brought food.

They brought helmets, goggles, earplugs, saline solution, all sorts of things these people could use to defend themselves. And so they’re really getting ready to burrow in. And in the end, it was the police who came.


So Wednesday at 7:00 PM, they made an announcement on top of Royce Hall, which overlooks the encampment —

— administrative criminal actions up to and including arrest. Please leave the area immediately.

And they told people in the encampment that they needed to leave or face arrest.


And so as night falls, they put on all this gear that they’ve been collecting, the goggles, the masks and the earplugs, and they wait for the police.


And so the police arrive and station themselves right in front of the encampment. And then at a certain point, they storm the back stairs of the encampment.


And this is the stairs that the protesters have been using to enter and exit the camp. And they set up a line. And the protesters do this really surprising thing.

The people united!

They open up umbrellas. They have these strobe lights. And they’re flashing them at the police, who just slowly back out of the camp.


And so at this point, they’re feeling really great. They’re like, we did it. We pushed them out of their camp. And when the cops try to push again on those same set of stairs —


Hold your ground!

— the protesters organized themselves with all these shields that they had built earlier. And they go and confront them. And so there’s this moment where the police are trying to push up the stairs. And the protesters are literally pushing them back.

Push them back! Push them back!

Push them back!

And at a certain point, dozens of the police officers who were there, basically just turn around and leave.

So how does this eventually come to an end?

So at a certain point, the police push in again. Most of the conflict is centered at the front of these barricades. And the police just start tearing them apart.



They removed the front barricade. And in its place is this group of protesters who have linked arms and they’re hanging on to each other. And the police are trying to pull protesters one by one away from this group.

He’s just a student! Back off!

But they’re having a really hard time because there’s so many protesters. And they’re all just hanging on to each other.

We’re moving back now.

So at a certain point, one of the police officers started firing something into the crowd. We don’t exactly know what it was. But it really spooked the protesters.

Stop shooting at kids! Fuck you! Fuck them!

They started falling back. Everyone was really scared. The protesters were yelling, don’t shoot us. And at that point, the police just stormed the camp.

Get back. Get back.

Back up now!

And so after about four hours of this, the police pushed the protesters out of the encampment. They had arrested about 200 protesters. And this was finally over.

And I’m just curious, Jonathan, because you’re standing right there, you are bearing witness to this all, what you were thinking, what your impressions of this were.

I mean, I was stunned. These are mostly teenagers. This is a college campus, an institution of higher learning. And what I saw in front of me looked like a war zone.


The massive barricade, the police coming in with riot gear, and all this violence was happening in front of these red brick buildings that are famous for symbolizing a really open college campus. And everything about it was just totally surreal.

Well, Jonathan, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Thanks, Michael.

We’ll be right back.

Peter, around 10:00 AM on Thursday morning as the smoke is literally still clearing at the University of California Los Angeles, you get word that President Biden is going to speak.

Right, exactly. It wasn’t on his public schedule. He was about to head to Andrews Air Force base in order to take a trip. And then suddenly, we got the notice that he was going to be addressing the cameras in the Roosevelt Room.

They didn’t tell us what he was going to talk about. But it was pretty clear, I think. Everybody understood that it was going to be about these campus protests, about the growing violence and the clashes with police, and the arrests that the entire country had been watching on TV every night for the past week, and I think that we were watching just that morning with UCLA. And it reached the point where he just had to say something.

And why, in his estimation and those of his advisors, was this the moment that Biden had to say something?

Well, it kind of reached a boiling point. It kind of reached the impression of a national crisis. And you expect to hear your president address it in this kind of a moment, particularly because it’s about his own policy. His policy toward Israel is at the heart of these protests. And he was getting a lot of grief. He was getting a lot of grief from Republicans who were chiding him for not speaking out personally. He hadn’t said anything in about 10 days.

He’s getting a lot of pressure from Democrats, too, who wanted him to come out and be more forceful. It wasn’t enough, in their view, to leave it to his spokespeople to say something. Moderate Democrats felt he needed to come out and take some leadership on this.

And so at the appointed moment, Peter, what does Biden actually say in the Roosevelt Room of the White House?

Good morning.

Before I head to North Carolina, I wanted to speak for a few moments about what’s going on, on our college campuses here.

Well, it comes in the Roosevelt Room and he talks to the camera. And he talks about the two clashing imperatives of American principle.

The first is the right to free speech and for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard. The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld.

One is freedom of speech. The other is the rule of law.

In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues. But, but, neither are we a lawless country.

In other words, what he’s saying is, yes, I support the right of these protesters to come out and object to even my own policy, in effect, is what he’s saying. But it shouldn’t trail into violence.

Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses —

It shouldn’t trail into taking over buildings and obstructing students from going to class or canceling their graduations.

Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.

And he leans very heavily into this idea that what he’s seeing these days goes beyond the line.

I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions. In America, we respect the right and protect the right for them to express that. But it doesn’t mean anything goes.

It has crossed into harassment and expressions of hate in a way that goes against the national character.

As president, I will always defend free speech. And I will always be just as strong and standing up for the rule of law. That’s my responsibility to you, the American people, and my obligation to the Constitution. Thank you very much.

Right, as I watched the speech, I heard his overriding message to basically be, I, the president of the United States, am drawing a line. These protests and counterprotests, the seizing and defacing of campus buildings, class disruption, all of it, name calling, it’s getting out of hand. That there’s a right way to do this. And what I’m seeing is the wrong way to do it and it has to stop.

That’s exactly right. And as he’s wrapping up, reporters, of course, ask questions. And the first question is —

Mr. President, have the protests forced you to reconsider any of the policies with regard to the region?

— will this change your policy toward the war in Gaza? Which, of course, is exactly what the protesters want. That’s the point.

And he basically says —

— no. Just one word, no.

Right. And that felt kind of important, as brief and fleeting as it was, because at the end of the day, what he’s saying to these protesters is, I’m not going to do what you want. And basically, your protests are never going to work. I’m not going to change the US’s involvement in this war.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. He is saying, I’m not going to be swayed by angry people in the streets. I’m going to do what I think is right when it comes to foreign policy. Now, what he thinks is that they’re not giving him enough credit for trying to achieve what they want, which is an end of the war.

He has been pressuring Israel and Hamas to come to a deal for a ceasefire that will, hopefully, in his view, would then lead to a more enduring end of hostilities. But, of course, this deal hasn’t gone anywhere. Hamas, in particular, seems to be resisting it. And so the president is left with a policy of arming Israel without having found a way yet to stop the war.

Right. I wonder, though, Peter, if we’re being honest, don’t these protests, despite what Biden is saying there, inevitably exert a kind of power over him? Becoming one of many pressures, but a pressure nonetheless that does influence how he thinks about these moments. I mean, here he is at the White House devoting an entire conversation to the nation to these campus protests.

Well, look, he knows this feeds into the political environment in which he’s running for re-election, in which he basically has people who otherwise might be his supporters on the left disenchanted with him. And he knows that there’s a cost to be paid. And that certainly, obviously, is in his head as he’s thinking about what to do.

But I think his view of the war is changing by the day for all sorts of reasons. And most of them having to do with realities on the ground. He has decided that Israel has gone far enough, if not too far, in the way it has conducted this operation in Gaza.

He is upset about the humanitarian crisis there. And he’s looking for a way to wrap all this up into a move that would move to peacemaking, beginning to get the region to a different stage, maybe have a deal with the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for some sort of a two-state solution that would eventually resolve the Palestinian issue at its core.

So I think it’s probably fair to say that the protests won’t move him in an immediate kind of sense. But they obviously play into the larger zeitgeist of the moment. And I also think it’s important to know who Joe Biden is at heart.

Explain that.

He’s not drawn to activism. He was around in 1968, the last time we saw this major conflagration at Columbia University, for instance. At the time, Joe Biden was a law student in Syracuse, about 250 miles away. And he was an institutionalist even then.

He was just focused on his studies. He was about to graduate. He was thinking about the law career. And he didn’t really have much of an affinity, I think, for his fellow students of that era, for their activist way of looking at things.

He tells a story in his memoir about walking down a street in Syracuse one day to go to the pizza shop with some friends. And they walk by the administration building. And they see people hanging out of the windows. They’re hanging SDS banners. That’s the Students for a Democratic Society, which was one of the big activist groups of the era.

And he says, they were taking over the building. And we looked up and said, look at those assholes. That’s how far apart from the antiwar movement I was. That’s him writing in his memoir.

So to a young Joe Biden, those who devote their time and their energy to protesting the war are, I don’t need to repeat the word twice, but they’re losers. They’re not worth his time.

Well, I think it’s the tactics they’re using more than the goals that he disagreed with. He would tell you he disagreed with the Vietnam War. He was for civil rights. But he thought that taking over a building was performative, was all about getting attention, and that there was a better way, in his view, to do it.

He was somebody who wanted to work inside the system. He said in an interview quite a few years back, he says, look, I was wearing sports coats in that era. He saw himself becoming part of the system, not somebody trying to tear it down.

And so how should we think about that Joe Biden, when we think about this Joe Biden? I mean, the Joe Biden who, as a young man, looked upon antiwar protesters with disdain and the one who is now president and his very own policies have inspired such ferocious campus protests?

Yeah, that Joe Biden, the 1968 Joe Biden, he could just throw on a sports coat, go to the pizza shop with his friends, make fun of the activists and call them names, and then that’s it. They didn’t have to affect his life. But that’s not what 2024 Joe Biden can do.

Now, wherever he goes, he’s dogged by this. He goes to speeches and people are shouting at him, Genocide Joe! Genocide Joe! He is the target of the same kind of a movement that he disdained in 1968. And so as much as he would like to ignore it or move on or focus on other things, I think this has become a defining image of his year and one of the defining images, perhaps, of his presidency. And 2024 Joe Biden can’t simply ignore it.

Well, Peter, thank you very much. We appreciate it.


Here’s what else you need to know today. During testimony on Thursday in Donald Trump’s hush money trial, jurors heard a recording secretly made by Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, in which Trump discusses a deal to buy a woman’s silence. In the recording, Trump asks Cohen about how one payment made by Trump to a woman named Karen McDougal would be financed. The recording could complicate efforts by Trump’s lawyers to distance him from the hush money deals at the center of the trial.

A final thing to know, tomorrow morning, we’ll be sending you the latest episode from our colleagues over at “The Interview.” This week, David Marchese talks with comedy star Marlon Wayans about his new stand-up special.

It’s a high that you get when you don’t know if this joke that I’m about to say is going to offend everybody. Are they going to walk out? Are they going to boo me? Are they going to hate this. And then you tell it, and everybody cracks up and you’re like, woo.

Today’s episode was produced by Diana Nguyen, Luke Vander Ploeg, Alexandra Leigh Young, Nina Feldman, and Carlos Prieto. It was edited by Lisa Chow and Michael Benoist. It contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you on Monday.

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  • May 3, 2024   •   25:33 The Protesters and the President
  • May 2, 2024   •   29:13 Biden Loosens Up on Weed
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Featuring Jonathan Wolfe and Peter Baker

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Warning: this episode contains strong language.

Over the past week, students at dozens of universities held demonstrations, set up encampments and, at times, seized academic buildings. In response, administrators at many of those colleges decided to crack down and called in the local police to detain and arrest demonstrators.

As of Thursday, the police had arrested 2,000 people across more than 40 campuses, a situation so startling that President Biden could no longer ignore it.

Jonathan Wolfe, who has been covering the student protests for The Times, and Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent, discuss the history-making week.

On today’s episode

faith and violence essay

Jonathan Wolfe , a senior staff editor on the newsletters team at The New York Times.

faith and violence essay

Peter Baker , the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times covering President Biden and his administration.

A large crowd of people in a chaotic scene. Some are wearing police uniforms, other are wearing yellow vests and hard hats.

Background reading

As crews cleared the remnants of an encampment at U.C.L.A., students and faculty members wondered how the university could have handled protests over the war in Gaza so badly .

Biden denounced violence on campus , breaking his silence after a rash of arrests.

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Jonathan Wolfe is a senior staff editor on the newsletters team at The Times. More about Jonathan Wolfe

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for The Times. He has covered the last five presidents and sometimes writes analytical pieces that place presidents and their administrations in a larger context and historical framework. More about Peter Baker

Luke Vander Ploeg is a senior producer on “The Daily” and a reporter for the National Desk covering the Midwest. More about Luke Vander Ploeg



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