Defending Violent Christianity
By: Robert D. Brinsmead
Trying to defend Christianity from its violent, blood soaked history is not possible. Why did the early Christians (390 CE) burn the great library of Alexandria? Why did Justinian pass a decree that anyone who differed from the orthodox Christian teaching should be killed? The contest between the Athanasius doctrine and the Arian doctrine was a 400 –year contest from 400 CE to 8CE. As Jesuit historian Guthrie points out, the contest was won more by the sword than by theological argument. The tactic of the bishops was generally to convert the ladies of the King’s court, like wife and daughters, and then they would persuade the barbarian King (Franks, Visigoths, Allemande and so on). When the King was converted to the faith, he would then make a decree to put all who supported Arianism to the sword. What about the killing of almost a million peaceful Cathars in the North of France prior to the Crusades? If you want a good historical saga on the Inquisition and how widespread its persecution was, and all the pogroms against the Jews, James Michener’s ‘The Source’ gives a good run down on that history. A few years ago, the great Catholic theologian Hans Kung soberly reflected that Christians had made more martyrs than they produced from their own ranks. Overall, I would have to say that Islam has not killed as many people for religious reasons as Christianity. Even the Reformation did not stop the bloodshed – for example, the Thirty Year War between Catholics and Protestants; the slaughter of 60,000 Protestants in one night in France in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. It was the Enlightenment and the birth of liberal democracies (Jefferson, Paine, Voltaire, Locke and Mills) that put an end to religious intolerance. Even the Puritan founding fathers of America did not overcome their disposition of religious persecution. And we must remember there are other ways to persecute dissenters than physical punishment – a lot of social persecution still goes on in the Christian sects. A few years ago when I was in Colorado I was stunned at the amount of social persecution that went on within a Mennonite sect which practised “shunning” to shame people and force them to submit to sect rule.
The first man to write a critical study of the life of Jesus (it was the 19th century) did not dare to publish it. It was published posthumously and became the pathfinder that led to a scholarly movement called The First Quest for the Historical Jesus.
The story of the Bible is like the story of humanity crawling out of a deep, dark hole toward the light. That deep dark hole certainly obscured their vision of God which could never of course rise any higher than the human vision of what it meant to be human. The light grows, especially in the insight of the prophets – a vision that remained to be completed by the historical Jesus. For all their humanitarian vision and their grasping of a much better view of the justice of God as a gracious liberation from oppression, the prophets were not quite able to grasp what Jesus grasped. The prophets’ vision was still tainted by lapses back into the old view of a very violent Deity and the God of Israel and the special people syndrome whose destiny was to rule and subdue all nations to its superior glory.
The whole NDE thing teaches us one thing – that when every other voice is hushed, there is deep within the human psyche that still small voice that is finally heard quite distinctly. And it says something like this, “Love is all there is.” The confrontation with death which may come one way or another does something, as one writer put it, “it wonderfully concentrates the mind.” It sharpens the distinction between what is of value and forever, and what is transient. It is a worthy cause to help people achieve what they really want to achieve.
Traditional Christian theology is built around the premise that Justice and Mercy are naturally opposite to each other and that the only way they could be reconciled in God’s relationship to sinful humanity was through the atoning death of Christ. But a reading of the word Justice in the OT, especially in the Prophets and some of the Psalms, makes it quite clear that Justice is a merciful act of delivering the oppressed. I have to give credit to both Judaism and Islam for maintaining it is God’s prerogative to be forgiving and merciful without any demand of atonement. This was also the position of Jewish Christianity and also the author of Luke-Acts which has no theology of atonement. That was Paul’s contribution.
Historically, Judaism was more focused on orthopraxy (correct doing) while classical Christian teaching became focused on orthodoxy (correct thinking). James Michener tells some great stories in his historical saga (The Source) to illustrate the different approach of the Jews and the Christians. The Church became obsessed with heresy. No one got burned at the stake for doing bad things.
There are the teachings OF Jesus and the teachings ABOUT Jesus. No one ever killed others because he was dedicated to the teachings of Jesus. But you can read all the Creeds of the Church beginning with the so-called Apostle’s Creed and not one of these creeds says a thing about the teachings of Jesus – not a single thing! This sounds incredible, but it is plain fact. But Christians did kill people out of loyalty to this and that Creed, all devoted to teachings about Jesus – his person and work.
All the great intra-Christian fights were concerning attempts to spell out a Christology or in the case of the Reformation versus the Catholics, a Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake, not because he defected from the teachings of Jesus, but because he questioned what the Church Creeds say about the person of Christ and his place in the Trinity. I am sorry to have to say that people killed each other fighting over such rubbish.
Jesus’ teaching was all about loving our enemies and not retaliating against them just as his Abba Father behaves toward others without discrimination. How could that kind of teaching ever motivate anybody to persecute and kill anybody else?