While teaching a class on medieval Christianity, I had my students explore the idea of religious violence as a spiritual exercise. No, it wasn’t a training camp for radical Christianity or a justification for religious violence, it was a history in perception.
The Crusades, as many (#notall) Christians saw it back then, were an opportunity to grow closer to God—even find salvation. These wars were—to the dismay of my students—considered spiritual practices at the time.
It was Pope Eugenius III who, in launching the Second Crusade in 1154, picked up this established banner of sanctified violence left by his predecessors. In his call to join the fight, and while passing out crosses to the crowds, his message was that of God-sanctioned piety.
He called “those who are of God” to “oppose the infidels” (e.g. Muslims). Death during the Crusades meant that “he who shall devoutly begin so sacred a journey and shall accomplish it, or shall die during it, shall obtain absolution for all his sins which with a humble and contrite heart he shall confess.” Many of my students remember hearing words like “infidel” and promises for salvation upon death before, but it was connected in their minds to 9/11 and Islam.
The language behind the Crusades was already familiar to any medieval Christian. It can be found throughout the Bible and re-appropriated for any given historical context. Not every Christian today, however, finds the violence of the Bible as justifying the same.
A while back I wrote a piece for On Faith exploring newer theological takes on the violence of the Bible (“Let There Be Violence?“), asking theologians what they thought of the extreme violence the Bible condones in the name of God.
For example, James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, said “I don’t think that we have in the Bible revealed truths not produced by or mediated through human minds…to treat commands to commit genocide as though they originated from God is to empty of all meaning any claims we make about God being loving or interested in redemption.”
He noted that the suicide death of Samson—hailed in Hebrews 11:32-34 as a redemptive act—was “almost a ‘suicide bombing.”
Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, also took a sensible approach to reading the violence of the Bible.
“Biblical portrayals of . . . God-sanctioned violence are typically given a free pass by Christian communities that look to scripture to give accurate and absolutely authoritative information about God,” he told me. This hits on an important distinction. When Christians see violence as God-sanctioned, they do frequently give it a free pass—perhaps when seeing it in the Bible or as a part of the U.S. military. But when they do not believe God-sanctions it, and yet someone who claims to be a Christian commits violent acts, what do they think then?
This idea of violence and religion and the “free pass” continues to linger for me. It is, in fact, a point that contributed to my own departure from faith. (That is for a different post.)
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) explores this in a different way, asking is someone who acts violently in the name of a faith truly a member of that faith? PRRI’s conclusion was that Christians—especially evangelical Christians—tend to have a double standard on religious violence. They tend to say that those who commit violent acts in the name of Christianity are not true Christians, while those who do as Muslims are true Muslims.
For a recent piece I wrote for The Daily Beast, I explore this question with several theologians and found a variety of responses. What is apparent is that while surveys may gauge the zeitgeist, when you get down to the mind of a theologian, the nuances—that don’t adhere in the general public—begin to flesh out.
Responses ranged from yes, those who commit violent acts in the name of Christianity/Islam are true Christians/Muslims, to no true Christian would act violently, but a true Muslim would, to no true Christian or Muslim would act violently.
To me, it is telling as to how a faith—in regard to any response—can be enculturated. The human aspect of religion, the idea that God is made in our own image, comes through in every possible response to the question posed by PRRI. It also means that while religious beliefs can have a violent nature (patriarchy, for example), they do not need to have it.
The piece is worth a read—and I’m not saying that just because I wrote it—check it out.
…Daniel Kirk, pastoral director at Newbigin House of Studies, agrees that violence does not negate one’s Christian or Muslim status.
“Each religion and every religious text holds potential for harm as well as good. Acts of violence can be, and often are, religious expressions. It is critical that we recognize the human component involved when religious communities shape behavior. If we deny the religious component we misinterpret the action and lose our opportunity to respond to it appropriately.”…
Photo credit: Thomas Tucker (CC0)