What Is It with Christians and Violence?

Christian soldiers, please give it a rest

A few days ago a Christian posted this comment on my book’s Facebook page: “I don't care if you're an atheist. Why should you care if I'm a Christian?‬‬” I responded, “Is it REALLY that hard to figure out?” and I provided the link to Richard Carrier’s recent article, “What’s the Harm? Why Religious Belief Is Always Bad.”

Within seconds—there had not been enough time for him to read the article—he responded, with no interest whatever in discussing the issue he had raised: “What a small and narrow-minded person you must be. You think you can paint millions of people with one tiny brush.‪ But you've got your own little cult, right here. And you're raking in the profits. Good for you!‬‬”‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

If he didn’t have the patience to study Carrier’s article, I’ll assume he hasn’t absorbed the insights provided by Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. There has been quibbling about the accuracy of the Hitchens’ subtitle—he insisted that he meant it—but the thrust of the book is devastating. In the wake of Hitchens’ death in 2011, a lot of Christians found out about the book for the first time, and posted the most virulent hatred imaginable on social media. I think we can count that as one of the harms done by religion: the easy flow of hatred when holy beliefs are punctured. So yes, I do care, I do mind, that people are still Christian, and that they respond to the world, to other people, as they assume their faith requires. More about that later.

“You think you can paint millions of people with one tiny brush.‪” Christian history—the horrendous damage that it has done, and continues to do—provides its own indictment. Yes, I can paint millions of people with, as it turns out, a very broad brush. Millions of people have been, and continue to be, complicit in the harms inflicted by Christians and their faith.

‬‬‬‬‬ I will mention a few of the contemporary horrors later, but Christians would do well to own the history of the Jesus religion. Supposedly it has brought so many good works, so much comfort, but that is only a fragment of the story. Christians are specialists in cultivating selective memory, as well as in waving aside dismissively the crimes committed through the centuries of the ‘Christian’ era.

Many Christians study the Bible—if at all—on the most superficial level, and they can’t be bothered with the history that unfolded after ‘Biblical times’—namely, the history of the church and its all-too-often violent assault on the world. The Crusades and Inquisition, for example, seem to fall below the horizon of awareness of believers today—what do they care? But these episodes of massive violence tell us a lot about how religion works…and why we should be afraid, even today—especially today.

One resource for understanding this religion on-the-rampage is David Eller’s essay, “Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. Eller reflects on how faith was transformed from early pacifism to soldiering for God and Christ—and how this militancy found expression in the Crusades and Inquisitions; in this latter case Christians put other Christians to the sword.

“Oh, but that was then, this is now,” may be the refrain of those who don’t want to own their ugly history, and would have us believe that ‘true’ Christianity is a religion of peace and kindness. But no, that doesn’t work. No matter the era, whenever people act from certainty that they have God on their side, indeed that they know the mind out God, those who doubt or disagree can be in danger.

‘Love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) may have had some traction in the earliest days of the Christian church, but there’s another Jesus text, Matthew 10:34, that awaited exploitation, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Eller describes the role that Augustine played in enabling Christians to take up the sword, supposedly in order to better love their enemies. The concept of ‘just war’ had to find a champion—war for the right reasons—and Augustine rose to the challenge: “Love does not preclude a benevolent severity…love does not exclude wars of mercy waged by the good.” Eller notes, “Christianity found its doctrine of justified and loving violence in the nick of time, for the centuries after Augustine were to be particularly tumultuous ones.” (p. 91) By 622 Muhammad had achieved power in Medina, and Islam was carried as far as Spain by the early 700s.

The era of the crusades came after the turn of the first millennium, and Eller provides an overview of the holy wars that ensued.

“The First Crusade stepped off in August 1096, passing through German lands where some Jews were forcibly converted and others slain. Perhaps one hundred thousand soldiers and camp followers reach Byzantium and then marched on to confront the Turks. After several stunning victories, the crusaders commenced their siege of Jerusalem on July 14, 1097…” (p. 94)

Christians today push the idea that “God has a plan for everyone”—and sometimes another feel-good aphorism is thrown in as well, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Why can’t we outgrow such banalities? They don’t make sense. Eller includes Geoffrey Hindley’s description of the siege of Jerusalem (in The Crusades: A History of Armed Pilgrimage and Holy War):

• [Once the walls were breached] blood-crazed crusaders were streaming over the walls and through the streets of the northern part of the city slaughtering every living thing that crossed their path. No banner was going to save lives in this shambles, while the Jewish population of the city were cut down—man, woman, and child—where they stood hoping for sanctuary in their chief synagogue…it is doubtful whether any of the inhabitants of Jerusalem on the dreadful day survived…the slaughter lasted the better part of two days.” (p. 94)

• And according to RenĂ© Grousset, in The Epic of the Crusades, “[the rapturous Christians reportedly] all flung themselves prostrate, their arms outstretched in the form of the Cross. Each man thought he could still see before him the crucified body of Jesus Christ. And it seemed to them that they were at the gates of heaven.”

Eller provides highlights of later Crusades, such as the third, launched by Pope Gregory VIII in October 1187. Kings Richard I (The Lionhearted) of England and Louise Augustus of France answered the call. These two monarchs “…handed [Muslim general] Salah-ed-Din a defeat, and Richard executed 2,700 Turkish captives after accepting a ransom payment for them, but they retreated before capturing Jerusalem, essentially achieving nothing other than confirming Salah-ed-Din’s image of Christians as untrustworthy barbarians.” (p. 96)

And the barbarian instinct prevailed as Christians turned on each other. The apostle Paul may have set the tone with some of his hateful rants—e.g., Galatians 5:12, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves”—but the church bureaucrats sensed quite early that power was not to be squandered.

Eller notes the demise of ‘love your enemy’ in the ranks of the faithful:

“Christian pacifism proved to be more a virtue of the weak (causing no harm when one is too weak to cause harm) than a truly principled stance. Almost as soon as the church stopped being persecuted, it began persecuting, now with the machinery of the state on its side. Official orthodoxy branded all other interpretations unorthodoxy and heresy, and already in 385 Priscillian, the bishop of Spain, and six others were tortured and killed. The religion of peace and love had turned deadly.” (p. 89)

It was much later that persecution of errant beliefs was taken to new heights. We all retain the iconic image of a heretic being burned at the stake, but that represented the extreme. Eller explains the zeal of the truth-protectors:

“…most suspects did not receive this highest punishment; for example, records from Toulouse for the years 1307-1323 indicate nine hundred thirty penalties, of which forty-two were death by fire while one hundred forty-three were ordered to wear crosses, three hundred seven imprisoned, twenty-two sentenced to have their homes destroyed, nine sent on pilgrimages, one exiled, and many others released without further suffering.” (pp. 100-101)

Of course, the Spanish Inquisition stands out for its severity; Eller provides details:

• “In 1482, the notorious Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor of Spain; his inquisitional courts scoured the kingdom for apostates and heretics and killed more than two thousand people by the year 1500.” (p.101)

• “By the mid-1700s, the Spanish Inquisition had spent most of its energy, although it was not formally ended until 1834—but not before this ‘daughter of faith and fanaticism’ had accumulated forty-nine thousand arrests and as many as ten thousand deaths.” (p.102)

Thomas Aquinas proved to be a worthy successor to Augustine, in terms of providing rationale.

• Aquinas, “…considered a particularly rational Christian, confirmed the Christian theory of just war and just persecution, reasoning that deliberate religious error (holding the wrong beliefs) was perjury, only infinitely worse by giving false testimony about God. Perjury was a crime, and heresy was a much graver crime, so persecution of the heretic was essentially criminal justice…” (p. 102)

How many Christians have given any thought at all to one of the greatest bloodbaths perpetrated in the name of faith?

• “For thirty years, religion-enthused armies crisscrossed Europe in the aptly names Thirty Years’ War [1618-1648], which blended the crusading spirit with political and territorial ambition to produce the ‘biggest of all wars of religion’…It is estimated that seven or eight million Christians lost their lives to fellow Christians during those three decades, some cities depleted of a third of their population.” (p. 105)

In concluding his essay, Eller states the blunt truth:

• “As Christianity attained power, it found clever arguments in support of its own vice and violence, perfecting the art of casuistry, the practice of specious or subtle reasoning for the purpose of rationalizing and misleading.” (p.106)

• “…Christians have been able to muster a still more perverse rationale for their violence—love. Christian love has explained and supported often white-hot hatred, or perhaps more disturbingly yet, cool dispassionate harm.” (pp. 106-107)

The apostle Paul, in one of his nastier moments, embraced this kind of self-righteous brutality. He reviled a member of the church who was guilty of sexual immorality: “…you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (I Corinthians 5:5)

Now, back to the Christian whom I mentioned at the outset—the one who doesn’t mind if I’m an atheist. I don’t know him at all, but given the tone of his response, I suspect that if he is tolerant of my atheism (why do I doubt that, actually?), he also probably isn’t upset—maybe he’s just too dense—that Christians cause so much harm, so much damage, by their pretense of holiness, by their acquiescence in foolish, destructive theology.

Misogyny, for example, thanks to the Bible, is embedded in the Christian mindset, and causes incalculable harm. The Catholic church stands out in this regard: It is officially, arrogantly, aggressively, proudly misogynistic—and, astoundingly, most Catholic women seem willing to look the other way. Likewise so many Christian denominations remain officially, arrogantly, aggressively, proudly homophobic. Misogyny and homophobia are manifestations of Christian violence.

These are but two examples of the embrace of ignorance. Across the board, Christians—massive numbers of them—refuse to engage in critical thinking; they eschew a science-based understanding of the world. So yes, I do care that Christianity remains so pervasive; I do mind that people accept it mindlessly. Evidence for this complacency, this intellectual laziness, surrounds us daily—to the point that someone can actually ask me, “Why do you care if I’m a Christian?”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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