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A Christian Perspective on Violence

John Breadon's picture

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A bloody history


If, during a heated debate with a Christian, you want to really discredit your opponent's moral superiority, you may want to play as soon as possible your trump card – namely, Christianity's historical record. The script for this moment usually goes something like this: 'Just look at what torrents of violence and bloodshed Christianity's unleashed upon the world: pogroms, witch hunts, the Spanish Inquisition, the Conquistadors in South America … the list is endless. And don't get me started on Catholicism! Just look at Mel Gibson and Tony Soprano!' Such prejudiced and polarised arguments, to be sure, generate more heat than light. After all, which group, sect or community has never had to wash some blood off its hands?

But whether the historical card is played too often or not, violence and Christianity do seem to be very well acquainted with each other – if not intimately related. (Call to mind the memorable verse from Psalm 137 about dashing babies' heads against rocks; or ponder just how it was that the Third Reich was able to grow out of the very heart of 'Christian' Europe). But should we really be surprised by this unholy alliance between divinity and devilment? Is not the heart of the Christian faith a torture device (the cross) and its accompanying theology (the atonement) a singularly violent and blood-soaked dogma?


Humans are violent


We need to tread carefully here. To reach a balanced and sane Perspective on this complex question we'd do well to sit back and patiently disentangle cause from effect, intent from interpretation, the desires of the founder (Jesus) from the actions of his followers (all those who travel by, or have travelled by, the name Christian). The point is this: Christianity may well have been founded, in part, upon the act of state-administered violence, but does this equate to saying that Christianity intrinsically supports violence and considers it a justifiable manifestation of human behaviour? I would think not. Violence is endemic to us human beings; it's part of our genetic inheritance as flesh and blood creatures. We don't need behavioural psychologists to tell us this much. Just get a little more in touch with your own rage and anger the next time it rises up in you. Any ideology or world-view can be twisted to provide specious justification for our tendencies to destroy, hurt, maim and murder each other.


The problem of dualism


OK, so we've acknowledged, rather bluntly, that Jesus (or God) shouldn't necessarily be blamed for all the bad things that have been done in His name. But such a judgement hardly tidies up all the loose ends of the Christianity and violence debate. Many critics of regular mainstream orthodox Christianity – from inside and outside the Church – have pointed out that the real problem lies not with the wayward behaviour of a few men like Tomas de Torquemada (head of the Spanish Inquisition), but with deeply embedded assumptions within the Christian psyche, assumptions founded on a violent predisposition towards things. Put simply, the problem rests with an idea. The idea is that if the next world (heaven) is my true home, then I can take a fairly dismissive disdainful attitude towards this one. The implications in this for how I think about myself – my earthly mind and body – can be profound and, needless to say, rather worrying. What we're dealing with here is the old chestnut of dualism and all that flows from it. Like so much else with a faith that's had 2000 years to reflect on itself, it all depends whether of not you see this dualistic strand to be intrinsic to Christianity. (In other words, which source, scripture passage or theologian are you planning to take your cue and inspiration from?)


A contemporary Western Christian is unlikely to do violence towards themselves because of their commitment to philosophical dualism (they're more likely to find God through good pasta and a decent Chablis.) But things might look rather different if you were to wake one morning and find yourself living as a medieval monk or nun. A key verse for any celibate world-denying Christian view of existence is Matthew 19:12: For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. It was after reading this verse that the third century theologian Origen castrated himself.


Jesus is reported to have said that he came so that we may have 'life, and have it abundantly' (John 10:10). I believe this short verse to be the antithesis of all violence, whether that be self-directed violence or violence towards your neighbour. It might also come in handy the next time you find yourself debating with an atheist.


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