Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot? - Introduction.

Nazi Priests salute Hitler
This is part of a series of connected posts linked to here:
The Folly of Appraising Christianity
The Unpayable Debt of Salvation
The Forces of Light and Darkness
Regular readers of this blog will know that I hold a lot of respect for many Christian authors and leaders (Tolstoy and Desmond Tutu amongst others). However I’m not actually disagreeing with them if I complain that “Christians are a bloodthirsty lot”. They too would say that many people have rapaciously embraced violence while professing that their lives belong to Jesus. The following quotes a Christian organization;

Presently, of course, in most Christian Churches a person(s) can remain in Full Communion, be considered faithful to Jesus and still be killing, helping to kill or planning how to more efficiently kill hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of his or her fellow communicants!
Centre for Christian Non-violence.

“Christians are a bloodthirsty lot” is an impossible claim to absolutely prove however. Do we really have a basis for comparison in other faiths or atheism? All beliefs pass through stages depending it seems on their access to power. If we take a snapshot of any belief system while it sits on the Emperors’ throne it will often be disgustingly violent. Look at sophisticated and enlightened philosophical atheism when it won the French revolution and fell into romantic savagery. Look at gentle nature loving Paganism under Rome. Similarly Christianity at times and locations when Christians have little power has always been the model of pacificism. Maybe a more defensible statement is that governments are bloodthirsty and that Christian government is no different.

It is even possible that an inherent violence of the believer is tempered by Christianity. Maybe Christianity just includes very originally violent believers who are in fact improved by coming to Christianity! If so we would be better off saying that “people are a bloodthirsty lot” not “Christians” necessarily.

That said, Christianity is not a spectacularly effective impediment to violence. If nothing else we have to concede that “Christians are a bloodthirsty lot” doesn’t leave the affirmative team in a high school debate with nothing to work with;

  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • The Crusades
  • The English Civil War
  • The Conquest of South America
  • World War One
  • The Empires of Germany, Great Britain and the United States of America.
I think it’s foolish however to imagine we can ultimately convict or exonerate Christendom for blood thirst or any other crime. Firstly there is just too much historical diversity to combine. I could mention witch burning but I’d also have to mention the first feminists.

Those are obvious legacies to credit Christianity with but many more contentious attributions exist. Because Christendom had a scorched earth policy to other cultures and ideas during its rise there really is very little in Europe at least that didn’t have to be recreated in some way at least partly by Christians. Modern Science can be said to be borne out of Protestantism for example but only because it had already been purged from European society by a Christian antipathy towards it. Still it was reborn and lived. The same can be said of Christian non-violence. In fact I would go further and say that is less a recreation and more an original idea of Christianity though it too was purged and reborn.

Secondly there are too many factors other than religion to consider. Responsible historians realize that technology, economic factors, and interactions with other societies all impact on conflict in and between societies. It’s true that the indigenous Australian religion coincides with largely peaceful stability compared to the relative shorter and much more violent life of Christianity but has that also been because of a consistent balance of power rather than theology?

Thirdly this isn’t going to be a series to argue what is “real Christianity”. I went there a bit in Tolstoy feeds me Humble Pie.  I’m only going to be talking about historical Christianity here. I’m quite happy to leave open that a) some or even all of historical Christianity has gotten “true” Christianity wrong and b) that Christianity done right is actually non-violent. In fact I increasingly think along those lines.

What still remains is the fact that people believing themselves to be Christians have justified extreme violence. We live in a world where a United States government endorsement of torture can be a vote winner amongst evangelical Christians. I want to look at how this has happened. Who has laid out what arguments to do this?

In doing this I need to put their arguments in the context of the difficulty they have to overcome as Christians. This is what makes this question particular interesting; Because what makes Christian violence difficult is the foundational story of Christianity.
Jesus is a historical person surrounded by violent Jewish identity movements. This religiously charged violence took two forms. One was political violence against the Roman authorities and designed to change the political environment. The other was violence designed to preserve the holiness of the Jewish community – essentially by killing those Jews who sinned. Jesus is recorded in the gospels speaking against both.

The scene with the woman who is being stoned for adultery gives Jesus response to violence for holiness sake;
7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” – John 8:7-11

Jesus response to his own arrest gives us his opinion of politically motivated violence;
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37– John 18:36

Both these quotes don’t stand alone in the gospels. There is also the famous rebuke of Peter the Apostles use of his sword to defend Jesus. Even more powerful is the Sermon on the Mount (particularly Matthew 5:38-43) with its well known phrases of “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”

However rather than pulling quotes out of context it is more fruitful to remember exactly that context. There were violent struggles on behalf of the Jewish God all around Jesus. In roughly AD60 a Jewish rebellion centred on the temple takes place and is violently crushed. This was not the first such outbreak of violence; Jerusalem was a Roman empires’ trouble spot.

Meanwhile the purification of the Jewish people by the imposition of the laws of Leviticus in all their harshness is the project of the Pharisees. Both this violence and political violence can draw on a strong basis in the Jewish scriptures. God historically blessed both types of violence. Jesus never joins with this and neither do his followers.

The Jesus movements’ radical difference to these other contemporary Jewish movements remains after Jesus death. Both Jesus and the early Christians have a common response to aggression against them; martyrdom. In Paul’s letters we see a church that eschews even any involvement with the power of the courts (Corinthians 6:1-9). Lastly the Christian canon concludes with The Revelation of St. John. Here the Christian awaits Gods overthrow of the blasphemous and wicked rulers of the earth and Gods punishment of sin. They do not enact it themselves.

In the next few posts in this series I want to investigate how Christianity has in part overcome it’s early non-violence. I have a few ideas of where to look. Augustine is a pivotal early church teacher and father and may bear some fruit. Certainly Martin Luther presents a clear justification for righteous state violence in his Concord and Catechism. Even figuring out what George Bush Jnr meant when he said Jesus was his most influential philosopher could be helpful.

However I am putting out a plea to you. Any readers who have any suggestions of theologians who have justified Christian violence please comment below (or contact me directly if you prefer). I would be very grateful. Together we may be able to answer, “Why are Christians such a bloodthirsty lot?”

Lastly because there’ll be a fair bit of reading to do here, you can expect a bit of a gap between parts of this series. I’ll be sure to throw up some unrelated posts to break things up.


  1. I would look at muscular Christianity, a Victorian idea around getting rid of the namby pamby Christianity. I would also think when it became a state religion under Constantine it went some way to becoming married to violence.

  2. Muscular Christianity is very interesting. It is having a real renewal at the moment particularly in The Mars Hill church (a publishing and internet phenomenon) and with recent comments by John Piper (a big name amongst Calvinists). It dovetails nicely into what they call "complementarianism" (basically male "headship" and your stereotypical gender roles) which is a very big deal in these churches. It's worth a blog post all of its own.

  3. Agora is a good, disturbing film about a violent Christian mob doing over the philosophers.