Christianity and violence


Chapter Five of Dominic Crossan's book God & Empire serves as a passionately written and convincing refutation of fundamentalist notions of Christ's apocalyptic and violent Second Coming, usually coupled with the notion of a "rapture".

I am very familiar with this dark side of fundamentalism. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, there were copies of two of Hal Lindsey's books in my house: The Late Great Planet Earth, and Satan Is Alive and Well and Living on Planet Earth. These books were particularly insidious because they, in essence, gleefully looked forward to a horribly bloody act of divine intervention that would punish once and for all the evildoers, sinners, and non-Christians; I say "gleefully" because this carnage would establish the final glorious rule of Christ on Earth. Such a view of Christ as a vengeful killer contrasts wildly with how Jesus lived nonviolently when he was alive on earth.

Just as appallingly, this violent view of a divinely managed end of the world took all responsibility for building the Kingdom of God away from the human race; filled with pessimism about the human condition, it assumed that because of human depravity the world could only get worse, and that therefore a better world could only be constructed via direct, miraculous divine intervention. The fact that such intervention was itself to be carried out in genocidal extremes was a mere technicality.

A generation after Hal Lindsey's outdated and highly specific predictions have been proved wrong by the changes in the world in the intervening decades, apocalyptic fundamentalism continues to thrive, as seen by the popularity of the Left Behind series. Crossan doesn't just pin all the blame for this problem on fundamentalists, however; he sharply critiques the book of Revelation as a source for much of this image of the bloodthirsty Christ.

As Crossan points out,

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.
The message of nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire that Jesus took with him to the cross does not even remotely jibe with the violent images that infest fundamentalist apocalyptic thinking. This serves as an example of how fundamentalism is essentially a perversion of the message of Jesus's life and teachings.

After the Virginia Tech shootings brought on another discussion about gun control, it was interesting to hear some American Christians trotting out what was a purely secular justification for private gun ownership--specifically, endorsing it as a necessary tool to oppose the emergence of oppressive government in the US. When those Christians justify gun ownership along these lines, Jesus's name does not get invoked. It no longer becomes a religiously based moral discussion, but one rooted in the US Constitution and political arguments--which is odd, really, given how much fundamentalists like to invoke the Bible to justify a host of sins, from homophobia to sexism to capital punishment to holy war. But when it comes to Jesus's message and life of nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire--well, suddenly the implications of that for public policy are ignored.

Many Christians have granted all sorts of magical powers to Jesus during his life on earth. He is said to have had command over the laws of nature, for example--he could bring the dead back to life, cure illnesses, cast out demons, predict the future, and so on. For someone whom the creeds say was fully human, that is a pretty impressive list of powers, actually. It seemed like he was a kind of Cosmic Superman living among the mortals. As such, he certainly could have been packing heat on Maundy Thursday. With his magical powers, he could have conjured up some pretty powerful firearms for himself and his Gang of 12. Better still, he could have whipped up weapons that we in our time can only dream of--maybe some phasers like Captain Kirk uses, for example. He could have bagged himself some Roman centurions, maybe assassinated Pilate--who knows, all in the interests of his and the Jewish people's legitimate interests of self-protection and against the oppressive Romans. The thing is, even if you believe that Jesus was a powerful magician--even if you take literally all the miracle stories reported about him in the Bible--Jesus was hardly a fan of the use of violent means to oppose oppressive government. The Roman Empire was indeed oppressive--but he did not resist it violently. He went to the cross and died according to the principles that he lived by, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.

Centuries later, when the Emperor Constantine, who had become a supporter of Christianity, hosted the Council of Nicea, this represented an exciting time for the participating bishops, who had lived through so much persecution, particularly under Diocletian. Now, at long last, they were legitimate in the eyes of the Roman Empire. But was that really a good thing? Now they had become accommodationists with Imperial violence. This same Constantine, who had had his brother-in-law, Licinius, murdered as part of an internecine power struggle within the Empire, was now playing host to a church council, and the bishops were eating it up. The bishops were happy to have the stamp of Imperial Approval, and to use that approval as a means of imposing doctrinal homogeneity. It similarly served the interests of the Emperor to have a homogeneous Christian religion that unified the Empire under Constantine's rule. Thus it was an unholy alliance of mutual interests that led to the Nicene Creed. I am reminded of the way the prophet Nathan spoke truth to power against King David after the latter had had Uriah murdered; but the murderous politics of the Roman Empire were apparently just par for the course. You can't build a state religion without breaking a few eggs.

In the modern era, fundamentalists hope for a carnage-laden end to the world because it will usher in the age of Divine Glory. I would rather seek to build the Kingdom of God through a message of peace, love, and nonviolence, as Jesus taught.


Heather said...

**I would rather seek to build the Kingdom of God through a message of peace, love, and nonviolence, as Jesus taught.**

I've never understood why this is a threatening concept. In the Left Behind series (disclaimer: I've only read the first part of the first book to see why it was a best-seller. I still don't know. I do, however, read a blog callled 'slacktivist,' who shows exactly why the books are not Christian), one of the ways to identify the Anti-Christ was that he was calling for world peace.

Fundamentalists almost embrace the concept of war, based on their interpretation of Revelation. But Jesus never did that in the Gospels, and Paul didn't advocate for war, either. I wonder if that's a reflection of how tightly controlled they are? The chaos of war is almost an internal alternate reality for them (or what their internal reality really is, underneath all the rigidness).