Violence in Christianity
Violence, it has been a main tool in the Christian arsenal since the middle ages. From the Crusades to the Inquisitions of Spain, violence is ever prevalent. Even in this day and age, intolerance and violence continue to be preached. But is this violence an instrument of God or man? Is violence an inherent part of this religion? Some would say that it is indeed built in to the very fabric of its being. The Old Testament is full of the smiting of infidels and those who defy God. The Book of Revelations tells of the violent and fiery demise of this entire planet. There are instances of mass genocide, the killing of innocent children, holy wars, you name a violent act and God has called for it. The story of Noah recounts how God killed off everyone in the world save one family. This violence, some speculate, is a result of man’s own doing. Perhaps God’s word was miss-interpreted or those in power sought to legitimize their own violent acts through the involvement of religion. Regardless of whether it was God or man that made religion violent, it is now deeply a part of it. The very involvement of religion into a dispute can cause the dispute to escalate exponentionally. “Limited mundane conflict may escalate into violence when the issues at stake are imbued with religious ultimacy. (Klausner 268)”
Violence not only plays a strong role in both commandment and practice, it is part of the very core of this belief system. From the zeal and fervor of conversion to the conquest in the name of a deity, violence is ingrained into religion’s very being. “Religion engenders an energy that may be experienced as despair or as enthusiasm Despair can feed an urge to rid the world of pollution and sin (Klausner 268).” Violence in the religious realm may serve several purposes. It can be an end unto itself, a means to accomplish a religious or religious/economic/political goal. It can be done to invoke terror and awe, as in “witness the power of our God and tremble before his might.” However it is enacted and whatever its reasons, violence is now an inescapable inevitability in religion’s ongoing battle between Good and Evil. In attempting to prove this, I will be drawing on a body of information collected from the Bible; The Encyclopedia of Religion: Articles on: Violence, Crusades, Inquisition; Ethics: Violence; Dictionary of Middle Ages: Crusades, Inquisition; and Dictionary of Christian Ethics: Just War.
In order to see if violence does enter into religion, one first needs to know what, ethically speaking, violence is. Ethics defines violence as follows: “Violence consists of a violation of another person’s or a group of people’s freedom, dignity, integrity, sense of self worth, or well being; it may be physical, psychological, or emotional (Candelaria 907).” Acts of violence can be further defined by legal and illegal employment of methods of coercion for personal or group gain. This is where things become fuzzy. Who defines legal and illegal? “The instigator of violence might claim that acts of legitimate violence might include military defense, crusades, just wars, acts of purification, acts of faith, and heroic exploits.” (Klausner 268) These same acts would probably be viewed as illegitimate, illegal acts by the victims. So can violence ever be legitimized?
If violence can never be legitimized, then why does it exist with such prominence? Thomas Hobbs believed that humans live in a perpetual state of war, “a Bellum ominium contra omnes, a war of all against all’ (Candelaria 907).” Humans are naturally violent. Freud agreed with Hobbes, believing that aggression is a natural human instinct. Fear and desire motivate mankind to violence. Freud also believed that violence would naturally beget violence. Because all humans fear death, when threatened they will turn to aggression to protect themselves. These dim views of the human condition show violence to be intrinsic in our human nature
If violence can be legitimized, what conditions make it so? According to the Christian Church, there are several stipulations. The most profound idea on violence made by the Church is the idea of the Just War Theory, or the Justum Bellum. The Christian Just War Tradition can forces a question to be asked: Can a Christian, whose faith in an all-loving and all-good God that implies goodwill toward men, ever justifiably participate in violence? If you answer no, then non-violent pacifism is the only viable option. If the answer is yes, then I feel another question needs to be answered. Is the Christian God truly all-loving and all-good? To answer this question, we turn to the bible.
One of the Ten Commandments handed down by God to Moses is “Thou shalt not Kill.” Every child is taught this as soon as they learn of Moses. These Commandments form the corner stone of the Christian faith. Yet in virtually every book of the Bible you read of another infidel killed. The Old Testament is riddled with references of God either killing someone not worshipping Him, or telling his followers to put to death those who do not honor him: “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you , nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.( Deut. 13:6-9)” The idea of death in the name of God is nothing new. The wonderful Sunday school story of Noah’s Ark that most any Christian knows of is nothing more than mass murder and destruction at the hands of God. “The Lord said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them (Gen. 6: 7).” This is one of many examples of mass genocide that God has either called for or done himself. But these acts are written off, the victims were evil and wicked and got just what they deserved. Perhaps this is so, they might have been the kind of people even Satan kicks out for being too wicked, but does this change the fact that they were people? Are they any less deserving of life because they used the free will God gave them? This is not the compassionate, forgiving God Missionaries preach about, this is a vengeful, jealous God. Pages of this paper could be dedicated to uncover all the violent acts perpetrated by God or in His Divine Name and still I would fail to show them all. Even the New Testament, Jesus is shown not to be a bringer of peace, but a weapon of God. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. (Mat 10: 34-36)” Perhaps it is through God’s commandment and example the Christians feel there is justice in certain wars.
Saint Augustine was one of the first Christian Philosophers to draw from the Roman idea of justum bellum. In his work City of God, Augustine states that not all homicide is murder. He points out that God himself has employed killing as an end unto itself. Augustine goes further to say that legitimate power, such as God’s command or the wish of the state, backing a violent act is also divinely sanctioned and therefore not against the laws of the Ten Commandments. Thus any Church or secularly sanctioned act is just. The death penalty and sanctioned wars become the duty of the right thinking Christian to carry out. The reasoning behind this bond between secular and religion can be somewhat explained in a historical context. During this time, there was a “perceived need for Christians to participate in the defending of the Roman Empire, by that time a Christian state, from invading Germanic peoples (Childress 328).” This implies that the whole idea of the Christian Just War Tradition came about because of the need for secular and Church cooperation to protect the State.
The Just War Tradition as described by Saint Augustine also attempts to defend acts of aggression. Aggression can be justified by the wickedness of the one whom the aggression is aimed at. “In Augustine’s opinion, honest people do not go to war against peaceful neighbors. Thus, the cause must be just.” Essentially Augustine is saying anyone who is attacked by us is attacked because they are wicked. It implies that, since the people of a Christian Nation are good, decent, honest people, then it must be the fault of the nation attacked. After all, they wouldn’t do it if the Christian Nation was not right. It is not just to simply to wage war for personal gain, such as to acquire territory. You can only do it to smite the wicked. If you happen to gain territory that just happened to be free of people now that they are dead for being wicked, well that’s just a perk. “The increase of empire was assisted by the wickedness of those against whom wars were waged. In Augustine’s words, For it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars; and this injustice is assuredly to be deplored by a human being’ (Candelaria 908).” Saint Thomas Aquinas advanced this theory by setting forth certain criteria that must be followed in order for a war to be just. Firstly, war must be declared by legitimate authority. Second, there has to be a just cause, whoever is attacked must deserve it. Thirdly, the war must be waged with good intentions so that good is advanced or evil is avoided. Fourth, peace must be the end result. Lastly, a just war must avoid the use of inordinate arms. If war is waged according to these criteria, it is not sinful.
Augustine did much to advance the notion that wars could be just, that violence could be what God wanted. One of his ideas in particular helped to make something as horrendous as the Crusades possible. Augustine’s defense of violence as one that avenged injuries and his further notions of true justice, or injuries against God, needed to be avenged. Using this line of logic, numerous atrocities were committed. Pope Gregory I used this idea to wage war against the heretics and any other enemies of the papal state and he encouraged the missionaries to wage wars against the Pagan people. Charlemagne waged many a war of conquest and conversion of the surrounding Pagans and fought to defend the Church. Countless other kings and Popes used the ideas set forth by Augustine’s Christian idea of Just War to kill and conquer in the name of God. By the eleventh century, the ideas of holy war and Papal defense had been used and defended so often that the public generally accepted them without question. This is where the Church ran into a problem. These Just Wars were so frequent that a powerful warrior class had arisen and there were frequent attacks on clerics and church properties. Obviously, the Church sought to end these incidences and began advocating violence as a means to defend the Faith. It was now the duty of every pious knight to defend the faith. To further decrease the attacks on the Church, it called for a peace movement to protect unarmed Christians. Thus the Peace of God and the Truce of God were born. These two initiatives were designed to outlaw violence against unarmed Christians and to end fighting during specified times. Any who continued were deemed unholy and were violently prosecuted.
Now that the Peace Movement had been instated, the Church needed to find another outlet where the Warrior class could strut its stuff. The Popes saw this as a wonderful opportunity to knock off some of the more pesky enemies. They ecclesiastically sanctioned campaigns against the Normans in southern Italy, defended the Christians of the Eastern Empire from attack, and then they turned their attention East to the Muslims. These campaigns were given support by the Church; Popes often offered material and spiritual rewards for service as a Christian Knight. This was the beginning of the First Crusade. In 1095 A.D. Urban II called for an armed pilgrimage to the East to combat the Turks and liberate the Holy Land from the Muslim yoke. This war, the Church said, was not only a just one but in and of itself justifying. If you were to participate in the war, you were endowed with a certain spiritual merit and an almost secured place in heaven. The Muslim infidel was illegitimately occupying the Holy Land, so any armed combat by Christians was self-justifying.
Historically, it seems the idea of a Crusade was not a spur-of-the moment decision made by the Papacy when presented with restless warlords. Long before the First Crusade was launched, Anselm II of Lucca compiled a number of texts that would support the Church’s right to “invoke violence against heretics, excommunicates, enemies of the peace, and infidels. These texts were used to defend the right of the Church to “punish” those who the Church saw as sinners and infidels. When the Crusades did begin, Anselm II’s texts were extensively used to show the Muslims to be enemies of God and in illicit possession of the Holy Land.
With Pope Innocent II calling for the mass armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land, one might wonder how and why a person became a crusader. In agreeing to become a Crusader, an individual became indebted to the Church. He had to make a vow to participate in any and all crusades he was physically able to participate in. If he failed to answer the call to crusade, he would face both ecclesiastical and civil censure. He was also obliged to make the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and worship at the Sepulcher in Jerusalem. If he could not answer the call physically, he would be able to get out of it through a monetary payment or some sort of service to the Papacy. So why, if you became indebted to the Church and had to participate whenever the Church called on pain of pain, would one want to be a crusader? Crusaders were quite venerated in the society and were entitled to crusade indulgences as well as other spiritual privileges such as the Christian equivalent to Karmic credit. The crusader also enjoyed material benefits for his service in the crusades. He had Papal protection for himself, his family, and his property. “participation in the crusade offered the prospect both of a collective spiritual experience in which one was bound to one’s fellows by a feeling of community and fraternal love, and individual spiritual purification, absolution, and glory (Russell 17).”
While the Crusades were now Biblically sanctioned, in order to fulfill the Just War requirements they needed to have a legitimate authority to sanction the war. The Pope was to appoint military leaders and commanders along with clerical advisers. Since only the pope could declare the crusade indulgence, a main weapon in the recruiting of crusaders, only the Pope could call a crusade. Other wars could be waged in the just and holy name of the Church; they just wouldn’t have crusade indulgences. In fact Princes who had heretics, who were a threat to the Christian faith, in their territories had to wage war on them or the Princes themselves might become the target of a crusade. None were safe from the war machine that the Papacy had become. Oppose the leaders of the Church in any way, whether you be a schisimist, who threatened the political power of the Church, or heretic, you could very easily become the target of a crusade. The Church was able to convert a war of liberation of the Holy Land into a duty to fight whomever the Church told you to. “The Papal monopoly over the crusade indulgence and vow enabled the Pope to transform the crusade into an all-purpose instrument for the implementation of papal policy (Russell 17).” The use of religion in the coercion of support is perhaps the greatest atrocity committed by the Christian Church. After the First Crusade, they had all the reason to launch as many as they wanted to keep the world safe for Christianity. That almost sounds familiar
The unbelievable power gained by the crusades and the meshing of secular and spiritual power lasted for quite some time and its effects were far beyond the scope war. The Church had become a sort of Mafia for God and they sought to keep this newly acquired power. Besides the weapon of the crusade, the Church used the inquisition. “The medieval inquisition was an investigative and judicial tribunal with special jurisdiction established in the second quarter of the thirteenth century to suppress the heresies that were increasingly troublesome to the church in Western Europe (Wakefield 483).” The Church employed “inquisitors of heretical depravity” to obtain confessions of wrong doing from the Cathers, Waldensians, and other dissidents. After confession of error, the confessors had to repent and perform an appropriate penance to return the lost soul to the fold. If they did not get any of the parts listed above, then they had to prevent the heretic from contaminating others. This was the prerogative for the religious courts as set up by the Papacy in the name of God, and they were often trials by ordeal.
Contrary to the popular belief, the Church seldom put people to death. However, torture was not uncommon in the obtaining of confessions. They turned the convicted heretics over to the secular authorities that then were consulted by Church leaders as to the appropriate punishments. These often included imprisonment, fines, and confiscation of property. In 1179, Pope Alexander III authorized the use of armed force against bandits and heretics, after which death by fire became a common punishment for accused heretics. In 1229 rewards were offered for heretics and a few professional heretic hunters began to emerge. Mere accusation was now enough for conviction. “If a captured heretic refused to abjure his or her error, that person’s fate was assured The intent of the questioningwas less to discover erroneous doctrines than to reveal acquaintance with heretics and their sympathizers (Wakefield 484).”
Whether the violence written about in this paper was an action or command of God or simply done by men with greedy ambitions, it is all to clear that Christianity is a religion that not only permits violence but preaches it. History has shown that any who oppose the Church or Christian religion in any way have come under violent fire at the command of the religion itself. From the Old Testament’s smiting and commands to kill to the Crusades waged against “opponents of the faith” to the inquisitions which sent countless people to their doom, Christianity’s exclusivistic intolerance have lead to innumerable deaths that Christians will argue “was for the common good.” The poem on the cover sheet is an excellent summary of what happens when self-righteousness mixes with the sword. Christians believe in a vision that separates them from all other people and places them at the feet of the throne of God, to give and grant blessings to the rest of unenlightened humanity. From this mighty pedestal they judge all other faiths and cultures to be inferior. They send forth missionaries and warriors into heathen lands, to bring the true faith to the pagan people. Christians will go into tribes in Africa and New Guinea, preach to the natives, and tell them to go and follow Exodus 22:18 (Thou shall not suffer a witch to live), and kill their healers and shamans. This has gone on since Christianity gained power and will continue to happen until its power wanes. Truly, this is a religion who feels that it is the duty of the followers to make all see the light, even if that light is the fire around them as they burn.
In researching this topic, I found myself asking several other questions. For instance, if God is an all-powerful and all-loving God, why would he instruct his followers to kill and harm others? If it is not his instruction, why does he allow the heads of his religion to say that it is? The biggest question I have encountered may never be answered, and that is the question of did God create Man, or did Man need an outlet for hopeful belief? The Roman gods certainly seem to be human projections onto the divine; perhaps we as Christians just projected a human father figure onto a beard in the sky as a means of protection and justification for the wickedness of man. After all, if it is in the name of God, how can we be wrong?
Candelaria, Michael R. Ethics. Ed. John K. Roth. “Violence.” Salem Press Inc.: 1994.
Finucane, R.C. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. “Inquisition, The.” Macmilian Publishing Co.: 1986.
Johnson, James Turner. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Ed. James F. Childress & John Macquarrie. “Just War”. The Westminster Press: 1986
Klausner, Samuel Z. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. “Violence.” Macmilian Publishing Co.: 1986.
Little, Donald P. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. “Crusades.” Macmilian Publishing Co.: 1986.
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Russell, Frederick H. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. “Crusade, Concept of.” American Council of Learned Societies: 1984.
Wakefield, Walter L. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. “Inquisition.” American Council of Learned Societies: 1984.