During these days of heightened American fears of terrorists, and the alarmist rhetoric which seems to claim daily headlines across the country, it has become commonplace in the press to speak of Islam as essentially militaristic and religiously violent. For the sake of honesty in this discussion, however, it may be helpful to acknowledge the darker side of our own Christian history in this regard as well. One can, in fact, find biblical verses in our own tradition, which seem to support and even encourage such violence.
Our Scriptures recount, for example, the manner in which Joshua’s troops destroyed the entire city of Hazor, among others, and slaughtered all its inhabitants (Josh 11:14). At the last supper, even Jesus is remembered as having told his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords (Luke 22:36). Paul instructed his followers to put on God’s armor, and even delineated the various pieces of weaponry needed to fight evil (Eph 6:14-17). The very last book of the New Testament describes the final battle of Michael and the hosts (i.e. armies) of heaven against the forces of the great devil dragon (Rev 12:7-9). Those who look carefully can find an abundance of imagery for Christianity as deeply bellicose and essentially militaristic. Scattered verses, Christian or Muslim, especially when taken out of context, can be made to say almost anything.
We know that early Christians were forbidden to be members of armies, as much because of the pagan rituals associated with military life as for the death-dealing brutality they often exercised in the name of the Roman Emperor. That hesitancy vanished quickly, however, with the Edict of Constantine in 313 A.D., and early medieval life is filled with tales of Christians from neighboring cities and kingdoms fighting and killing each other as needed to preserve power and protect trade.
The Fourth Crusade tragically recorded Western Christians, while on their way to “liberate” the Holy Lands from the Muslim princes, brutally attacking and killing their Eastern Christian relatives in the gory sack of Constantinople in 1204. Even to this day, pockets of anti-Roman Catholic bitterness still persist from that outrage over 800 years ago. The actions of those Catholic soldiers were truly violent and morally inexcusable.
Initially, the works of Thomas Aquinas were publicly burned in Paris by bishops and princes, fearing his new theological methods borrowed from Arab scholars of the East. People, like the legendary Saint Joan of Arc, were placed on trial for heresy and burned at the stake (1431 A.D.) by English bishops and princes. In Spain, the terrors of the Inquisition sought out conversos who were accused of secretly continuing to practice their Jewish faith in the security of their homes and sometimes burned them at the stake as well. At the beginning of the 16th century Reformation, Catholics and Lutherans killed each other off in Germany, and then joined forces and weapons in doing likewise to the Anabaptists. Sadly, in Great Britain the same mutual brutality of disemboweling and killing unified many Catholics under Queen Mary against their Anglican neighbors, and then conversely many Anglicans under “Good Queen Bess” against Catholics. Likewise, Catholics and Huguenots in France fought bloody battles to the death as well. So many “Christian” religious wars and so much brutal hostility, all in the name of religious truth!
The Jesuits, under the daunting leadership of St. Ignatius of Loyola, incorporated a strong militaristic spirituality in their fight for the Church. Undoubtedly influenced by the theology of St. Robert Bellarmine, for 400 years the Catholic Church of this world was proudly called “militant,” as contrasted with those suffering in Purgatory or the saints already triumphant in heaven. Near the forum in Rome, a church dedicated to the Holy Name of Mary still stands to commemorate the victorious battles and eventual liberation of Vienna from the Turks in 1738.
As a young, newly-confirmed Catholic at the age of 11 in 1946, I was proudly called a “soldier of Christ,” and was initiated, so to speak, by a slap on the cheek administered by the confirming bishop. Our Catholic high school conventions at the Milwaukee auditorium in those days were filled with stirring hymns of fighting for Christ. We often engaged in a rousing chorus of our sodality anthem: “An army of youth, flying the standards of truth, we’re fighting for Christ, the Lord …” No wonder folks found the initial ecumenical movement of the Second Vatican Council hard to accept since it had always been “us against them” and their awful heresies.
It may well be our inherited Christian military rhetoric, which blinds us to the essentially peaceful nature of Islam, because they speak, as we did, of a battle against evil. It may still seem difficult to remember that such a battle is not necessarily against members of other faiths. In the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims lived at times in very constrained and often mutually antagonistic situations. Nevertheless, the sacred writings of Islam explicitly demand that respect be granted to “the People of the Book,” as Christians and Jews are often named in Muslim tradition (see Qur’an, Surah 2:63 and 3:113-15).
True Muslims know that teaching and carry it out, while those who engage in the brutal violence of ISIS, by that very fact, demonstrate that they do not truly practice their own faith.
My point in all of these reflections is to acknowledge that we Christians have a long bellicose history, yet we also know that we prize peace and would quickly charge as “unfair” and “dishonest” any contemporary attempt to paint us as essentially warlike and prone to violence. The Lord commands that we love and treat others as we would have ourselves be treated (Mt 22:39). That attitude of fairness, truth and respect is what we Christians must bring to all the challenges of our contemporary world.