As god-awful violence in the Middle East spills over into Paris, Brussels and possibly to other parts as yet unknown, we hear fearful voices with increasing decibels eager to point out the verses of the Qur’an which encourage the use of force in the spread of that faith. We also experience our own demagogues who attempt to use such sentiments for their personal political purposes.
The very real terror of recent atrocities has increased the fear of so many folks across Europe and in our nation, with so-called experts only too willing to brand Islam as intrinsically violent … even though the very etymological root of the word, slm, is related to the Hebrew shalom, “peace.”
We may speak of Christianity as a religion of love for friends and enemies alike (Lk 6:27-29), but we also have plenty of violence in our sacred texts (and history) as well:
- Paging through our Scriptures, we learn early on for example that, except for Noah’s family, God wiped out every single being on earth (Gn 7:23).
- We are told that at the first Passover “at midnight the Lord struck down every first born in the land of Egypt, from the first born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first born of the prisoner in the dungeon, as well as all the animals” (Ex 12:29).
- In conquering the ancient city of Ai, by the explicit command of God, the Israelites were told to put to the sword “all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and donkeys” (Jos 6:21).
- As the Israelites conquered their promised land, “there fell that day a total of 12,000 men and women, the entire population of Ai” (Jos 8:25).
- Furthermore, Israel killed all the inhabitants of the famous city of Hazor by the sword, “leaving none alive” (Jos 11:14).
- The celebrated biblical judge Jephthah vowed to sacrifice whatever he met after a military victory, only in his horror to meet his daughter, an only child, who (we are told) submitted to her fate (Jgs 11:34).
No wonder these are called “texts of terror” by contemporary scholars and writers!
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is curiously remembered as telling his disciples during the final week of his life “whoever does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (22:36). He was hardly a person remembered for violence or ever identified with it.
This scattering of a few violent verses from our Scriptures certainly does not characterize either Judaism or Christianity as brutal or vicious. Moreover, building an entire spirituality or morality on any one verse is the perfect description of heresy because there are always other biblical texts to nuance, modify or soften them.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is not one of violence.
That is not to deny, however, that there have been cruel periods of atrocious violence in our Christian history. Medieval heretics such as the Albigensians were brutally persecuted and punished, often by death. In 1204 A.D. the Crusaders were ruthless in killing off the Greek Christians of Constantinople. In 16th century England, Catholics and Protestants alike seemed to cheerfully hang, draw and quarter each other to protect themselves from religious error and heresy.
The theory of the day was that error had no rights, a conviction which technically remained on our Catholic textbooks and in theological footnotes until Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty in 1965. I remember it still being taught 50 years ago at the Gregorian University in Rome.
My point in all of this is simply that no major religious tradition should be judged by a scattering of references or citations regarding violence from across the centuries.
Furthermore, the ancient world ardently believed in the so-called notion of “holy war,” namely, that any military victory was the result of divine intervention, and that all spoils of warfare therefore belonged to God alone, and should be completely destroyed rather than allowed for the human use of conquering human powers. Sadly, that even included people!
Only the whole picture, even with its historical aberrations, is the legitimate fabric for such judgment. A harsh or even mean teacher is hardly the grounds for denouncing an entire educational system. God’s love allows the freedom of human beings, even to make terrible mistakes.
In these days of so much global violence, we need to be very cautious about how we judge the diverse religious traditions around us because the same standards can go both ways. Easter greetings! The Cross of death has been conquered by Life.