- Ultra Orthodox Jews in Bethlehem publicly beat little girls (not theirs) because of alleged indecent dress.
- Muslims in Nigeria bomb churches and kill Christians; Christian leaders say they have no more cheeks to turn and will defend themselves.
- Priests of different Christian sects riot and battle one another over territory in the Church of the Nativity. We are informed that this is a common occurrence every Christmas and Easter season.
Ho! Ho! Ho!
And then, of course, there are the usual bombings and riots between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the increased persecution of Coptic Christians by Egyptian Muslims, the harassment of Christians (and Muslims) by Hindus in India, etc., etc.
Are my atheist friends correct:
- Is religion a cause of violence?
- Would violence cease if there were no religion?
Before attempting to answer these questions with a simple yes or no, I believe we need to look at the fact that humankind is characterized by two seemingly incompatible attributes – religion and violence. Whether one subscribes to the biblical accounts or to the anthropological/historical evidence, or even to the daily newspaper, we are forced to admit this to be true. So what we see today is nothing new. People are both religious and violent!
So I believe that we should be cautious in naming one as the cause of the other. Questions of cause and effect are not always as easy to determine as we’d like them to be. As I recall from my studies in philosophy and logic, there can be many causal factors leading to any occurrence. Certainly religion appears to be a link in each of the causal chains leading up to the events mentioned above. But it is usually not in itself the efficient cause, that triggering event, that which initiates the violent activity. Often that is some trivial event. Very possibly religion was the final or purposive cause of some of the events mentioned (i.e., drive out the infidels so that Islam will triumph) but not all.
And not all violent events have a religious cause, as a study of 20th century history would demonstrate. Religion was not a cause of the violent purges of Russia, China and Germany. These were perpetrated by the irreligious, often upon the religious. (Of course, by a little twist in our logic we could see the persecuted as a cause of the violence inflicted on them; in other words, blame the victim.) Thus, the answer to the second question would have to be no, violence would not cease if there were no religion.
So what am I, as a follower of Jesus, to say in regard to the first question above (Is religion a cause of violence?), especially as I am reasonably sure that the answer is yes?
It would be tempting to simply claim that these violent actions were all the actions of those who have chosen to worship a false god, not the God of the Bible, that these were those who had turned from the true God to worship one of their own making. And this would be true of many (see Romans 1:18ff).
But what am I to make of the fact that many of the violent acts perpetrated throughout history have been committed in the name of Jesus Christ, the one known as the Prince of Peace? What am I to say of the hate that is spouted in His name, or of the present day hate groups that use the name of Jesus?
Again, it would be tempting to say that those who are violent are not followers of Christ, that they are using His name in vain to promote their own hate causes. And I suppose I would be partially correct in saying that. Groups with names like “Traditional Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” and “Christian Identity Church – Aryan Nations” have no idea of the heart or ethics of Jesus. However, I must confess that there are those among Jesus’ followers who are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are willing to advocate violence on their behalf.
But Jesus nowhere advocated violence. Even when His life was threatened, He told Peter – who attempted violence in His defense, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
I see some necessary actions on my part and on the part of my Christian brothers.
- First, we must pray for them: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
- We must personally live out the nonviolent ethics of Jesus.
- As teachers, we must be concerned to teach, not simply the doctrinal requirements of the Christian faith, but also the ethics that Jesus lived and taught and demanded.
And I believe that many – most – of those who have chosen to follow Jesus do live lives that are nonviolent, that are compatible with His life and teaching.