Four Types of Violence, Part Three: Holy War

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades, painting by Gustave Dore, 19th century

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades by Gustave Dore, 19th c.

Holy war. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps it is. I can see no evidence that conversion by force was ever condoned in any fashion by Jesus or the apostles, ever.

I honestly see no instances of using violence to gain converts even in the Old Testament. God ordered the destruction of some cities, and ordered the conquest of certain areas, but conversion by force? Not that I recall.

In fact, Jesus orders Peter to not even raise a sword to defend Him when the Sanhedrin-led mob comes to arrest Him (“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. – Matthew 26:52, NIV).

At no point do the apostles or early church leaders violently resist persecution.  They skip town sometimes, they are rescued by angels sometimes, and other times, they submit to indignity, injury, and eventually death.

(According to church tradition, the only apostle who wasn’t murdered or executed was St. John the Divine, the writer of the Book of Revelations, and he was exiled to Patmos, essentially imprisoned.  Many notable non-apostles, like Stephen, also died for their beliefs, and they offered no violence in return).

There are, doubtless, many reasons for this.

First, opposing the military might of Rome would require a literal miracle, and Jesus had made it clear that he was not that type of Messiah.

Second, fighting back would have made the Christians and their persecutors seem like warring religious factions, little more than gangs fighting over whether or not some rabbi was divine.  It would have ripped the credibility right out of their message.

Third, for those who were apostles and full-time evangelists, there was only one focus: preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and leading people through repentance and into true discipleship.

There was no time for marriage and children, no time for personal property beyond travelling necessities, and no time for self-defense.  They were to throw their lives into God’s hands, and spend every bit of energy and time they had into spreading His message.

There is, I believe, another reason. I believe God knew that Christianity would spread, and nations would become majority Christian in time.

Kings and nobles would convert, and bring a new danger into the soul of Christianity: an unholy union with government, and the specter of holy wars, religious persecution by Christians, and inquisitions in which even Christians were not safe from church-sponsored violence.

Had these leaders read and prayed and paid attention (and actually cared), they could have seen that Jesus and the apostles never condoned these sorts of things, and in fact eschewed them.  But they did not: they were dominant rulers, accustomed to enforcing their will through force and fear, and their new-found Christianity did not sink deep enough to change that.

Granted, this has probably been the least controversial of the series. Honestly, though, I’m not sure that it’s because we’ve evolved past it. After all, we’re still a very warlike species, even in the post-industrial nations. Just because we kill with drones and cruise missiles doesn’t mean we’re not still killers.

I choose not to believe that our rejection of holy war comes from not taking our religion seriously enough.  I choose to believe that it comes from actually caring about the examples of Jesus and the Apostles. I choose to believe that it represents progress.

We know that war is not a holy thing. We may still support our secular national government’s wars, but at least we don’t want the Church involved.  And that, to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, is a good thing.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

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2 comments on “Four Types of Violence, Part Three: Holy War

  1. robstroud says:

    “I can see no evidence that conversion by force was ever condoned in any fashion by Jesus or the apostles, ever.”

    That’s 100% correct. However, when talking about the quintessential Christian “holy wars” (i.e. the Crusades), it’s important to know they weren’t fought to “convert,” but to guaranteed free and unhindered access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.

    It’s a competing “world religion” that holds as doctrine the coercive notion of conversion by the sword.

  2. Tim Dedeaux says:

    You’re right, the pilgrimage issue was the official cause, though the crusades had a number of causes (not the least of which was the fact that intra-Christendom warfare was tearing up Europe, and the Pope and major nobles wanted to turn some of that aggression outward). But it is true that the crusades were about territory, not conversion.

    But conversion by coercion was still an issue. Many Jews converted during the middle ages, and I can’t help but wonder if pogroms and ghettoization didn’t have as much or more to do with that than evangelism. And when Emperor Theodosius I outlawed paganism in the Roman Empire, that was, effectively, an act of forced conversion. So the issue is still there, even though it more often takes shape as oppression rather than outright war.

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