Summary: We need to ask: 1) Why is there violence in Christian history? 2) Why is there violence in present day Christianity? 3) What can be done about it today?
Sadly, there are many people today who reject Christianity because of the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of the church and individual Christians throughout history. They point to some of the ugly parts of the church’s past like the Crusades, the witch trials, and the Inquisition. The Spanish conquistadores perpetuated unspeakable cruelties against people they considered savages, in the name of Christ. People who were supposed to be Bible believing Christians owned slaves and mistreated them in our country. Let me say from the beginning that these atrocities are indefensible acts. The complaints are legitimate.
But it is not only past history that people point to, but current situations as well, such as the violence in Ireland where Catholics who say they are Christians are killing Protestants who say they are Christians and vice versa. In my lifetime, southern white Christians beat and killed black Christians during the struggle for racial equality. Even here in Mount Vernon there was a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and they even marched in parades here not very long ago. Klan members were often church members and used Christian rhetoric and quoted Bible verses to foster hatred, as many of the militia and white supremacist groups are still doing today. We have had people claiming to be Bible believing, pro-life Christians killing abortion doctors.
The questions we have to ask are: Is this kind of hate and violence the norm, or is it an anomaly in Christian history? Is it the rule, or is it the exception? Were the actions of these people consistent with Christian teaching or an aberration of it? We want to face these questions squarely as we look at the violence in Christian history, and the violence perpetrated in the name of Christ going on today.
First, let’s ask: Why was there violence in Christian history? What about the crusades and witch trials? What was happening here? Was this part of parcel of the Christian faith, or misguided individuals who happened to be Christians — or at least claimed to be? Ken Shei, an atheist, remarked, “Christianity has (by certain people) been used throughout history as an excuse for some of the most brutal, heartless, and senseless atrocities known to man.” Shei has gone so far as to form an organization called “Atheists for Jesus,” which promotes Jesus’ “message of love and kindness” without accepting him as God or seeing the church as an institution which follows his teachings. He loves the ethics of Jesus and is turned off by what he sees in the life of his followers. His objections to Christianity are things like the Crusades where Christians, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, encouraged by the Pope, slaughtered thousands of people in an attempt to take back control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. Then there was the Spanish Inquisition which endeavored to deal with heresy within the church through church trials which often ended in torture or death. The witch trials in the early history of our own country, where people were often burned at the stake or hung, was a dark time in the history of the church.
How do we respond to these events, which now we look back upon in shame? First of all, we freely admit the truth of what happened and say that what happened was wrong. And, secondly, we say that what some people did in the name of Christ, they did in the wrong way. Their actions were not in concert with Christian teaching, but the antithesis of it. The best of them were misguided and the worst of them loved cruelty.
There is a lesson here for all of us in the way we treat other people, whether it is the store clerk, the waitress or our family. I have known some mighty mean Christians in my day — sometimes I have been one of them. When it comes to taking a stand on important issues, we may have a good cause, but in carrying out that cause we may employ methods which go against the very core of what Jesus taught. Our cause maybe just, and we may be sincere, but our methods may be unchristian.
This leads to the second point. Let’s ask: Why is there violence in present day Christianity? Why would a true Christian shoot a doctor who performs abortions? What about what is going on in Ireland where Catholics and Protestants are killing each other? What about the violence and abuse perpetrated by priests and clergy against young innocents? How can we possibly respond to these kinds of injustices?
Again, we face these things with honesty and admit their appalling evil. These actions are not in keeping with the Christian faith — they go against its very fiber. The Christian who shoots an abortion doctor may say to himself that he is actually saving lives — by killing one person, he is saving the lives of many more. But in the very act of killing he is going against the very moral law he is desiring to uphold. It is a distortion and an aberration of Christian principles. It is admirable to be against the killing of innocents who have yet to have the chance to live outside the womb, but killing a person is an act which says that you really do not believe in the right to life of all individuals. It is against the teachings of Christ, the tenets of Scripture and the will of God.