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A Cloud of Witnesses

Historical Observations on the Relationship Between Christianity and Violence

To help students of Christian history appreciate the subtlety and complexity of the subject, Joel F. Harrington subdivides the content of his 2001 anthology, A Cloud of Witnesses, chronologically and thematically. By organizing documents thematically, Harrington presents non-chronological document relationships that readers may not have considered; and, presented with these combinations, the reader may then ask: what connects these documents, and why have they been grouped under this theme?

Here we shall discuss the documents collected under the theme of violence, spanning the third-century (C.E.) to the end of the twentieth-century (1996). Document formats include histories, personal letters, religious declarations, and political decrees. Authors range from medieval martyrs, theologians, and witnesses of the Crusades, to American antebellum judges and slaves, and modern social commentators. Considered alone, any one document presents many opportunities for studying Christian experiences of violence, and for this reason we must clearly define our analytic framework, as we shall be examining the connections between, and significance of twenty-four documents.

Looking at the documents altogether, the most prominent historical pattern that emerges is Christian-style dualism. The descriptor "Christian-style" indicates the interpretation of events and ideas through the lens of Christian theology, and, with respect to violence, this dualism reveals itself via interpretations of reality that justify violence, or its inverse, pacifism, by appeals to Christianity. Generally speaking, dualist thought produces either-or social dichotomies, and here such dichotomies are characterized by the Christian condemnation of opponents.

These dualist condemnations result in sociopolitical bifurcation, which manifests itself in the consequent patterns of violent exceptionalism, and pacifistic pluralism. The term "sociopolitical bifurcation" is shorthand for the phenomenon whereby a social group or actor reduces a complex situation into two predominant alternatives; theirs and all others, thus effecting sociopolitical antagonisms. Here, social actors present their interpretation of reality (and, in our case, Christianity) as true, and other interpretations as false. In this way, bifurcation gives rise to the opposing positions of violent exceptionalism and pacifistic pluralism.

Violent exceptionalism refers to the promotion or instigation of violence, undertaken with the goal of securing the supremacy of some ostensibly exceptional person or group. Pacifistic pluralism is the opposite of violent exceptionalism, being the promotion of non-violence, with the goal of securing peaceable and dignified living conditions for many, or all persons and groups. Within the documentary examinations undertaken here, Christian-style sociopolitical bifurcation arises from statements and historical episodes characterized by opposition between "true" or "good" Christians, and "false" or "bad" Christians or un-Christian opponents.

With these concepts in hand, we may now examine the dualistic patterns of violent exceptionalism and pacifistic pluralism, and use them to develop our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and violence. When discussing a pattern, it will first be described, and then documents evincing the pattern will be discussed in relation to the pattern's historical significance.

By the pattern of violent exceptionalism, Christian sociopolitical bifurcation is observed in these documents in three major forms: popular, church, and state violence. Where popular violence targeted unpopular persons (for various reasons), church and state violence targeted those perceived as a threat to institutional hegemony.

Considering popular and state violence together, we begin with an examination of the early martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, as observed by an anonymous author in the third-century (C.E.). Being Christians in Rome, Perpetua and Felicitas were social outcasts, and were condemned by the state, with public approval, "to the beasts." However, though these Christians understood their fate to arise from social and political condemnation, they believed their condemnation was merely physical, and welcomed their execution "with calm faces," as the "day of their victory." These martyrs' acceptance of worldly violence was a display of impassioned exceptionalism, in which Perpetua and Felicitas interpreted their positions Christologically, believing the moment of their physical execution was precisely the moment of their souls' entry into heaven.

Echoing these martyrs' exceptionalism, we observe the fourth-century historian Eusebius' description of the scholar Origen, who "was possessed with ... a passion for martyrdom." Per Eusebius, Origen's passion inspired many Christian souls to partake of this violent practice; and, looking beyond the era of early martyrdom, we discover that this dualistic, passionate exceptionalism was by no means historically anomalous.

In the sixteenth-century, radical Anabaptists accepted state-imposed violence, in defense of their anti-establishment beliefs. Akin to early martyrs, many Anabaptists did not discourage martyrdom, but wrote letters bidding family towards it, proclaiming; "follow us" physically, and "receive ... eternal life" of the soul. Further, in the matter of Anabaptism, the state was not the sole instigator of violence. The self-professed Anabaptists of the Sword decreed; "those ... unrepentant regarding several sins," as defined by these Anabaptists, "shall be punished with the sword." Notably then: violence justified by Christian dualism emanated from both the state, and its denizens.

In general, we observe here that the beliefs of medieval Martyrs and Anabaptists repeatedly confronted the ideals of the populace and the state. In all cases, differences of belief engendered sociopolitical bifurcation, and resulted in interactions characterized by dichotomies that appealed to Christian justifications for violent acts. Both sides often held their ideals not only above the ideals of opponents, but also above the importance of life; and thus we readily perceive violently dualistic, Christian-style exceptionalism.

Violent exceptionalism was not limited to state politics, and following the peak of martyrdom, prior to the Roman state's official acceptance of Christianity, we observe that the Arian controversy exemplified exceptionalist conflict within the church. Arianism questioned the official understanding of the nature(s) of Jesus and God, and church authorities responded by force. Per Arius, the militant "bishop ... persecutes us severely" and "has driven us out of the city." Where there is little reason to doubt the bishop saw himself as the true Christ-bearer, Arius certainly interpreted the situation dualistically, pronouncing all opponents "driven mad by the devil"; as for Arius, only devils might oppose his truth.

Recalling Arius' early dualism, we observe again, in the twelfth and fourteenth-centuries, Christian justifications of violent exceptionalism, during the Crusades and Inquisition. In 1101, the clergyman Fulcher of Chartres, who observed the First Crusade, reasoned that atrocities committed by Christians were justified, for; "manifold evils were growing ... because of wavering faith." Employing a similar argument, Bernard Gui, an Inquisitioner who prosecuted hundreds in France in the 1300s, proclaimed; "Contrary to what" heretics say, prosecution "has nothing to do with ... inflicting damage ... but" only "with helping" heretics to "salvation." By way of such dualistic thought, Fulcher and Gui constructed interpretations of Christianity that supported singularly violent acts. An interesting question is the degree to which these men understood their support for violence was intimately linked to a dualistic mentality; nonetheless, the historically important observation is that their appeals to Christianity lent an air of cosmological objectivity, and even necessity, to the violence they justified.

With regards to all documents as a set, violent exceptionalism possesses the status of being a conventional attitude among dualistic apologists of violence, being observed also in the following instances: the sixteenth-century immolation of Servetus, defended by Calvin with reference to scripture; the seventeenth-century persecution of purported witches, by clerics who forced victims to "confess" that "the Devil appeared"; and the eighteenth-century oppression of "black devils" by religious leaders, who (as per descriptions from the "black devils") beat slaves "in open violation of the Bible."

More recently, violent exceptionalism was manifest in the Nazi supporting German Christians, who taught the only way to Christ was "through battle, cross and sacrifice," requiring the destruction of those not "Christians of German type." This exceptionalism did not go unchallenged however, and German Christian statements stood in contrast to the pacifism of latter day martyrs, such as Franz Jaëgerstaëtter, who in 1943 preached; no human "gives enlightenment ... in word or in writing."

Considering all preceding examples together, we observe that conceptual duplicity has repeatedly been accompanied by violence, and justified by self-normalizing interpretations of Christian ideology, resulting in theological and social condemnation of opponents. Where denouncers proclaimed to protect Christian "faith" and "salvation," opponents were depicted as dangerously un-Christian. With respect to Jaëgerstaëtter's criticism of exceptionalism, the important point regarding sociopolitical bifurcation is that where his opponents found Christian justifications to support the persecution of non-Christians, he promulgated Christian justifications to denounce such persecution. This instance presents both exceptionalism and its opposite, pluralism; and here we shall turn to an examination of evidence displaying Christian criticisms of violence.

Contrary to the militancy of exceptionalism, pacifistic pluralism is exhibited as a dualistic opposition to violence. Pluralism seeks its justifications also in Christianity, but defends instead non-violent propositions. In these documents, pluralism assumes two forms: individual and group resistance to violence. These forms are intertwined, for both reject non-pacifism, present peace as the Christian way, and decry brutal social norms.

Looking first to the Barmen Declaration of 1934, we find a coalition of 140 ministers who co-authored a document that opposed the German Christians, and their "false teaching ... we belong not to Jesus ... but another lord" -- Hitler. For this group, Christianity obliged "unity ... love, and ... hope," not antisemitic exceptionalism.

Mirroring the pluralism of Jaëgerstaëtter and the Barmen ministers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944 fully embraced Christian pacifism, and warned we must all beware of attempts "to make something" un-Christianly exceptional "of oneself," for such attempts permit the rise of exceptional appetites, and beget a desire to conquer, rather than live with others. To ensure Christian pluralism, Bonhoeffer declared we must live "unreservedly in life's ... successes and failures," and develop an appreciation for the shared "perplexities" of worldly life. That is, we must follow the authoritative example: Christ.

Appeals to Christian authority were central to the programs of pluralists. In 1700, judge Samuel Sewall interpreted the Bible to defame state-endorsed slavery, and claimed "Originally ... there is no such thing as Slavery." Similarly, in 1952, Dorothy Day appealed to the parables of Christ, and presented a theologically grounded lament for those neglected by the "evils of industrialism": "the poor, ... the exploited." In the same manner, denouncing the evils of racism, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 condemned racist jurisprudence, appealed to Augustine, and declared; "an unjust law is no law at all." By such appeals to Christian authority, these reformers sought "to create such a crisis" of pluralism that Americans were "forced to confront" these issues.

The idea of a pluralist crisis born of Christian pacifism was a popular one, taken up again by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff in the 1980s, in their doctrine of liberation theology, which declared; "faith discharged a function ... protest against the social order." Like the Barmen ministers, Jaëgerstaëtter's, and Bonhoeffer's anti-Nazism, Sewall's anti-slavery, Day's anti-exploitation, and King's anti-racism, the Boff's asserted that Christianity was anti-exceptionalist, and that Christians must actively promote pluralism, and fight oppressive, exceptionalist sociopolitical norms.

Having examined these documents by both the lights of violent exceptionalism and pacifistic pluralism, we may now consider the two together. With respect to the intersection of violence and Christianity, the historical importance of this document set arises first from the fact that we may reasonably believe these authors were convinced Christians; and second, as discussed, from the observation that where some found intricate Christian justifications to support violence and exceptionalism, others found equally complex Christian justifications to support pacifism and pluralism. Speaking strictly, either Christianity supports violence, or pacifism, or both, or neither. Because these writers, being esteemed and convinced Christians, developed Christian justifications for both violence and pacifism, it is not reasonable to believe Christianity justifies either on its own, or both -- for, strictly speaking, one system cannot justify opposing positions.

For these reasons, because these authors thought it necessary and appropriate to justify both violent and pacifist positions by appealing to Christianity, and because their positions fomented sociopolitical bifurcation, the most reasonable conclusion that arises from analysis of this document set is not that these authors witnessed any truth about Christianity's innate violence or pacifism, but instead, that both violence and pacifism are potentials inherent to human social life. Both violence and pacifism transcend credal lines, and neither violence or pacifism are originally or specifically Christian. Therefore, the significance here, with relation to Christianity and violence, is that these documents exhibit the human tendency to organize ideas and ideologies as dualistic oppositions, irrespective of justifications, and that Christianity, being a complex belief system, can, and has been used to defend either side.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics, violence ]

Last updated January 28, 2014