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 A Sermon Preached by Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian on October 14, 2018.


RELIGION AND VIOLENCE

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”


Sam Harris, who along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are considered part of a movement called New Atheism, once wrote these controversial words: 

If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario.

This fall we are exploring obstacles to faith. These are those experiences of life or human perceptions that create barriers to faith.  One common obstacle to faith is the wide spread perception reflected in the words of Sam Harris that much of the violence found in the world can be laid at the feet of religion.  

If you take a superficial look at history this understanding might appear to be true.  On the cover of the bulletin is a drawing of an event during the French civil wars sparked by the reformation.  This is the St. Bartholomew Massacre in which the Roman Catholics slaughtered the Protestants.  These conflicts between 1562-1598 may have claimed more than three million victims.

We can think of the programs in Eastern Europe and Russian in which Jewish property was confiscated and many men, women and children were killed. Or imagine our popular understanding of the Crusades when many leaders of Europe took up the cross to go liberate the Holy Lands.  The movie about the life of Michelangelo opens with Rex Harrison playing Pope Julius II leading his army into battle in some Italian town.  Or think of the killings between Hindus and Muslims that led to the partition of India following independence. We could go on and on exploring historical events that indicate that religion and violence are intertwined.

We do not need to only look at history to find examples that might re-enforce Harris’ thesis.  Just listen to news from around the world.  In Africa there are long running civil wars in many countries between Christians and Muslims.    In Asia Muslim Pakistan has been in many conflicts with its Hindu Neighbor India.  The Christian in the Philippians has been beset by Islamic terrorists. At first glance there might seem to be a direct correlation between religion and violence.

Harris and others seem to claim that if we could just get rid of religion, peace and good will would prevail.  It makes you wonder if Harris ever heard of the 20th century.  The Nazi rejected all conventional religion and their action led to the death of up to 20 million people.  The Soviet Union which completely rejected the idea of God and brutally suppressed the church was responsible for the murder, by some estimates of over 40 million people.  Even worse has been the experience of the Chinese under the leadership of the atheistic Communist party.  For example in Mao program of a Great Leap Forward, 45 million people died in four years.  The killing fields in Cambodia were not the result of a religious crusade.

In short religion is not the main cause of violence in human history.  But we cannot pretend that religion has not been involved.  Religion has often been co-opted by leaders to re-enforce a tribal identity over against the other.  What do I mean by this?

An example is the situation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland looks like a pure example of violence caused by religious differences.  Yet the history tells a more complex story.  The Protestants in Northern Ireland are native Celts who converted to Protestantism during the Reformation.  They are descendents of mostly Scots that James I encouraged to move to Ireland.  He confiscated the good land around Belfast from the natives and gave it to people who were willing to come from Scotland to live.  

In 1690 there was a battle for the throne of the United Kingdom.  James II was deposed by his daughter Mary and her Husband William of Orange.  The transition was relatively smooth in England.  But the native Irish people supported James.  They created an army to resist the new regime.  William came to Ireland and led his troops to a smashing victory at the Battle of the Boyne.  This crushed any hopes of independence for Ireland.  Following this battle even more Scots came to settle in the North of Ireland and soon Protestants became dominant in numbers, the economy and political power.

This divide has continued down until today. There are two communities which are separated by culture, education and economic opportunities and politics.  Protestant and Catholic are the easy labels that we put on them.  The theological differences are the excuse that people use to continue to label the other.   Religion is but one factor in the ongoing tensions.

Let us turn from religion in general to our Christian faith.  The three major founders of western religions are Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.  Jesus is different from the other two in many ways, but one primary difference is that Jesus was not a war lord.

Moses and Mohammed both were religious leaders.  They transmitted religious teachings from God to the people.  They gave laws for living.  But they were more than religious leaders.  The both served political and military roles.  Both of them were tribal leaders who gathered armies and led the people into battle.  They enforced their will through force and violence.  Moses led men into battle with Israel’s enemies.  Mohammed used law and force to unite Arab tribes.

In our passage from John’s Gospel we find Jesus before Pilate.  He asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews.”  .  Pilate thinks of Jesus as being a normal leader who rules through force.  He wonders if he might be a threat to Roman rule.  Jesus answers in a way that Pilate could not fully comprehend. “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”

In these words and in his suffering death, Jesus became a leader who does not use violence or force to impose his will.  Jesus sought rather by teaching and his example of suffering love to win people to his cause.  Jesus did not rally his disciples to fight for him, but rather gave his live willingly to demonstrate God’s love for all people.  

This example of non-violence and love became the example for the early Christians.  They did not use force to spread the message of Jesus, but rather sought to show through serving love and love for each other the power of the Gospel.  During the first three hundred years of the Christian movement, the followers of Jesus were a small but growing minority in the Roman world.  There were waves of persecution during those centuries.  There were some times when Christians were killed because of their faith.  

The reaction to persecution was not to try and gather an army to defend Christians.  They did not resort to retaliation, but rather willingly gave themselves as martyrs to the faith.  The word martyr means witness.  There death became a witness to Jesus’ love.  Instead of hurting the Christian movement, we are told that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  

Those first Christians were so opposed to the use of violence that one early issue that the church faced was whether a soldier could be a Christian.  There were many in the Roman legions who were attracted to Jesus.  But many in the Church felt it was not right for a person of violence to be allowed in the church.   It took some time for them to be admitted such was the suspicion of the use of force.

It was easy for Christians to never use force when they were a small minority.  But things changed in the 4th century.  The Christian movement grew and soon even the Emperor had become a follower of Jesus.   What was an Emperor to do?  They were in charge of providing order in the country and with protecting the borders.

The fact that Christian had moved from having no power to possessing political power meant they had to rethink how power might be used properly. This is how Augustine, Aquinas and others developed the theory of Just War.  Their purpose was to limit the frequency, and violence and scope of conflict.  They set rules that if followed would reduce the number of conflicts and how these conflicts would be fought. These rules imply war cannot be waged for gain or self interest; another is that violence should be limited and third that peace is always to ultimate goal. 

Faithful Christians through history have sought to work for change though peaceful means.  I think of two examples in the work to end slavery.  John Brown was so inflamed by his hatred of slavery that he went first to Kansas and massacred pro-slavery voters.  He also went to Harper’s Ferry to gather arms hoping to ignite a slave rebellion.  John Brown violated the spirit Jesus.  Contrast that to the approach of William Wilberforce who after 20 years of gentle persuasion pushed through Parliament a bill to end the slave trade.

One can see many social movements that have been inspired by Jesus.  Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr led successful movements to increase justice for people through non-violent means.  They demonstrated their commitment to peace and justice by suffering violence upon them without responding.  That witness helped change hearts and minds.

So what does this all mean for you and me?

First if anyone tells you that the world would be better off without religion you can respond that parts of the world have tried it.  It led to death and destruction.

Secondly, we should be very distrustful of any leader or group that promotes and Utopian view of the world.  Jesus said his kingdom is not of the world.  Our task as human beings is not to create heaven on earth.  We can work to alleviate suffering and help those who are left behind.  But human sin is so strong we can never create a perfect society.

There are always voices that claim they can create a utopia.  If we follow this plan or this economic theory or this educational program or begin a revolution we will create a perfect world.  This was the promise of communism.  But these utopia all need to use force to bend people to their will.  The search for a perfect world leads to the gulag.  

Thirdly we must always question the use of force for political ends.  There are times for defense that war might be necessary, but Christians are very reluctant to approve of armed conflict.  We must insist on the rules of a just war to be satisfied.

Fourth, in the context of our common life today we should insist of lowering the rhetoric in the public square.  I have largely stopped watching the news of television.  The reason is the language being used on both sides of the isle has become so extreme.  The use of the words hate and enemy has become widespread.  People are encouraged to get in their political opponents space.  There do not seem to be any reasonable people on the national stage.

We need to watch our own rhetoric, for a Christian to hate is a failure of love, for a follower of Jesus to label others as enemy is a failure of love.  For a Christian to want the destruction of someone they disagree with is to betray the gospel.

Finally to be a follower of Jesus is to work for peace, without the use of force.  We are not to tolerate violence in our homes, our work place, our community or the world.  We are to seek through love to work for peace on every level.  We are to pray with St.  Francis, Make me a channel of your peace where there is hatred let me bring love.