Thursday, March 29, 2012

Religion, Christianity and Evil

"I don't like religion because people have done evil in the name of religion."
The previous statement is often said by those who are responding to something in the news (an honor killing, a terrorist attack, etc.). Is there any real grounds for a person to make this statement?

First and foremost to this discussion, let us ask this question: do we dismiss or show distaste for every single form of ideology or a basic idea simply because some men have chosen to use it for evil? I would move those who do it for religion do not remain consistent in this position. There are men who have done evil in the name of democracy, or for the sake of the concepts of "liberty" and "freedom," and yet we don't find many who bash religion likewise bashing these principles. We don't hear people say "I don't like democracy because people have done evil in the name of democracy." We even more rarely hear someone say "I don't follow any kind of politics because people have done evil in the name of politics."

Let us take a situation wherein someone has committed evil in the name of an ideology or idea. In such a situation, a person examining the situation would normally look to two things: 1) the intent of the founders or originators of the ideology or idea; 2) the basic doctrines or tenets of the ideology or idea. For example, a person who wished to argue that Nationalist Socialism was evil, but recognized that simply saying "Nationalist Socialists have done bad things" is at best a surface level argument, would move on to point out that the originators of Nationalist Socialism were wicked men, and that their intents and purposes were wicked. They would likewise point out that the doctrines and tenets of Nationalist Socialism were likewise wicked.

Most importantly, we must ask: does the evil committed by the perpetrators in question act in alignment with the doctrines or beliefs of the original founders, or the ideology or idea as a whole? To return to our example of Nationalist Socialism, we see that all which the Nationalist Socialist party did in 1930's and 40's Germany was in line with their doctrines and core beliefs. If there were a conflict between the two, one could rightfully argue that those who did evil in World War II were acting in isolation; however, if there was no conflict between the two, and in fact they complimented one another, then we could rightfully argue that those who did evil were - as many did indeed say at the Nuremberg trials - "merely following orders." If the murder of German Jews and other "undesirables" had merely been the zealous pursuit of a select few, then we would be right in arguing that the Nationalist Socialists are misunderstood, being represented wrongfully with the actions of a minority, all of whom were acting contrary to the party's basic teachings. However, history shows instead that the Nationalist Socialist party itself was behind the genocidal destruction that raged Europe in the 1940's, and that it was perfectly in line with what they had been building during the 1930's.

Obviously, at this point, we see that the person who made the opening statement has given us far too broad a statement. We do not shrug off an entire ideology or idea simply because of a few bad apples, but rather we examine those ideologies and ideas to see if they are truly the source or not. We also recognize that, instead of presenting a broad examination of an entire concept such as politics, religion, or otherwise, we examine our problems on a case-by-case basis. In the case of religion, it would have to be by examining each individual religion. It would be inaccurate and unfair to try to lump Buddhists together with Jehovah's Witnesses under the broad use of "religion," just as it would be unfair to lump Democrats with Nationalist Socialists under the broad use of "politics." A broad spectrum exists under what calls itself "religion" just as a broad spectrum exists under what calls itself "politics." A person disgruntled with Islam cannot direct their same hatred of Islam on Hinduism any more than someone disgruntled with the system of Communism can direct their same hatred of Communism towards democracy.

Let us turn to a specific example in regards to this, and for the sake of discussion the religion will be Christianity. I'm choosing Christianity for a few good reasons: 1) I am a Christian; 2) this is a Christian blog, so it makes sense; 3) in talking about my own religion and not someone else's, I can avoid the charge that I am avoiding faults from my own side by pointing my fingers to others.

It is popular for many non-Christians, especially atheists and some agnostics, to label Christianity as evil because of events such as the Crusades, or the murder of non-Christians by radical Christian groups, or by attacks from supposed Christians, such as those that have happened at abortion clinics. As the people who perpetuated these attacks called themselves Christians, and claimed they were acting in the name of Christianity, clearly Christianity must be at fault. Is this the case?

Let's again recognize some terms. When we say that Christianity is at fault, we recognize we do not mean every single Christian. Not every Christian went on a crusade during the middle ages and killed non-Christians - for every crusader there were perhaps hundreds of thousands who stayed home. Not every single Christian has sought to blow up abortion clinics - in fact the percentage of so-called Christians who did so is staggeringly small. Not every single Christian does any form of violence in the name of Christianity - therefore we cannot mean every single Christian when we speak of Christianity. If by Christianity we mean only the bad Christians, then we would be acting unfairly by speaking in broad terms for what should be specific, and our entire position would be nonsensical. Therefore, when we speak of Christianity, we have to mean Christianity as an idea or system of beliefs. If this is the case, then our previous train of thought would beg us to look to the true doctrine and intents of Christianity's originators.

Christianity, however, is far more than just a system of beliefs, and is much more than morals and ethos - rather, it is rooted entirely in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word and God the Son. Do we find the aforementioned evils in line with the person of Christ? On the contrary, we find them opposed to him. Christ commanded his followers, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44). He told the apostles not to subjugate, but to "make disciples" of all nations, and not to do with with fire and sword but with "baptizing" and "teaching" (Matt 28:19-20). Some might jump to where Christ says "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt 10:34), but an examination of the fullest context (Matt 10:34-39) shows that Christ is talking about steadfastness against familial pressures to apostatize, not about literal war and violence. Some might still turn to passages where Christ speaks of kings who seek vengeance against ungrateful subjects (cf. Luke 19:27), however these are in reference either to the destruction of Jerusalem, which was brought about by the will of God, or in reference to the final judgment.

The earliest Christian leaders, who were working with the authority given them by Christ and speaking through their inspired texts, likewise show the same non-violent nature as was seen in Christ. The apostles did not win 3,000 converts at Pentecost by force of the sword, but by the grace of God and the power of the Gospel. The apostle Paul himself confirmed that the power of God was not by his ability to compel someone by force or to strike with terrorist tactics, but rather with the Gospel of God (Rom 1:16). He likewise wrote regarding revenge: "Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all" (Rom 12:17), and "See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone" (1 The 5:15). With this the apostle Peter agreed, writing: "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing" (1 Pet 3:9).

Let me now dare to go even a step further, and to cite the earliest Christians beyond the apostles, who while not writing inspired text, were nonetheless historical examples of how Christianity closest to Christ interpreted violence and wickedness, especially in the name of their faith. Two choice quotes: is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion... [Tertullian, To Scapula, Ch. 2]

Religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows... [Lactatius, Inst. Div. V, 20]
I could go on from here well into the fourth century, with quotes from Church Fathers such as Athanasius and his peers. The earliest persecutions against non-Christians from so-called Christians were not by the church or by true believers, but by Roman emperors seeking to enforce their power, and even then their actions were met with opposition by men such as Athanasius and others.

From this evidence, we can say that those who commit evil in the name of Christ are, in fact, acting contrary to Christ and all which he taught, and against the example set by the earliest Christians. Some here, of course, may predictably turn to the Old Testament and attempt to find examples, such as Sodom and Gomorrah or the destruction of the Amorites. The vast majority of the time, however, these situations are misrepresented or misunderstood. For example, those who accuse God of cruelty in His destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah forget that, in the dialogue between the Lord and Abraham regarding the cities, God makes it clear that if there are ten righteous people in the city he will spare everyone (Gen 18:22-32). Also, those who turn to the destruction of the Amorites forget that this destruction was God's judgment upon them for their sins, and that God had earlier spared the Amorites because their "iniquity" was not yet "complete" (Gen 15:16). These calls for judgment were also temporal and specific to certain situations - they were not perpetual. The situation within the Old Testament regarding Israel and her actions is also irrelevant to the New Testament period, for we are now under the new covenant, and God has no longer a national Israel to call His people, but the church, the new Israel, made up of Jews and Gentiles, which He calls His people (cf. Rom 9:24-26). All in the Old Testament, in the formation of Israel and the construction of the Holy of Holies and the animal sacrifices, was "a shadow of the good things to come" (Heb 10:1).

From this we can gather that those who have done evil in the name of Christianity have not been acting in the name of Christianity at all. A study of the motives of those who launched the Crusades shows that their motivations were far more political than religious, and a study of those who commit terrorist-like attacks against abortion clinics are acting unilaterally with their own motives rather than those of scripture. The root cause of their evil, therefore, cannot be attributed to Christianity, and their title of "Christian" or their labeling their efforts as a "Christian cause" is in name only.

In conclusion, we've seen that the statement made at the opening of this post is simply broad brushing in an irrational fashion, and we have seen but one example of how one can examine the earliest motives and doctrines of an individual ideology or idea to see if those who perform evil in the name of an ideology or idea render that ideology or idea guilty.