Incidents in Pakistan and Kenya during the second half of September constituted the latest spike in international religiously motivated (or associated) terrorist violence. On 22 September a twin suicide bomb attack on a church in Peshawar killed 78 people – the worst attack on the Christian minority in Pakistan's history. At around the same time, across the Indian Ocean, gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi killing over 67 people. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident describing it as retribution for Kenyan military action in Somalia. That being said, the attackers were still apparently concerned to target potential victims on the basis of their religion. It is now October and, as the dust settles on these events and on the graves of their victims, news comes to hand of over 30 people being killed in a string of bombings in what are mainly Shia-majority cities in Iraq.
As we reflect on these tragedies and ponder their causes – political and ethnic tensions, financial and educational deprivation – the spectre of religious violence is unavoidably present. While informed analysis should avoid reductionism, an over-frequent element in many terrorist acts is the attempted promotion (or protection) of religion through violent means. We all know this is true. Numerous atrocities have been committed over the centuries by people of all major religions under the guise of spreading or defending the faith. Engaging with the horror of such events, we may be tempted to sympathise with the anti-religious views of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like. Perhaps religion does poison everything!
This criticism of religion for its association with violence and other forms of abuse is not new. Over a century ago the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that in the concept of God we see 'everything harmful, poisonous, slanderous, the whole hostility unto death against life synthesised in a gruesome unity.' Perhaps there is some necessary link between religion and violence.
Of course, religion is not the only cause to have been promoted through the use, or threatened use, of force. There is politics. Physical cruelty and coercion were major weapons in the armoury of the infamous dictators of the twentieth century. The agendas of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were furthered through fear. In the case of the communist regimes the violent enforcement of atheism was also part of the mix. Perhaps politics poisons everything.
But the furtherance of ends through mass brutality is also found elsewhere. Racially-based violence has taken place in the last hundred years on every continent on earth bar Antarctica. Perhaps race poisons everything. And then there are gangland conflicts, industrial disputes, schoolyard bullying, even football crowd violence. All too often the use of force appears to be the go-to strategy when other forms of persuasion are too slow, too inconvenient, too costly, or are simply ineffective. It seems almost everything poisons everything.
Given the prevalence of violent persuasion, it is noteworthy that Jesus, a man revered and respected by people of many religions and philosophical beliefs rejected the use of physical coercion to promote his cause. It is perhaps even more remarkable that in the early centuries of Christian expansion, the historical record indicates that his followers actually complied with this teaching. This non-violent promotion of the Christian message stands out when one considers that in the centuries immediately preceding and proceeding Christ, as is the case today, political, criminal and religions causes were habitually promoted through violent means.
It is within this context that Jesus, who instructed his followers to make disciples of all nations, taught that the interests of Christianity were not to be promoted by violence. He exhorted people to love their enemies, spoke of turning the cheek, and rebuked one of his followers for wielding a sword in an effort to prevent Jesus' arrest.
While power served to corrupt elements of later Christianity, historians recognise that Jesus' early followers kept to the non-violent program. In the first centuries of Christianity the strategy for the promotion of the Christian message was proclamation of the Christian message, prayer, and persuasion. Persuasion focused on the use of Jewish Scriptures, reference to various witnessed supernatural events, the association of the Christian's message with an appealing Christian community, and interaction with Greco-Roman culture. These methods sought to encourage a voluntary response to the message of Jesus based on its perceived truth or appeal, rather than a forced response. It was better to convince than coerce. This was the case even when they were opposed by violence.
The first century teaching of the Apostle Paul supports this non-violent approach to the spread of the faith: 'Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God' (2 Cor 4:2).
It has to be acknowledged that after Christianity merged with power and government in the fourth century, and in later years, violence and coercion came to play a role among those who claimed allegiance to the one who taught his followers that they must love their enemies, and undoubtedly this has contributed in some way to the poisoning of the world.
There is no doubt the world is poisoned as evidenced by the carnage in Pakistan, Kenya and Iraq. However, religions are not the only dispensers of the venom. Religions, in fact, have often furthered the cause of non-violence. This is certainly the case for Christianity as taught by Jesus and as practiced by his early followers. Those who have taken Jesus' teaching seriously across the ages have understood that regardless of the outcome the only legitimate means available to promote their cause is non-violent action. Persuasion not coercion is the way forward.
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Dr Stephen Liggins is a former lawyer with a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Sydney. He is an Honorary Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.