Why Is the Church so Violent and What Can Be Done about It? (Part 1 of 2)

The following is a guest blog by Eric A. Seibert

Among Christianity’s most notable teachings are commands to forgive wrongdoers (Col 3:13), love enemies (Matt 5:44), and serve others (Matt 20:20–28). Christians, empowered by God’s Spirit, should exhibit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22–23 NRSV). Retaliation, retribution, and revenge are forbidden (Matt 5:38–42). Believers are never to “repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom 12:17 NRSV) but rather are to “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21 NRSV). Love is the quintessential virtue of Jesus’ followers and the identifying mark by which the world will recognize them as his disciples (John 13:35; 1 John 3:11–24; 4:7–12). Christians are to love their neighbors (Matt 22:39), treat others as they wish to be treated (Matt 7:12), and be merciful (Luke 6:36). They are to live such exemplary lives that others see their “good works” and glorify God (Matt 5:16 NRSV).

In its better moments, the church has embodied these commitments, living out its calling with faithfulness, courage, and conviction. Thousands of stories could be told of Christians who have lived extraordinary lives serving the poor, working for justice, resolving conflict, and making peace. In the United States, for example, the church played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery, the struggle for women’s right to vote, and the civil rights movement. And around the world, Christians have been instrumental in such things as the removal of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the cessation of violence in Liberia after years of civil war. At its best, the church has improved the lives of countless individuals and has been an incredible blessing to the world. But here’s the rub: the church has not always been at its best. Throughout history, far too many Christians have behaved violently, tarnishing the reputation of the church and doing immeasurable harm.

The church’s long and ugly history of violence is well documented and indisputable. The record shows that Christians, claiming to follow the “Prince of Peace,” have often been anything but peaceful. Rather than rejecting violence, the church has often sponsored it. And rather than loving enemies, the church has often killed them. Christians have waged wars, executed “witches,” brutalized children, oppressed women, enslaved Africans, massacred Muslims, and exterminated Native Americans. During its 2,000-year history, the church has been responsible for unspeakable atrocities and massive amounts of bloodshed. “It is an undeniable historical fact,” writes Lee Camp, “that people who claim the lordship of Jesus . . . have killed or participated in the killing of thousands and thousands of civilians in acts of horrid violence” (Camp, Who Is My Enemy?, 11) Camp supports this claim by citing the Crusades, the religious wars of 16th- and 17th-century Europe between Catholics and Protestants, the massacre of Native Americans, and the firebombing of European cities along with the use of the atomic bomb in World War II. It is a tragic irony that the very people called to model the nonviolent love of Jesus have engaged in precisely the kind of behavior they were to reject.

On many occasions, Christians have taken up arms against their fellow Christians. Take, for example, the American Civil War, in which thousands of Christians on one side killed thousands of Christians on the other. Watching this was deeply disturbing to David Lipscomb, namesake of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. As Lee Camp describes it:

Lipscomb witnessed the Battle of Nashville, in December 1864, in which 1,500 Confederates and 3,000 Union soldiers died in a two-day period. . . . How, Lipscomb wanted to know, could southern Christians slaughter their northern Christian brothers? How could northern disciples make widows out of their southern sisters in Christ? (Camp, Mere Discipleship, 18).

How could Christians justify such behavior? How could they read their Bible, attend church, pray to God, and then go out and slaughter fellow believers?

If all this were in the past, water over the dam, so to speak, that would be bad enough. The church would still need to confess its sins, seek forgiveness, and try to make amends wherever possible. But this is not ancient history. The church continues to condone—and sometimes even participate in—various forms of violence. Many Christians support warfare, approve of torturing suspected terrorists, and endorse capital punishment. And Christians routinely express hostility toward certain groups of people such as atheists, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, it is precisely this kind of unchristian behavior that leads people to doubt the integrity of the church and its message of peace and goodwill.

I am troubled by how much violence Christians condone—and sometimes participate in—and by how much violence the church sanctions and sometimes actively supports. God does not want people to be victims of violence—and God certainly does not want this to happen at the hands of people who claim to be following God! That is why I wrote Disarming the Church, to encourage Christians to reject all forms of violence and to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus. Imagine how different the world would look if Christians actually did so!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church was known, first and foremost, for its unwavering commitment to a way of life modeled after Jesus, one that completely rejects violence, actively confronts evil, and unconditionally loves others by practicing gracious hospitality, radical forgiveness, and deep compassion. A church like that would present a compelling and irresistible witness to the world.

To what extent does your church embody the nonviolent teachings of Jesus? And what do you think the church should do to encourage its members to live nonviolently in obedience to Christ? In my next post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions.

Adapted from Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World (Eugene, OR: Cascade 2018)

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