Questions of God: Must Religion be Violent?

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
And the walls came tumblin’ down…

As a child, I loved that hymn. It was about bravery and soldiers and knights, and it reflected my own boyish interest in cowboys and Indians and the Cold War environment of my childhood. The battle between Communism and Democracy was about good and evil, right and wrong, and I overheard adults asserting things like “Better Dead than Red” and “The Only Good Communist is a Dead Communist”. We had to win this battle against the Russian threat, we were told, as we crouched under our desks for air raid drills at school.

As I child, the battle of Jericho was all about glory; about being on God’s side and participating in a crusade against the foe, and so we sang, “Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”

These days, I take a different view from the Christian militarism of my childhood. I must make a confession: while pacifism is an appropriate Christian position, and I seek healing and reconciliation in my personal relationships, I am a bit of a hawk on national security issues and believe that a strong, morally-guided military can be a force for peace. But, the relationship between religion and violence troubles me. We hear of fundamentalist Christians bombing clinics where abortions are performed and people who are considered sinners – our gay and lesbian friends – are often harassed and bullied by those who think they’re doing God’s work. Fundamentalist understandings of Islam have given rise to ISIS and al Qaeda. With God on their side, these groups persecute their opponents and assume that anyone who differs with their understanding of the Quran or Bible is an infidel, undeserving of any ethical consideration. In their minds, the world is better off if we eliminate those who oppose the rules imposed by the One True God. We sadly saw some of this religious based hatred in the voices of Unite the Right in Charlottesville.

In many ways, passages like the battle of Jericho have incited violence throughout the centuries. They have allowed Christians and Muslims to justify violence by seeing themselves as the heirs of the Hebraic conquest of Canaan. But, let’s look at the story again: after circling the city and blowing their trumpets, “they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it.  Then they devoted themselves to destruction by the edge of the sword everyone in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” Did you hear that – everyone: Can you imagine how the mothers of Jericho felt as their children were slaughtered? Can you imagine how the men of Jericho felt as their wives were murdered? Can you imagine how the native Canaanites felt as Hebraic invaders conquered their land, proclaiming that they were doing God’s work and that any mercy to the native inhabitants would be disobedience to God?

Frankly, I don’t know how to redeem these passages any more than I can applaud the destruction of the First American peoples in the founding our great country. Good has come from the emergence of the United States of America – we can’t deny this! – but this greatness came with the destruction of the First Nations and the enslavement of African peoples.

What I can say is that religion leads to violence when we assert that “God is on our side” and “our opponents are unredeemably evil.” Violence will attend religious faith if we identify shedding blood with following God, or if we hold moral or religious absolutes that dehumanize anyone different from us.

The prophet Isaiah presents an alternative vision of human history. To those who say that war is inevitable and that we must destroy our enemies before they destroy us, Isaiah proclaims:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah reminds us that we are made for community, and that even

necessary wars reflect human sinfulness. Beyond war is the vision of Shalom, of the peaceful kingdom where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

As Christians, we recognize that there may always be “wars and rumors of wars.” But, we can proclaim an alternative reality to bloodshed and disengage our faith from the perpetuation of violence. First, we need to be people of prayer, who look beyond self-interest and national interest to world loyalty. We must be able to recognize that our nation’s opponents – and people we don’t like – are God’s beloved children. Often citizens of lands that oppose us are pawns in a larger game and deeply desire a world of peace and well-being. Second, we need to challenge religious and political absolutes that assume that God is on our side and against the well-being of other nations, even as we protect our own national sovereignty. Abraham Lincoln was once asked if God was on the side of the Union, to which he responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

Lincoln knew the truth that we can always be wrong, and our neighbor occasionally be right. As Reinhold Niebuhr, the great UCC theologian asserted, “I need to recognize the truth in my neighbor’s falsehood and the falsehood in my own truth.”

Finally, as followers of Jesus, even amid conflict, we need to seek peaceful solutions which insure the maximum safety for all parties involved. We need to remember that the sun shines on the good and bad alike, and that God’s love embraces both friend and foe. God challenges us to love our enemies; and blesses those who seek peace.

The way of Jesus does not tell our leaders how they should respond to national security threats, but Jesus’ way says that peace is our goal, and war only a last resort. We must protect our homeland but remember that people in other lands are God’s beloved children, worthy of respect and love in both war and peace. As Christians, let us be peacemakers, who place loyalty to God first and seek God’s wisdom in our role as citizens. Then, perhaps children’s laughter and playing will replace the sounds of gunfire and bombs.