Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sorry, Bill, Christians are not necessarily pacifists

I had thought that Bill O'Reilly would be quickly shown the error of his ways when he argued that Anders Behring-Breivik could not be Christian because, No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder.  Apparently not so much; he's still arguing that Christianity is a peaceful religion.  So, for anyone who is unclear on the concept, he is a brief chronology of some of the highlights of Christian murders throughout history:

313 Edict of Milan - Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire.  Eusebius and Lactantius call for vengeance on those who have persecuted Christians, the latter declaring that, "[God's] fury is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken asunder by him."  Almost immediately pagan temples start being looted and destroyed, a process that would be repeated regularly for over a century.  Some contemporary sources claim that pagans were slaughtered during these acts, others deny it.

333 The first decree calling for capital punishment for heretics, in this case anyone found in possession of texts declared heretical.  Followed in 346 by capital punishment for anyone who visits a pagan temple and in 356 with capital punishment for anyone practicing paganism anywhere, including their own homes.

415 A Christian mob led by monks in Alexandria attacks Hypatia, a renowned philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, dragging her through the streets to a church where they murder her.  Her school and students relocate to Greece to escape further persecution.

532 Riots in Constantinople that started over a sporting rivalry turn political.  Justinian orders the execution of rioters; 30,000 unarmed civilians are slaughtered.

782 Charlemagne orders 4500 Saxons beheaded for returning to pagan belief after their coerced conversion to Christianity.

1095-6 Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopped off to massacre Jews in Mainz, Cologne and other towns along the way.  In 1099, they massacred over 60,000 people in Jerusalem.

1189 Richard I of England punished Jewish leaders for daring to try to attend his coronation (though he seems to have kept the gifts they brought).  The rumor that he ordered the death of all Jews led to massacres in both London and York in which unknown numbers of Jews were beaten to death and burned alive.

1191 Richard topped that with the mass execution of Muslim prisoners in Acre.  Philip of France, who had captured them and left them in the care of Conrad of Montferrat, had negotiated terms for their release, but Richard couldn't be bothered.

1209-1229 In the Albigensian Crusade, Cathars of Southern France who refused to convert to Catholicism were burned at the stake.

1234 The people of the town of Steding, Germany refused to accept the power of the Roman Church.  At the request of the local Bishop, Pope Gregory IX declared yet another crusade in which between 5000 and 11,000 men, women and children were slaughtered.

1456 In the aftermath of the Battle of Belgrade, 25,000 Turks were slaughtered by Hungarian forces.

1502 Vasco de Gama had the hands, ears and noses cut off of 800 sailors and passengers of a merchant vessel, then had them tied up, their teeth knocked in, and what was left of them burned alive.  Their crime?  Arriving at a city that had offended him.  Most of the "great" explorers limited their massacres to the inhabitants of port cities.

1631 During the Thirty Years War (which didn't last 30 years), between 20,000 and 40,000 residents of the city of Magdeburg were slaughtered after the city was taken.

Tudor England heretic burning.  Witch hunts.  The Inquisitions.  The slaughter of Native Americans by white Christians.  The Holocaust.  There's a lot more, but I think the point is made.

The denial of the pacifist nature of Christianity and justification of violence began soon after the legalization of the faith.  These arguments relied on both the text of the New Testament and arguments about the natural order of society.

354-430 Saint Augustine:  "If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those (soldiers) who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counseled to cast aside their arms and to give up soldiering altogether.  On the contrary, they were told: 'Do violence to no man ... and be content with your pay' (Luke, 3:14).  If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering." AND "The natural order conducive to pease among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority."

1225-1274 Thomas Aquinas quoted Augustine at length in his own arguments for Christian violence, but made some additional points as well:  "As the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them.  And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): 'He Beareth not the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil'; so too it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies."  In other words, the state is permitted to commit acts of violence by taking on the role of God's minister.  As for private persons, if they "have recourse to the sword by the authority of the sovereign ... through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to 'take the sword', but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment."

1483-1586 Martin Luther originally argued that only defensive wars were justifiable, but in 1529 called for a war of aggression against the Turks.  Like Augustine, he argued that the New Testament validates soldiering as a "legitimate and godly calling," and made the obvious connection that this could only be true if war is likewise a legitimate act.  Like both Augustine and Aquinas, he assumes that the state itself is an agent of God's will, and so justifies only fighting for the state, never against it.

In the case of Anders Behring-Breivik, then, there is no question of whether a Christian can commit mass murder.  Christian states and individuals have done so consistently since the religion first became powerful enough to have that ability.

There is, however, a theological question.  Now that our rulers are no longer divinely appointed (to the extent that they ever were), is it a sin for a Christian to commit violence against a secular state which does not represent the will of God?

But theology is not history and I am not a theologian.  But then, neither is Bill O'Reilly.


  1. Not a bad list off the top of your head, nice work. It took me about a minute to think of three more examples, but I think you've got enough to be going on with.

  2. Oh, I could easily have doubled the list - there's nothing there from the entire era of European colonization for example - but I was going for establishing a pattern rather than completeness. Too much detail at some point sacrifices readability.