Sunday, June 1, 2008

Celestial Junk: Onward Christian Soldiers!

On the side of the angels

Central to Junky Paul’s “thesis” that, in contrast to Islam — which he asserts is inherently violent, supremicist and persecutory — the foundational roots of Christianity are essentially peaceful in nature. To wit, we have this cockeyed notion:

Anyone at all familiar with Christian foundational texts, understands immediately that Christianity is by and large a pacifist religion. Christian foundational texts focus on spirituality and are almost completely devoid of political guidance. Christian foundations can best be described as “turn the other cheek.” Muslim foundations can best be described as “smite the unbelievers.”

Seeking to preempt the inevitable counterarguments that this audacious claim begs, Junky Paul is quick to note that:

Christianity, despite its pacifist foundations, has been used by political forces over centuries to enact all sorts of violence. Once it became the dominant religion in Southern Europe, it’s [sic] pacifist nature was quickly circumvented for any number of reasons, but none of these reasons could either then or now be justified using foundational Christian texts. As a result, Christians have always struggled back to their pacifist and peaceful roots.

It’s generally agreed that Christianity began as a relatively pacifist faith and that this position was prevalent through early Christian history. Even so, there’s some ambiguity in the portrayal of Jesus’ attitudes towards violence and war. For example, Jesus said “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). This of course is actually taken out of context (most scholars would argue that its true meaning otherwise is the complete opposite), but since when did that ever stop radical demagogues and theological hacks from selectively quoting the Bible to justify their warlike impulses? And this is precisely where Junky Paul’s argument falls apart — in relying on different interpretations of the “foundational texts” of Christianity and Islam that have been made over time, one has to admit that the same kind of willful distortions can be applied equally to both faiths. Unfortunately, being a colossally ignorant bigot, Junky Paul is apparently unwilling to make any such concession in the case of Islam while at the same time breezily dismissing the way in which Christianity has been “hijacked” for purposes of war and plunder throughout most of its existence.

For example, some Christians maintain that the pacifistic directives of Jesus apply only to individuals, not nations and that the Bible distinguishes clearly between the two in both the Old and New Testaments. While salvation may be claimed by the individual, the soulless nations remain under the sway of the prince of this world who once offered them, without success, to Jesus. Thus it’s argued, these commands cannot apply to a nation-state. As the self-described “Christian libertarian” opinion columnist Vox Day wrote several years ago: “The truth is that the world will never know peace without the Prince of Peace, and to work for peace in the absence of Jesus Christ is to directly contradict the fundamental foundations of the Christian faith. Of wars and rumors of war, ‘do not be alarmed, such things must happen,’ Jesus said – so peace between nations is simply not a significant concern for the Christian.”

There is a strong tradition within Christian theology for this line of thinking and indeed the seeds of rejecting pacifism aren’t hard to find in the New Testament — Paul readily accepted the state’s right and power to use violence to enforce its will. Perhaps in part because of this, as soldiers in the army were gradually converted, they weren’t expected to resign and take up other pursuits.

When Constantine became a church patron and Christianity was established as the favoured religion in the Roman Empire the pacifistic attitudes were rapidly abandoned by the church. In fact, the pendulum swung so far that in the Council of Arles of 314, Christians who gave up arms even in time of peace would be excommunicated and by 416, only Christians could serve in the army.

Christian leaders justified the apparent contradiction between what was preached by Jesus and what was expected of them in society by creating artificial divisions between the “higher life” of those who were called to religious service (priests, monks, nuns, etc.) and the “lower” strata of civil life. Those called to religious service were expected to uphold stricter rules through celibacy, not taking up arms, etc., which were not applied to others. Another division which was created, this time in the arena of moral theology, was between “counsels” and “precepts.” Counsels are exhortations which can certainly aid in the attainment of perfection, but which are not considered binding. Included in this group were a number of the commands of Jesus like chastity and poverty. Precepts, on the other hand, are absolutely required by Christians. The command to “turn the other cheek” and not return violence for violence was classified among the former rather than the latter.

During Middle Ages, further erosion of the pacifist origins of Christianity occurred as “just war” doctrines were developed. These provided a means by which Christian leaders could justify going to war and even killing other Christians without also appearing to betray their religious duties. At the same time, however, heretical Christian groups were arising which rejected many official church teachings in favor of a theology based more directly upon the gospels. Among those which advocated a strong pacifist position were the Waldenses, Lollards, Hussites, and Quakers to name but a few.

The period of the Renaissance and Reformation saw assertions of all three attitudes toward war. Renaissance humanism developed a pacifist impulse, of which Erasmus is one of the most important examples. Humanist pacifism appealed to such philosophical and theological principles as the common humanity and brotherhood of all persons as children of God, the follies of war, and the ability of rational individuals to govern themselves and their states on the basis of reason.

All Protestant churches except the Anabaptists accepted the inherited tradition of the just war. Luther identified two kingdoms, of God and of the world. While he rejected the idea of crusade, his respect for the state as ordained by God to preserve order and to punish evil in the worldly realm made him a firm supporter of the just war approach. The Reformed tradition accepted the crusade concept, seeing the state not only as the preserver of order but also as a means of furthering the cause of true religion. Zwingli died in a religious war; Calvin left the door open to rebellion against an unjust ruler; and Beza developed not only the right but the duty of Christians to revolt against tyranny. Cromwell’s pronouncement of divine blessing on the massacre of Catholics at Drogheda illustrates the crusade idea in English Puritanism.

Wars in North America, from Puritan conflicts with the Indians through the Revolutionary War to the world wars, have all been defended in religious and secular versions of the just war theory or the crusade idea. For example, World War I, fought “to make the world safe for democracy,” was a secular crusade.

Although various so-called “peace churches” such as the Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers have maintained a continuing if at times uneven witness against war as well as a refusal to participate in it, these sects have always been regarded as far outside the mainstream of modern Christianity. Today, they account for only a tiny percentage of the number of Christians in America —about 1 million adherents. This fact alone would seem to strongly refute Junky Paul’s laughable assertion that “Christians have always struggled back to their pacifist and peaceful roots.”

Bloody Infidels!