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September 17, 2006

Violent Christians

It takes, of course, a certain amount of chutzpah or blindness (along with political insensitivity) for a Christian to criticize Muhammad for the "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Hypatia.jpgOf the multitude of possible examples of Christians bringing, as Jesus says he does, "not...peace but a sword," my current favorite is the story of 4th- and 5th-century Alexandria's leading philosopher, Hypatia. This revered exponent of Plato and neoplatonism ran afoul of Cyril, the new patriarch of the Catholic Church (who had managed to chase away the city Jews). After Cyril's people spread rumors that Hypatia was a witch, a mob of Christian faithful entered her home stripped her, dragged her behind a chariot, and possibly chopped her body to pieces before burning it.

Cyril is now a saint in the church over which Benedict presides.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 17, 2006 1:04 PM


That blindness is necessary for most to condemn Muhammad as if he and he alone spread his ideology through violence. One would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of ideologies that were not spread through violence in some way at some time. We watch now as neoconservatives attempt to spread democracy through violence and bloodshed, an ill-conceived notion if there ever was one. Even atheism was spread through violence in the former Soviet Union, where state-enforced atheism included executing clergy and congregants or exiling them to labor camps as well as laws that punished the import/smuggling of religious materials into Russia with years if not decades in Siberian gulags.
Of course, I hardly think that the acts of our "coreligionists" precludes those of us who condemn violence from doing so as long as we condemn our own along with the "other."

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 17, 2006 2:36 PM

I agree

Before one has understood Jesus' mission on his own terms, it would not be fair to say that it was Jesus' "ideology" they were spreading in eg the crusades/inquisition. It was abusive politics being done in an abuse of Jesus name. In great humility I would commend the question should really be to understand the bible (in whose terms Jesus understood himself) on its own terms (which the "Church" has often abused)...indeed a major part of the problem is that Roman Catholicism has often confused the message of the bible by heralding itself the authority behind the bible - along with many christians, wrongly & with tragic consequences they have made the bible theirs.

The tragic result is that instead of being the people of the book (ie church under God's word) they claim that the bible is the church's book - and so it's now what they say that goes, hence the unchallengable authority of Rome etc. This is tragic because when anyone does this they completely lose the terms on which the bible explains itself - namely that it is God's account of what he has done in history. Instead it is made a weapon of whoever wields it to assert themselves.

Just as we should seek honestly and charitably to understand the bible on its own terms and how it unfolds itself, I suggest we should seek honestly and charitably to understand the Qu'ran on its own terms. However this is difficult because of the principle of abrogation (ie where contradictions occur, the latter replaces the former) and also without the Hadith (Sayings) written much later & not by Muhammed its nearly impossible to make sense of.

It's interesting to note how the genuine gospel message spread (NOT in power but in persecution & ridicule - have you ever read Acts? or 1 Corinthians? or 2 Corinthians? or Hebrews, or 1st Peter?) & comparing that to the early spread of Islam (in power).

That is a different question, which we would do well to research ourselves. Questions like, why Paul became a christian. The whole letter of 1 Peter and almost certainly the gospel of Mark are written to explain why and how christians should face the rising persecution. For instance...think how hard these words would have been for Peter to write to fellow beleivers who he knew this would mean death and pain for them. Yet he wrote & meant it.

ch. 2
13Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

18Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22"He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth."[e] 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."

"But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear[b]; do not be frightened."[c] 15But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."

I agree in condemning & grieving the shameful violence of "christians", but dont sully Christ or those who actually rely on and submit to him with that same tar.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 17, 2006 4:54 PM

oops of course I didnt mean to give the impression that power was the way people have converted to Islam, but it is a power/shame culture, and Muhammed became a military leader.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 17, 2006 4:56 PM

Gosh, was always hoping this would not become a site for (literal) preaching...

Back to the point of this post -- i.e., on *Hypatia*, and the violence done on her by the Christian mob during the pagan/Christian riots of her day, right? -- how interesting it seems that her Egyptian-ness (i.e., her blackness?) is erased in the descriptions of her as a "Hellenized" Alexandrian; that all her images, grounded on nothing but artists' fantasies, depict her as white and Greek statue-like; that her murder--and, one might surmise from various descriptions, rape--provides yet another example of the way that Christianity has always inscribed itself on the bodies of women in order to sustain its hegemonic force ? And how interesting that none of the (for example) Wikipedia entries note that feminist philosophers took up her emblematic status by naming the one journal of North American feminist philosophy in her honor (published through Indiana University Press but independently owned as a non-profit corporation)...? Thanks, Mitch, for summoning her back from the depths.

Posted by: JM at September 18, 2006 12:36 AM

Although I'm not a Christian and I readily admit that Christian history runs with blood, I think a little background on Christian attitudes toward women is relevant here. Many of the worst attitudes associated with Christianity--the corruption of the body, the extreme insistence on the spiritual/mental inferiority of women, original sin, the sinfulness of nonprocreative sex, the reverence for celibacy, etc. are derived not from Christianity's roots as a Jewish sect following a particular rabbi but from the Pauline or Hellenized Christianity instituted decades after the original formation of the sect by Paul of Tarsus and the Gentile Christians who succeeded him (in large part due to the Roman execution of Jewish Christian leaders). Ironically, these attitudes were brought into Christianity by followers of neoplatonist, pythagorean, stoic, and manichean philosophies who interpreted Christian and Jewish texts through the prism those ideas provided in direct contradiction of their historical/traditional Jewish Christian interpretation. (Women were, in fact, some of the most respected and influential leaders of the early Jewish Christian Church, with Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenized Jew, providing the misogynistic theologies that would ultimately forbid women from leadership/teaching roles.) It is also interesting to point out that the most violent and repressive era of Christianity did not begin until the Church was merged with the power of Rome despite the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that temple and state should be separate as had been the case in Israel for as long as a millenium before his birth.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 18, 2006 9:31 AM

Wouw, what a forceful rebuttal of Pope's words... One must also not forget of "heretic barbecues" that even Thomas Aquinas was a fan of....
(Err... I don't specifically know whether Aquinas was a fan of "barbecues" but I know he supported violent treatment of heretics.)

Posted by: Cihan Baran at September 18, 2006 11:03 AM

Isn't this Christ that we're being asked not to sully the same one who claimed to be bringing the sword? In any case, IF he existed, xtians have already done a fantastic job of sullying. No help needed. Please take your specious arguments and your longing for submission elsewhere.

Posted by: Catana at September 18, 2006 5:30 PM

Catana: You're too right & It makes me very, very sad. I grieve that in driving their political agendas (eg crusades/Rome institutionalising the church) under the guise of the gospel message, "christians" have led people to dismiss, indeed hate Jesus. I grieve that in my life I have often given people wrong impressions about Christ too. For what it means, I'm sorry. I guess what I meant to say is "dont let these abuses sully your view of the real Jesus". Dont let Jesus be sullied. Dont reject or blame Jesus, blame those responsible, especially including those who have called themselves christians.

All I maintain is that where people have sought to use violence to spread the gospel, this is an abuse of Jesus' name, just as many "ideologies" have been abused. This is a very thorny issue, and to quote Aquinas doesnt help, because he was an early Roman Catholic, who by their institutional nature were already misunderstanding the bible on church, making room for the imperialism you describe, as gradually any semblance of biblical orthodoxy was lost as the RC institution moved further and further into their own authority structures and institution. Worse still, without the scriptures in common access until the reformation, by the crusades/inquisition, the Roman "church" (I should say simply Roman power) had moved as far away from the biblical Christ as nominal "christianity" has ever been, as even roman catholic historians will agree.

So for this reason, JM: (I didnt think I was "preaching", as Peter's words werent directed at anyone here) I simply quoted Jesus' best friend Peter in a letter he wrote to some early christians that is now in the bible, where genuine christianity gets its definition. I merely quoted him to give you the chance to read it as the primary source and see how real christians should live in the world & why. Anything less is not genuine christianity.

Incidentally, Melinda (you raise a lot of very different related questions) I could just as easily show you the same thing in Paul, eg Romans 13. If you are wondering about the relationship between Jesus and Paul, I suggest you read NT Wright. www.ntwrightpage.com Although I dont agree everywhere, he's one of the best in the world on this question. Jesus is the climax of the whole Old Testament - the story of God's dealings and promises to put the world to rights through Israel coming to a head in the person, life, death & resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. He's no modern invention, but the climax to a true, old, long and very very big story. This is what Paul expounds. Both Paul and Jesus bring (and claim to bring) NOTHING that the Old testament did not point to. (eg John 5:39; Matthew 5:17-18; Luke 24:27,44; Acts 17:11, 18:28; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:15-17...even Peter claims his eyewitness testimony is not as conclusive as the old testament [2 Peter 1:19, 3:15-16]).

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 19, 2006 6:32 PM

"I have not come to bring peace but a sword". This comes in Matthew 10:34. The bible is dangerous because we can take things out of context. If you read on you'd see that the very next thing Jesus says is that to follow him meant giving up your rights and being humiliated "take up your cross...etc" (Matthew 10:38). The "sword" Jesus came to bring was not the sword from christians taking the lives of others, but from others for christians who would lose their lives for the gospel.

What Jesus did and said was hated. People killed him. He didnt kill anyone. Yet far from outrage in the face of persecution and ridicule, the kingdom Jesus ruled was ruled surprisingly, from the throne of a cross, the ultimate place of scorn and ridicule. As such, biblical christians embrace humiliation, not retaliating or insisting on their own way. How counter culture this is. Again, if you want to see this in paul, read 1 Corinthians 6:7 "why not rather suffer wrong? why not rather be defrauded?" - then he gives his own life as an example in ch.9. Far from religious outcry at ridicule and scorn, this is Jesus turning the world upside down, where the king serves his subjects by dying as a ransom price for their freedom (Mk 10:44). Did you know this? "Gospel" means news - something UNKNOWN being published. I am angry at people who have confused this news and made the "gospel" abusive. It's not. It's very very good news. That's all. So, when Peter tried to use a violence to defend Jesus from this humiliation, said "put away your sword", and healed the man's ear who Peter had attacked. (Jn 18). Moments later faced with the Might of the World Superpower embodied in Pontius Pilate he explained "my kingdom is not of this world" (Jn 19).

If we are serious about wanting to know the real Jesus, we must meet him in context, and hear him out all the way, to get the context for everything he says. Once we've done that, a separate question may then (and only then) be asked: must we be liberal on the bible (ie dismiss the biblical Jesus) to avoid militarism, as we must be to avoid the militaristic calls in the Qu'ran. I answer, no, not at all.

Catana: I reply (at regrettable length) because so many ideas are being posted on a discussion forum, and I dont hear anyone suggesting responses. Do you not want to hear answers to challenges? They may not be pithy and may require thought, but if I were an atheist (as I was) I'd be hoping that Jesus could be ignored. If there are responses, I assume you'd want to know, as a lot may ride on them. The alternative of course is to blindly dismiss Jesus, hearing him only on the terms we set. Is that really wise? tolerant? to squeeze Jesus into our preconceptions (worse still, based on the misinformation of others who have disgracefully sullied the gospel)?

I've skim read this & while brief, it seems helpful: bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=227

many thanks for all your responses they always make me think.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 19, 2006 6:44 PM

I think the Mitch's Sam Harris quote of the day is the best response to all this.

I'll have the yogurt, please.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 19, 2006 7:45 PM

I'm with Melinda and Chris on dismantling the institutional hegemony of the RC church (and all other religious institutions--equal opportunity here). As for their efforts to reclaim some idea of an historical Jesus: go for it. We can all use examples in our lives of people attempting to lead lives of peace and love. But the messiah/god dimension of all that makes me cringe and get a bit impatient, sorry.

Re: Chris's comment that Jesus provides the 'climax' of the very old narrative that begins in the OT, suturing the NT to it (the narrative most in need of deconstruction, in my view) -- one reference is enough: Erich Auerbach's signal essay, 'Figura' (available in _Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays_ trans. Ralph Mannheim, Meridian 1959). Foucault's discussion (in "What is an Author?") of Saint Jerome's criteria for determining 'true' authorship of biblical texts in "De Viris Illustribus" is also pertinent to this discussion (as is Foucault's _History of Sexuality v.1_), for anyone interested...

Posted by: JM at September 19, 2006 10:51 PM

What Chris seems not to be aware of is that all the arguments about Jesus, all the justifications for xtianity, are very, very old news. For most of us, it isn't unwillingness to look at other sides or refusal to consider challenges, but sheer boredom with the same old crap. When believers have something to say that is grounded in reality, and not mere variations on their dead-horse themes, then we may listen. The only reason people like Chris get any attention here at all, is because some people feel that's the polite thing to do, and others like argument for argument's sake, even if it doesn't lead anywhere.

Posted by: Catana at September 20, 2006 9:58 AM

Well said and clear. Rearranging passages and reinterpreting the spider webs of irrational and condtraditory theology is just searching for the same safety and security from an indifferent universe. Neo theologies about Jesus are no more reasonable than giving Santa a bigger slay to make it more reasonable for him to fit all those toys in. Nothing can make fiction real.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 20, 2006 11:27 AM

Jesus as climax of the whole Old Testament is a matter of belief, so I won't try to argue that one way or another. I'll just not that there are serious theological questions about the Christian order given the books of the Hebrew Scriptures and how that may alter the interpretation of those scriptures. While I have no objective basis by which to reject the claim, I have rejected it for myself. (I converted from Methodism to Judaism some years ago.)

On the other hand, the objective historical examination of the development of Christianity shows how Hellenic thought influenced many who "embraced" Christianity, especially those Paul converted without the conversion to Judaism required by Peter and other leaders of the Jerusalem Church. Similar mass conversions in recent history (meaning in the last 5 centuries) show the difficulties in preserving the integrity of a religion if one is not careful as to the means of conversion. For instance, the failures of mass converting slaves and native peoples to Catholicism led to VooDoo in Haiti and Santeria in Latin America.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 2:25 PM

Hey buddy, ever read the Talmud lately, it is riddled with teachings of superiority and bigotry and in my opinion, pretty disgusting.

Also, I don't know if you caught up with the Qu'ran lately, the quotes in Sura are as bloody and violent as Hell.

But you know what, while you people complain about Christianity, you don't put these little facts into account. But I guess, that's what you call a double standard, denouncing Christianity's checkered past, while you conveniently string an argument for yourself by not shedding some light on these little matters of fact.

Pff, you sicken me, much like your article, you should ask yourself the question, is this a fragmented question that does not encapsulate all the variants that need to be considered for scrutiny and analysis?

My answer is yes, now continue you inquisition yoddler you.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 24, 2006 10:34 AM

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