Following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, we are once again embroiled in the perennial question of whether or not Islam is a religion of violence or a religion of peace. The question is often posed as if other world religions are more passive, even pacifist, and do not pose the kind of existential threat to global peace and stability as that of Islam or its extremist factions. But as far as Christianity is concerned, this preconception has it all wrong. Christianity is a violent religion, though not in the sense debated by today’s pundits; the kind of violence the Christian religion brings is far more dangerous than any Islamic extremist. This is because Christianity presents itself as affirming objective universal truths – including the startling assertion of the kingship of the God-man Jesus – to which all people are subject, a claim so threatening that it has since the very first Christmas provoked violent responses.
As we journey through Advent, it’s appropriate to remember the story of the Nativity: a woman accepting a divine calling to bear a child, one who would “put down the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52). So great was the perceived threat of this child to the secular ruler Herod that he ordered the execution of all children in the newborn’s birthplace: hardly the story of a benign religious leader bringing only peace and love.
Jesus Himself declared the inherently violent nature of His Kingdom: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). The weapons He wielded drove out demons, antagonized the cultural and religious status quo, and foretold the very destruction of the society that raised Him. The implications of this kingdom got his cousin John beheaded. Taken before the secular authority Pontius Pilate, Jesus did not seek to assuage the Roman procurator’s unease with His mission by explaining that He and his followers had no intention of disturbing Roman rule, or that his message was solely about being nice and throwing food drives. Instead, with the brazen passion of a self-assured revolutionary, Jesus declared: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). He subsequently embraced a brutal, violent death intended as punishment for a rebel. Jesus’ life and mission was violently – if spiritually – opposed to anything that stood in His way, and He did not seek escape from the whips, spears, or nails that crushed Him.
His disciples were no better: St. Peter and St. John before their country’s religious leadership provocatively asserted, “whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge.” St. Paul in turn proclaimed, “for we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly palaces” (Ephesians 6:12). History claims eleven of the twelve Apostles died for the sake of this new kingdom. Would people from Rome to India have bothered to kill these men if they were not viewed as a legitimate threat? Moreover, St. John in his apocalypse frighteningly depicts Jesus as a rider on a white horse whose clothes are “dipped in blood,” commanding the “armies of heaven,” wielding a “sharp sword with which to strike the nations,” because He is indeed “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:11-16). Not the kind of image we’d typically want featured on Christmas cards or decorations!
The testimony of the early Church is a further lesson in Christianity’s provocative character. If Christians had simply pursued their religious rites and beliefs in private, agreeing to participate in the public cult of the Emperor and the gods, Roman society would likely have left them alone. Reminiscent of our own culture, Rome told its subjects: believe whatever you like in the privacy of your homes, but don’t let your personal beliefs interfere with your duties in the public square. Yet for Christians, this arrangement was entirely unacceptable: no sacrifice could be offered to any king but Christ. The Church was, in effect, declaring war on the absolute authority of the Roman Empire. And for this, they were tortured, fed to the lions, and burned as human torches. For centuries they held their ground.
And so have Christians from every generation since, rejecting any society or government that claims ultimate authority, from Rome to the Third Reich, from Mexico to Vietnam. Our faith may not call for us to take up a physical sword to accomplish our global mission, but it incites us to dare anyone to use that sword to get in our way. Go ahead, we confidently dare our enemies, persecute us, torture us, kill us: it’s what our king told us would happen anyway. As Tertullian famously quipped, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Christianity demands the hearts and souls of its adherents in an all-or-nothing calculation that will provoke and threaten every society or political order that will not yield to the kingship of Christ.
Islam may be intrinsically violent. But Christianity definitely is. It may not call its followers to physically kill its opponents, but it certainly calls us to follow Christ our king, who “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). Our weapons are not guns or bombs, but prayers, sacraments, right doctrine, and a sacrificial love willingly to offer everything in this global spiritual and intellectual war.
C.S. Lewis in a chapter in Mere Christianity entitled “The Invasion” asserts, “Christianity agrees… this universe is at war…. a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel….Enemy occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” We are at war — we aren’t called the “Church Militant” for nothing — and the enemy is far greater than any rival religion. Our militancy is not just external, focused only against our culture’s materialism, libertinism, or submission to the “dictatorship of relativism.” As Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen notes in The Mystical Body of Christ, “We are militant in the sense that we are yet in the process of working out our salvation, exposed to the weakness of will, the surprises of temptation, the attacks of the devil, and yet constantly striving to carry our treasure of grace in a frail vessel to the judgment seat of God.”
If your experience of Christianity isn’t causing some sort of “violence” against the powers of evil, you are probably doing it wrong. There is simply too much sin, too much brokenness, too many deceptions in this world to be a “pacifist” Christian. We wage war for the hearts and souls of men, so let us “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” for Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (Ephesians 6:10; 1 Corinthians 15:25).
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand, and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion. He is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School at Christendom College in Alexandria, Virginia.