By Philip Jenkins
When Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams meets with clergy furious over his church’s sexual liberalism, he might expect to encounter insults and unpleasantness. He does not worry too much about being assassinated in the gathering, of being battered to death by priests and monks. Yet that kind of violence was a real danger in the early church, when leaders gathered regularly to decide exactly what they believed about the relationship between Christ’s human and divine Natures. Violence and persecution spiraled out of control, until in 449, a mob of monks assaulted and killed the patriarch of Constantinople in the middle of a great ecclesiastical council being held at Ephesus. Exploring the sources of that mayhem also helps us understand the roots of religious-based violence today.
By modern standards, the issues at stake in the 5th century seem bafflingly technical. All participants agreed that Christ was both fully God and fully Man, and all that remained was to find a formula that did not undermine either side of the equation. But between 430 and 630, a series of Jesus Wars tore the Christian world asunder, in an era of coups and rebellions, urban riots and pogroms, beheadings and burnings.
The violence killed hundreds of thousands, and left much of the Eastern Roman Empire under military occupation. Peace only came when the eastern realm collapsed before Muslim invaders who really did not care what the Christians were arguing about. The Christian church eventually found a formula that determined orthodox belief about Christ’s Nature up to the present day, but in the process it lost half the world. That forgotten history cries out for rediscovery, a task I have tried to accomplish in my book Jesus Wars.
The story makes us rethink our assumptions about the role of violence in the great world religions. We still hear claims that Islam is a uniquely violent religion, and that intolerance and fanaticism grow inevitably from the warlike teachings of the Qur’an. But long before the rise of Islam, Christians were acting according to the worst stereotypes of religious fanaticism. Christian patriarchs and bishops acted as petty kings and warlords, directing their own armed militias and death squads, and they justified their deeds in the words of the Bible. This history must cast into question any charge that violence is especially built into the DNA of Islam, or indeed of any faith.
When we look at Christian violence in bygone years, or Muslim extremism today, we should look less at the scriptures of the particular faith, and more at the society in which believers live.
Two ideas above all drive religious violence. One is the Providential theory that God intervenes directly to punish a society that tolerates sinful behavior or false belief. If you hold this point of view, which is all but universal in pre-modern societies, it is dangerous nonsense to talk about individuals doing whatever they want so long as they don’t harm other people. If a society tolerates homosexuals or adulterers, God will punish that community with famine, plague, earthquake and military catastrophe. According to this worldview, silencing and killing heretics or infidels is utterly rational behavior, while tolerant pluralism is a recipe for national suicide.
The other core theme is that of honor. Across the Middle East and much of Asia, society is founded on the concept of family honor. Your status as an individual depends absolutely on defending this collective honor against any potential insult, by violence if necessary. When the state is weak, the fight for honor can escalate into feuds, vendettas and even civil wars. All too often, religious believers project those values into the cosmic scale, making God the ultimate patriarch of a great clan or family, who demands that his followers fight and die for his honor and name. Without the idea of honor, we can never understand why ancient monks would murder a prelate accused of giving the Christian God a status lesser than he deserved. Modern Islamists issue death threats against those infidel cartoonists who have violated the honor of the Prophet Muhammad.
In both cases, the problem is not the religion itself, but the secular ideas that become attached to it. But the consequences are very grave. As ancient Christians demonstrated, taken to extremes, the notion of God’s honor can destroy a world.
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Philip Jenkins, author of “Jesus Wars” is a professor at Penn State University. His work has been featured cover story of The Atlantic, he writes and blogs regularly for The Boston Globe, The New Republic, is a sought-after religion expert by the Wall Street Journal, and regularly covered in key Christian publications such as Christianity Today.