As the details around the religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers come clearer into focus a familiar narrative is emerging–that dangerous and violent religion, Islam, motivated these men to terrorize the city of Boston. And despite the valiant efforts of the good folks at The Atlantic (“The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?”) and The Huffington Post (“Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” and “Boston Bombing Suspects’ Muslim Identity Provides Few Clues to Motivation for Bombing”), who question the relevance of the men’s religion to the question of motives, this hackneyed narrative is taking hold. In this post I do not wish to argue out how the ghastly acts of the Tsarnaevs are reprehensible to the vast majority of Muslims (though this is true–this fascinating study demonstrates that American Muslims are far more likely to condemn violence against civilians than any other religious group, including Atheists). I also do not wish to argue out how we in the United States are participating in the radicalization of Muslims (this article makes makes many important observations on this front). Finally, I will simply let this piece demonstrate that although we in the U.S. are obscenely violent, we only see outsiders as the real monsters. Rather, in what follows, I hope to show that, too often, Christianity, far from a benign force for good, is dripping in the blood of the innocents.
IN THE BEGINNING
Christianity from the start was rowdy and seditious. If we are to take studies on Empire seriously, its founder, Jesus, was an apocalyptic prophet who put God’s kingdom at odds with Rome. This should be no surprise, the inhabitants of Judea were incredibly restive in the first century and just over 30 short years after Jesus’ death engaged in a full revolt against Rome. Jesus’ assault the religious establishment (which was supported by and supportive of Rome) proved to be the catalyst for Jesus crucifixion (a penalty reserved for brigands and rebels). There is some question as to whether some of Jesus’ earliest followers could have been affiliated with the Sicarii (knife wielding terrorists—see Josephus’ Jewish War, 7.253-74; on the usefulness of a sword, see the enigmatic Luke 22:36-38 and the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 98) or the Zealots (see Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13).
After Jesus’ death, the first followers of “the way” continued to cause trouble. In 49 C.E., some 16 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the emperor Claudius was moved to expel all the Jews from Rome, on account of Jews making “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (see Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars 5.4; the episode is also mentioned in passing in Acts 18:2). Scholars are in general agreement that Chrestus is a variant of Christus. The conflict about Jesus had apparently become a nuisance to the populace. Some 15 or so years later, Tacitus (Annals 15.46) tells us that Nero was convincingly able to blame Christians for a towering inferno that consumed nearly the whole of the city (Tacitus, Annals 15.40, reports that only four of the fourteen districts were untouched). Tacitus is clear that Nero started the fire. What is compelling to me is that Christians could be plausibly identified as the culprits. It is only after they are mercilessly punished and put on display that pity from the general populace arises.
It is perhaps in the wake of the horrible failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome that Christians realized that rebellion and sedition were not the way to bring God’s kingdom. It is after the Jewish revolt that the New Testament is written. (I will have more to say on this in a moment.)
Now this historical reconstruction may not be plausible to you (I honestly am a little nervous to put it out there). Perhaps the first followers of Jesus were simply a persecuted minority who held beliefs contrary to the majority, who also held absolute power. Perhaps this fact led to suspicions and outright bigotry and persecution (sound like something happening today?). In this case, we can turn to the earliest Christian articulations of belief which are equally horrific. They nearly universally suggest the bloodlust of a Father who kills his Son to atone for the wrongs committed by humanity. Language of sacrifice is ubiquitous. Christians celebrate this good Father by ritually drinking the blood of the Son and, in the words of the Gospel of John, munching on his flesh (see John 6:54). Violence is the way in which God “redeems” the world.
THE WORD WAS GOD
We turn now to the biblical text. Now, I would never equate the Bible with God (though some do, if not in belief, in practice). But the biblical text has authority in Christian communities and it is littered with divine sanctions of violence. As a part of the contentious dispute about whether or not homosexuality as we know it is clearly condemned in the Bible (in my opinion, it is not), Dr. Robert Cargill has recently been writing on those uncomfortable parts of the Christian Bible. We can add violence to his list of things the Bible explicitly condones and even encourages.
The first followers of Jesus, as good Jews, turned to the Jewish scriptures for inspiration. The first Bible (that some will quickly dismiss as “Old”) that Christians of all stripes used speaks of God’s deliverance by way of the divine annihilation of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. Later, in the Exodus, those Hebrews who stray from the path are ruthlessly cut down. As the people enter and occupy the “Promised Land” they are commanded to kill everything—man, woman, and child. In fact, according to Judges, the problems that the fledgling nation faces are the result of their failure to do just that. In an earlier post, I discussed how 1 Samuel 15 continues to affirm this practice into the monarchy (and the New Testament book Hebrews implicitly condones the act too!). In Psalm 137:9, the writer laments the loss of Jerusalem and declares, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The joyous tale of Esther (whose inclusion in the canon at this time is debatable) delights in the massacre of Persians. Many early Christian Bibles included the Apocrypha with all its sordid tales of rebellion and violence (read 1 Maccabees for a good sampling).
The New Testament is not immune. In spite of the failure of violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, Christians still penned gruesome images that tacitly endorse violence. We have already looked briefly at the way in which Jesus’ death is interpreted. We can also point to Paul’s wish that those of the circumcision party in Galatians 5:12 would go ahead just lop the whole thing off! The bloodbath that is the Revelation to John graphically describes for us how God will finally bring God’s kingdom.
THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH
The text as it was received and then written thus endorses and even encourages violence. This is the text that was ultimately adopted and became canon. And the violence that is sanctioned in the Bible becomes the norm for Christian behavior. We can perhaps point to Constantine as the villain here (he was, after all, the first to make the cross, a symbol of death, the emblem of Christianity and of the Roman Empire). The cross went before him and led him to victory.
I suggest, however, that violence was already inherent in the faith (witness all of the above, as well as the preoccupation with “martyrdom”—on this, see the important newish book by Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution). The vitriol that is reserved for those who are not of the emerging early catholic faith is astonishing (and the road goes both ways… and I suppose some things never change). Spend some time with the Letters of John (late 1st-early 2nd century) or with Tertullian. These are not exactly paragons of pacifism. Moving closer to Constantine, it is well documented that Jolly Ol’ St. Nick punched a fellow bishop over a disagreement at Nicaea. Bishops on the losing side of the debate were banished and exiled (poor Athanasius… who himself could be a bit of a prick). Violence and mutual disdain is the norm in early Christianity.
The subsequent history of Christianity is littered with religiously sanctioned violence. The Crusades (some eight [?] of them). The Great Western Schism. The Reformation. The Counter Reformation. The Inquisition. The 30 Years War. Bloody Mary. Even bloodier Elizabeth. Colonization. Manifest Destiny. Nazism. KKK. Westboro Baptist Church. And on.
AND TENTED AMONG US
To this day many breeds of Christianity sanction violence (thank you Brethen, Quakers, and others for showing us another way). And if you are the United States, and you pay your taxes, you participate in acts of terror. Secret drone attacks (I am still twistedly enamored by this piece that argues from a Christian perspective that drone attacks are moral). Israel’s occupation (motivated by absurd Christian Zionism). Colombia’s war on drugs. The predictable marriage between Christians and gun rights. I have not even mentioned our complicity in propping dictatorships in the interest of “national security” and the imposition of policies that keep people here and abroad hungry and impoverished. And, perhaps most pertinent to this post, senseless acts of violence against Muslims (or people who look like Muslims) who are our neighbors and friends.
Why then do we point out the religion of these two men? Why is their faith highlighted as the violent one? Why do we not look to the religiously tinted language that pervades the notes of Timothy McVeigh? As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued, violence is inherent in many religions, and Christianity is not immune (see his book, Terror in the Mind of God or listen to this excellent podcast, courtesy of Per Smith). Islam is no more inherently violent that other faiths, and certainly not more than Christianity (Dr. Dawkins, please hang up your bigoted screed).
I am a terrorist and my faith is bloodied, just like the Tsarnaevs.