Christianity’s strong streak of pacifism is rooted in the words of Jesus
There is a thought-provoking piece by Andrew Brown over at the Guardian about religion and violence, and the connection between the two. You can read the whole thing here.
This is a big subject and one that cannot be treated with any degree of profundity in a short article. It is undoubtedly true that religion and violence do go hand in hand in many places; and it is interesting to see that Brown identifies Buddhism, which is famously anti-violent, and the world’s most warlike religion.
But the really interesting question to my mind is this: is the connection between violence and a particular religion extrinsic or intrinsic? Is believing in a certain faith likely to make you more violent, or less so?
Christianity has a very strong streak of pacifism in it, which is rooted in the words of Jesus himself, to whit, the saying (among others): “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” (Matthew 5: 38-41).
At the same time, the Scriptures also do give us some foundation for the theory of the just war. There is the much discussed verse: “Then they said, “Lord, look, there are two swords here.” But he replied, “It is enough!”” (Luke 22: 38). But on the whole, I would be happy to admit that the evidence points to Jesus being someone who renounces the use of force.
And here we touch on another question. What do we mean by violence? Do we mean the use of force per se? Do we mean self-defence? Or do we mean unjustified aggression towards others? (The use of the word ‘unjustified’ is probably tautologous there – aggression is unjustified – that is what makes it aggressive.) To live a life without any dependence on force – to live without an army or a police force – would be problematic; but aggression, that is another matter altogether.
Aggression is a sin; using force to restrain, let us say, a dangerous lunatic, is common sense. So, are the religious more aggressive than the non-religious? Put like that, the question becomes too difficult to answer. Could being a person of strong faith bring out your aggressive side? Why should it?
To look at this from a Catholic angle – do I ever feel aggressive towards those who do not share my religious beliefs? Well, if I am honest, the answer must be yes.
All humans feel a degree of irritation and annoyance for those who do not agree with them – look at the comments section below this article, or below any article in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. But if you are a Catholic, you realise that irritation and annoyance are not good things, that they militate against the law of charity, so you suppress them, and you pray for grace, and you pray for the people who make you so cross. In fact it would be reasonable to suppose that Catholics were, by their faith, conditioned against violence.
Nevertheless, Catholics have committed unspeakable atrocities in the past. This was the case in Northern Ireland, and the case during the Holocaust. But in such cases the conditioning against violence was whittled away, and the perpetrators of aggressive acts had themselves been brutalised, a process which took time.
Does Catholicism cause wars? Not if it is true Catholicism. It should in fact be a break on war and aggression, both of which are at root caused by economic factors, and the competition to control resources. The desire for wealth is in itself an unholy desire; and it is here that we perceive how weak religious impulses are. Anyone who suggested to the Catholic community of Northern Ireland back in the 1960s that they should have been happy to accept the lower place in society (a concept with Biblical roots, please note) would have been laughed at.
Those who see Catholicism as something that fuels wars greatly overestimate the strength of religious feeling. Those who answered the call of Peter the Hermit, and took the Cross were moved by religious feeling, certainly, but it was religious feeling that answered a profound need that had been stoked by other factors as well. It was a religious feeling, too, that chimed in nicely with many other motives: economic motives, as well as the simple desire to fight, something never too far below the surface in the male psyche.
Often something is presented as religious when it is nothing of the sort; but if we disguise it as religious, we can at least kid ourselves that our intentions are noble, or that we need not be ashamed of what we are doing. Jesus himself talks of a case just like this.
He accuses people of declaring their goods dedicated to God as an excuse for not helping aged parents; in other words using a religious reason, or better a pseudo-religious reason, for covering up meanness and selfishness (see Mark 7:11). So if you are a Catholic and trying to justify your aggressive feelings by use of religious language, bear this in mind; and don’t kid yourself!