Christianity and Violence: Coming to Grips with the Bloody Threads in the Garment

[1] In the decade that has passed since the horrific acts of violence that occurred on 9/11, I have been troubled by the frequency with which people claiming to be Christians have characterized Islam as a religion of violence, notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are strongly committed to peace. With selective memory that edits out anything that is unpleasant, Christian critics of Islam also have a tendency to overlook the fact that violence is deeply ingrained in the history of Christianity, notwithstanding the words of Jesus in Matthew 7: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

[2] I happened to be in Rome on the first-year anniversary of 9/11 and, as I always do when in Rome, attended a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. At opposite ends of the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica are two gleaming white marble statues, one of Constantine (272-337), the other of Charlemagne (742-814). Both played significant roles in Christianity’s rise to prominence. Both were men of violence.

[3] Constantine gained power by defeating his brother-in-law, Maxentius, at the battle of Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome. Christian mythology has it that prior to the battle, Constantine had a vision in which he saw a cross in the heavens (or was it the chi rho—the first two letters of “Christos,” the Greek word for Christ?—the accounts differ) and heard a voice that said, “In hoc signo vinces (By this sign you shall conquer.)” The particulars of the story are shrouded in ambiguity. The outcome of the battle is not. Constantine was victorious when his troops, though outnumbered, pushed the cavalry and infantry of Maxentius into the Tiber River, where many, including Maxentius, drowned.[1]

[4] How much of a Christian Constantine actually was is open to question. He ordered the execution of his eldest son Crispus “by cold poison” and arranged to have his wife, the Empress Fausta (the sister of Maxentius), left to die in an overheated bath, which strike many as rather unchristian things to do.[2] However, spurred on by his mother, who was a devout Christian, he did provide for the construction of many churches, including the first St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the one in which Charlemagne was crowned emperor five centuries later). And he did convene the Council of Nicaea, which by issuing the original version of the Nicene Creed in 325, established orthodox Christian belief with respect to the nature of Christ, thereby rejecting competing views among early Christians.[3] Giving official sanction to one particular view, however, set the stage for a good deal of bloodshed. Historian Ralph Martin Novak, Jr., notes:

By adopting a statement of “orthodox Christian belief,” the bishops who prevailed at Nicaea drew a line in the sand with respect to all other forms of Christian belief. Christians who refused to adopt the orthodoxy defined at Nicaea would eventually be required to pay for their “heretical” beliefs in blood: more Christians died at the hands of Christians during the seventy- five years following the council of Nicaea than had died as martyrs under the almost three hundred years of Roman persecution.[4]

[5] In an essay entitled “Terrorism and War,” H.S. Wilson observes:

[A]fter recognition by the emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., [Christianity] soon developed its own means of using force to achieve its objectives. These means included punishment, persecution, imprisonment, banishment of those why strayed away from the true faith, torture, execution of those who refused to repent and recant their false beliefs, and crusades to retrieve lost territories and reclaim members.[5]

[6] Charlemagne was no less violent than Constantine. Charlemagne and his brother Carloman became co-rulers of the Frankish kingdom (located in what is now France) upon the death of their father Pippin the Short in 768. Charlemagne, a person of great ambition and many wives (he had five in succession and at least that many mistresses), wished to control the entire Frankish kingdom, which he accomplished upon the death of Carloman in 771 by pushing aside Carloman’s heirs. The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were devoted to military campaigns, motivated, at least in part, by lust for conquest and booty and a desire to spread Christianity, which he did by the sword, beheading many who refused to convert. (He apparently saw no contradiction in this dual agenda.) In a time of shifting political alliances and almost constant warfare, he became the protector of Pope Leo III, who rewarded him by placing a crown on his head when he attended mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of 800 and proclaiming him “emperor of the Romans.”[6]

[7] The pattern of violence in the name of Christianity did not end with the death of Charlemagne in 814. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed the crusades—military campaigns conducted under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church directed toward checking the spread of Islam and regaining control of the Holy Land for Christendom, the latter objective only partially and temporarily achieved. The sixteenth century brought the Spanish Conquest of the New World and the forced conversion of native populations to Christianity. (In an open building near the great doors of the cathedral in Cuernavaca, it is still possible to see the iron rings to which Indian slaves were chained so that they could hear the Gospel of Christ preached.) Meanwhile, the fires of the Inquisition burned brightly on the European continent as thousands were burned at the stake for espousing what inquisitors viewed as heresy. No one knows for certain how many suffered this terrible fate. In Spain alone during Tomás Torquemada’s fifteen-year tenure as grand inquisitor (1483-1498), somewhere between two and three thousand unfortunate souls are believed to have been burned at the stake after having been convicted of heresy.[7]

[8] The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century brought its own set of atrocities. Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses were the spark that lit the religious upheaval that tore Western Europe apart, called for harsh measures against those involved in a peasant uprising in 1525, comparing them to “mad dogs” that ought to be killed. He asserted, “Let whoever can stab, smite, slay. If you die in doing it, good for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die while obeying the divine word and commandments . . . .”[8] John Calvin advocated capital punishment for Michael Servetus, who had the audacity to disagree with some of the views Calvin expressed in Institutes of the Christian Religion. A tribunal convicted Servetus of heresy and sentenced him to be burned at the stake. His crime, in the judgment of the tribunal, was “blasphemies against the Holy Trinity, against the Son of God, against the baptism of infants and the foundations of the Christian religion.” Though Calvin recommended that Servetus be beheaded instead of being burned at the stake, Servetus was led to a pile of green wood, where he was tied to a stake with an iron chain. A stout rope was wound around his neck several times. His executioner placed on his head a crown of straw and leaves sprinkled with sulfur. When the executioner brought the torch to light the fire, Servetus let out a horrible shriek. Half an hour after the fire was lit he was dead.[9]

[9] Other victims of Protestant persecution included several Anabaptists, who opposed infant baptism, believing that baptism should not be performed until a person was old enough to understand the nature of baptism and request it. Such being the case, the Anabaptists re-baptized adults who had been baptized as children, a practice that infuriated many of the leaders of the Protestant movement, including Zurich-based Ulrich Zwingli. In March of 1526, town magistrates, acting at Zwingli’s behest, arrested three of the local leaders of the Anabaptist movement—George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz. Due to “carelessness” of a prison guard, they escaped. Grebel died of the plague a few months later. Mantz and Blaurock were recaptured toward the end of the year and returned to Zurich, where rebaptism was now a capital offense punishable by drowning—a means of execution deliberately chosen as a parody of the Anabaptist belief in baptism by immersion. Since Blaurock was not a citizen of Zurich, he was whipped and run out of town, though his respite was only temporary since he was executed three years later in Innsbruck. Mantz was executed in Zurich by drowning January 5, 1527, the day he was condemned.[10]

[10] The Age of Enlightenment and a growing belief in freedom of religion largely brought an end to state-sponsored violence in the name of Christianity.[11] Yet even today splinter groups and individuals claim Christian sanction for acts of violence. On May 31, 2009, in the narthex of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, Scott Roeder shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, a prominent physician who performed abortions. At his sentencing hearing, Roeder warned that God’s judgment against the United States would “sweep over this land like a prairie wind.”[12] Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small Baptist splinter group in Topeka, Kansas, praised the murder of six people at a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011.[13] Among the victims was a nine-year-old girl who was born on 9/11.[14] Anders Breivik, who has described himself as a Christian, confessed to detonating a car bomb in Norway that killed eight people and then donning a police officer’s uniform to gain access to a Labour Party youth camp, where he coldly gunned down more than sixty young people in a three-hour shooting rampage.[15]

[11] The initial response of many who view themselves as Christians was to say that Breivik might have claimed that he was a Christian but that he really is not a Christian. That, however, places us on a very slippery slope with overtones of the fires of the inquisition and the persecution of Christians by other Christians in the wake of the Council of Nicaea. Who are we to say that someone else either is or is not a Christian?

[12] A slightly less far-reaching claim might be to say that Breivik, Roeder and others who claim Christian sanction for the acts of violence they commit are not good Christians. That, however, is also a slippery slope. If we say that Breivik and Roeder were not good Christians, do we say the same about Luther, Calvin, Charlemagne and Constantine? In an article entitled “The Norway Killer Is a Christian, but So Am I” posted on a website that encourages inter-religious dialogue, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald states with respect to Breivik, “I suppose . . . we could start to make the case that he wasn’t a good Christian. But that will get us into a debate about what constitutes a ‘good’ Christian . . . . In the end, all that will show is that Christianity, as a religion, is big, and encompasses all kinds of beliefs.”[16]

[13] Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who founded the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, observed in the wake of the tragic terrorist acts in Norway, “Every major religious tradition on the planet has within it streaks of blood and hatred, even though its fabric as a whole is woven in compassion and justice. How do we acknowledge these bloody threads while struggling to cleanse the garment of them?”[17] (Waskow includes Judaism in this assessment. He observes, “In our own generation I am watching in horror as these bloody threads emerge in some of the Judaisms of today, claiming warrant in some strands of Judaism of the past.”[18]) What Waskow says is worth underscoring. The fact that there are bloody threads in the garment that is Christianity does not mean that the whole garment is bloody. Indeed, as Waskow reminds us, the garment as a whole is woven in compassion and justice.

[14] At the same time, we must come to grips with the fact that there are bloody threads in the garment and do what we can to counteract them and, if possible, cleanse the garment of these streaks of violence. The first step is seeking to understand how it is that religions of peace come to have streaks of violence. I suggest two explanations: (1) when Christianity (or any other religion) is co-opted for political reasons by those in power, be it the power of command of an army or the power of a gun in one’s hand, the stage is set for violence, and (2) when Christians (or anyone else) succumb to the myth that they have “a God’s-eye” view of the truth, the result is often harsh condemnation of others. In an essay included in Sense and Non-Sense, the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) observed that “if I believe that I can rejoin the absolute principle of all thought . . . the suffering I create turns into happiness, ruse becomes reason, and I piously cause my adversaries to perish.”[19] Reinhold Niebuhr made a similar observation in Nature and Destiny of Man when he observed:

Moral pride is revealed in all “self-righteous” judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self. Since the self-judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil, when their standards fail to conform to its own. This is the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self-righteousness.[20]

[15] How might we counteract these streaks of violence in the religious traditions of which we are a part? The first step is realizing that we don’t have a God’s-eye view of the truth, leavening all that we say and do with humility even as we proceed on the basis of the affirmations of faith that we make. The author of Micah stated it well when he observed, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.8)

[16] The next step is affirming all that is good, kind, gentle and just in the religious traditions of which we are a part. Fitzgerald put it this way, “Anders Breivik showed the violent side of Christianity. That’s all the more reason for the rest of us to model peace.”[21] For Christians, this involves remembering the words of Jesus in Matthew 5.9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” It involves reaffirming and living the words of the beautiful old prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), which reads, in part:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned . . . .[22]

[17] And it means remembering and being inspired by the work of Mother Theresa in India, the eloquent words of Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which he concludes by observing, “Let us, then, pray with all fervor for this peace which our divine Redeemer came to bring us. May He banish from the souls of men whatever might endanger peace,”[23] and the triumphal words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”[24]


[1] J.F. Matthews et al., “Constantine I,” Encyclopædia Brittanica Online at (last accessed 24 August 2012). See also Charles Alexander Robinson, Jr., Ancient History from Prehistoric Times to the Death of Justinian (New York: Macmillan Company, 1951), 648, and N.S. Gill, “Constantine the Great” at (last accessed 24 August 2012).

[2] For an overview of different theories about the deaths of Crispus and Fausta, see David Woods, “On the Death of the Empress Fausta,” Greece & Rome, 2nd Series, Vol. 45, No. 1 (April 1998), 70-85.

[3] “Council of Nicaea,” Encyclopædia Brittanica Online at (last accessed 8 February 2011).

[4] Ralph Martin Novak, Jr., Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2001), 176.

[5] H.S. Wilson, “Terrorism and War” in Moral Issues & Christian Responses, 7th edition, ed. by Patricia Beattie Jung and Shannon Jung (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2003), 366.

[6] Richard E. Sullivan et al., “Charlemagne,” Encyclopedia Brittanica Online at (last accessed 25 October 2010).

[7] Edward Peters, Inquisition (New York: The Free Press, 1988), 94. See also Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), 177-96.

[8] Martin Luther, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” tr. Charles M. Jacobs at (last accessed 8 February 2011).

[9] Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1953), 3, 149-64, 195, 208-14. See also Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1996), 267-68, and Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 369-71.

[10] Lindberg, European Reformations, 214-16; see also Ozment, Age of Reform, 328-32.

[11] The oppression of people of color in South Africa during the days of apartheid might be construed as an example to the contrary since many of the ruling white elite viewed themselves as Christians.

[12] “Kansas: Doctor’s Killer Says God Will Judge U.S.,” The Associated Press, 2 April 2010. See also Ed Pikington, “I Shot U.S. Abortion Doctor to Protect Children, Scott Roeder Tells Court,” Guardian, 28 January 2010.

[13] “The Early Word: Assessing and Regrouping,” New York Times, 12 January 2011.

[14] Joseph Berger, “Born on Sept. 11, Claimed by a New Horror,” New York Times, 9 January 2011.

[15] “At Least 85 Dead in Norway youth Camp Attack,” MSNBC, 23 July 2011 at (last accessed 21 September 2011).

[16] Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, “The Norway Killer Is a Christian, but So Am I,” Patheos, 2 August 2011, at (last accessed 17 August 2011).

[17]Arthur Waskow, “Brevik: A Terrorist Who Claims Roots in Crusader Christianity” at (last accessed 23 September 2011). Additional information about The Shalom Center can be accessed at

[18] Ibid.

[19] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Metaphysical in Man,” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia A. Dreyfus (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 95.

[20] Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, Human Nature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 199.

[21] Fitzgerald, “The Norway Killer Is a Christian, but So Am I.”

[22] Though it is widely believed that Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) wrote this much-loved prayer, it can only be traced back to the second decade of the Twentieth Century, at which time it was found on the back of a holy card of St. Francis (“Peace Prayer of St. Francis” at [last accessed 23 September 2011]).

[23] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), 171, April 11, 1963, at . . . (last accessed 14 April 2010).

[24] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger than Evil” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 721.

Daniel E. Lee

Daniel E. Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, where he is the chair of the Department of Religion.