Religion and Violence

Religion can breed both violence and peace – the same religion, that is.

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I found this curious thesis reading recently Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith. For Volf, a Croatian theologian famous for his reflection on religious violence in the Balkans, the issue is actually the quality of faith. Religions have been and continue to be a powerful motive for violence and strife, of course. Just look around: Isis and Boka Haram and Sri Lanka and the ugly look I got the other day (more on that at another occasion…)

Yet when it comes to the Christian faith, at least, the more interesting question is what is driving the will to power: the faith itself or other motives usurping the language of faith? Volf argues that Christianity is not inherently violent … but it can be thinned out for that goal.

The more we reduce faith to vague religiosity that serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose course is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be…. ‘Thin’ but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; ‘thick’ and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace.[1]

I’ve found Volf’s analysis rather nuanced. He does recognize that faith than be used for war and strife–as Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris have been arguing–including the Christian faith. That is a point Christians ought to recognize if our calls for peace are to sound credible.

Whenever violence was perpetrated in the name of the cross, the cross was depleted of its ‘thick’ meaning within the larger story of Jesus Christ and ‘thinned’ down to a symbol of religious belonging and power… If we strip Christian convictions of their original and historic cognitive and moral content and reduce faith to a cultural resource endowed with a diffuse aura of the sacred, in situations of conflict we are likely to get religiously legitimized and inspired violence.[2]

But behind this concession lies a powerful antidote: but that is not the whole story. On the contrary, the more devout Christians are–the better they understand and follow Christ’s self-giving example–the more peaceful and peace-promoting they will be. The martyrs of the Book of Revelation, for instance, conquer the Beast precisely the way Jesus conquered death: by suffering violence instead of perpetrating it.[3] Volf quotes R. Scott Appleby’s The Ambivalence of the Sacred to point out that

religious people play a positive role in the world of human conflicts and contribute to peace not when they ‘moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs,’ but rather ‘when they remain religious actors.’

I know that a nuanced analysis will escape those quick to judge and condemn. But others of us should see farther. There is faith used for other ends, and there is faith. The more of Christ we have in the world the more peace and human flourishing we will have.

René Breuel

[1] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), 42.

[2] Ibid., 48, 51.

[3] See especially Revelation chapter 11. Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of Revelation explores this theme beautifully.

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