In a 2002 article in The Guardian, author Salman Rushdie, inspired by bouts of violence in his native India, articulated a now-common view on religion. The article was titled, “Religion, as ever, is the poison in India’s blood.” In it, Rushdie outlined the familiar stance of the vociferous new atheists, bidding the world to stop speaking of religion in the fashionable language of “respect” and skating around the obvious conclusions about both God and religion. He writes:
“What is there to respect in any of this, or in any of the crimes now being committed almost daily around the world in religion’s dreaded name? How well, with what fatal results, religion erects totems, and how willing we are to kill for them! […] India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem. What happened in India has happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.“(1)
Rushdie’s voice is merely one among many in the increasingly prevalent conversation about God, religion, and violence. Against Christianity, the critiques come quite specifically. Richard Dawkins describes the Christian story as vicious, sado-masochistic, and repellent, symptomatic of a violent God, a Bible full of violence, and followers willing to overlook that violence, or worse, to embrace it. For Dawkins and his conspirators, God is the problem that initiates the problem of violence: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can be desensitized to their horror.”(2)
Unsatisfied altogether by those who try to interpret the Old Testament through the lenses of the New, those who point to Jesus as fulfilling personally and particularly some of the more uncertain images of God, the new atheists see only continuity in the violence of Christian theology. In Dawkins’ words, “New Testament theology adds a new injustice, topped off by a new sadomasochism whose viciousness even the Old Testament barely succeeds. It is, when you think about it, remarkable that a religion should adopt an instrument of torture and execution as its sacred symbol… The theology and punishment-theory behind it is even worse.”(3)
While the vitriolic rants of the new atheists are filled with arrogance, oddities, and inconsistencies of their own, their well-voiced objections to Christian violence are hardly unique to them. For many, both in and outside the church, it is an issue deeply felt, a problem that needs a viable answer. Why is it that religion and violence often merge? And what is the solution? For the great majority of those who bravely vocalize such a question, the great “solution” of eradicating religion is simply unhelpful. And in fact some are suggesting the exact opposite, suggesting that the cure to religious violence does not rest in less religion or no religion (an argument that has been on the increase since the Enlightenment), but rather more religion.
In a carefully qualified sense, professor Miroslav Volf explains, “I don’t mean, of course, that the cure for violence lies in increased religious zeal… [rather] it lies in a stronger and more intelligent commitment to the faith as faith.” That is, commitment to the kind of faith that is itself good news, truth and beauty incarnate, a story that reinterprets all others. After the horrific murders of nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, the world has been shown such a faith. Addressing the one accused of killing their loved ones, they spoke of mercy and offered forgiveness. They did not speak full of rage, just broken hearts.
As Volf continues, “The more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity which serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose content is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be.”(4) In other words, Christ’s Incarnation properly understood as a nonviolent invasion of a violent world by the God of shalom hardly fosters violence.
On the contrary, his violent death at the hands of a life-taking world is entirely reversed at the hands of the life-giving Father and the resurrection of a murdered son. His proclamation of a different kingdom is embodied in a God who steps near enough to consume us, but who offers instead a paradoxical alternative: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). No, Christianity properly understood and entirely embodied cannot be used to incite violence. It instead takes the angry words of its staunchest critics and the vile abuse of misguided disciples, and, like its liberator, lives the radical alternative to the story they tell.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Salman Rushdie, “Religion, as ever, is the poison in India’s blood,” The Guardian, March 9, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/mar/09/society.salmanrushdie, accessed January 15, 2010.
(2) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 51.
(3) Ibid., 285.
(4) Miroslav Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics, March 6, 2002, http://repository.upenn.edu/boardman/2, accessed January 18, 2010.