It is Time for Peaceful Christians to Speak Up for Coexistence

According to the Religious Right, Islam is the enemy, and ISIL, or ISIS as it is often called, is a manifestation of all the hate and intolerance inherent in the world’s second largest religion. When President Obama says that ISIL is not Islam, the Religious Right quakes in outrage. Islam is the enemy! Sarah Palin thunders as she tries to remember which state she is in.

But while Religious Right figures are quick to assign religion and religious bigotry to ISIL, they are blind to their own. And while they lambast the Qur’an as the source of much of this intolerance, they ignore the cries of their own god to smite the unbeliever.

Historian Ramsay MacMullen pointed out, in speaking of the later Roman Empire, “Christian readiness for action carried to no matter what extremes has not always received the acknowledgment it deserves in modern accounts of the period.”[1]

It is interesting that people should have so difficult a time imagining a repressive and intolerance Christianity when there are so many examples of it in our own time. I am speaking not only of the largely Protestant Religious Right, but of the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI, who said “truth” trumps tolerance.

Brigitte Gabriel told the Values Voter Summit that “millions of Muslims are aspiring suicide bombers.” Rick Santorum is very forgiving of the Christian holy war against Islam and warns us not to hate on the Crusades, but is quick to condemn Isalmic Jihad, telling us that “you don’t have any Baptist ministers going on jihad.”

But that’s a matter of degree. Words, not only bombs, can be a form of violence.

Santorum told the Daily Beast the other day that Christianity has set aside the whole conversion “by the sword” routine and discovered that “religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and that persuasion is the way to spread the faith.”

But this is the same Rick Santorum who doesn’t believe in separation of church and state, who attended an event that told non-Christians to get out of America and who told Puerto Ricans that they must speak English if they want to be Americans.

The Baptist may not be holding a bomb or a gun, but he is more than happy to deprive non-Christians, and even non-Baptists, of their religious freedom, and Santorum himself has said that mainline Protestants are not really Christians at all.

“Saint” Augustine was one of the leading voices against religious tolerance in Late Antiquity, a leading proponent of coercion. Needless to say, Augustine’s “City of God” contained only Christians, and that the same must be said of the later Shining City on the Hill.

For Augustine, Peter Brown relates,

It was a prophetic truth that the church should be diffused among all nations…it was a prophetic truth on exactly the same level that the kings of the Earth should serve Christ in fear and trembling; that the gods of the Nations should be uprooted from the face of the Earth, and that what had been sung, centuries before by King David, should now become manifest, as a public command, in the repression of pagans, Jews and heretics throughout the Roman Empire.[2]

He had justification from no less than another saint, Paul of Tarsus, who wrote in Rom. 1:18-32 says that Pagans are guilty for violating what they know to be true of God. As Ramsay MacMullen has duly noted, “The urge to destroy paganism physically was not a post-Constantinian development.”[3] The urge to destroy Islam dates from its own inception in the seventh century.

Even the language of Christianity reflected this hostility, and from the very earliest days, referring to pagan deities as idols and as daimones (demons) and not as gods at all. Augustine was as bloodthirsty as the rest of his ilk: “God who speaks truth has both predicted that the images of the many, the false gods, are to be overthrown, and commands that it be done.”[4]

And Augustine was right: the Old Testament commands precisely that.

The ways “in which Christianity differed from the general context of opinion around it,” MacMullen says, “was the antagonism inherent in the antagonism of God toward all other supernatural powers, of God toward every man or woman who refused allegiance, and…of those who granted their allegiance toward all the remaining stubborn unbelievers.”[5]

As Arnaldo Momigliano notes, “if there were men who recommended tolerance and peaceful coexistence of Christians and pagans, they were rapidly crowded out.”[6] Certainly, by 384 when the Pagan senator Symmachus directed just this appeal to St. Jerome, it was refused. As MacMullen observes, by that point “it was really too late to speak of toleration.”[7]

We know this with a certainty because Origen admits that Celsus remarked on it, how the Pagan scholar expressed the amazement of polytheists at the “murderous intolerance” of Christianity.[8] This is a murderous intolerance we have seen for ourselves, and are exposed to daily, even as Religious Right figures complain they are being presented as hate peddlers and extremists.

But what is more extreme than religious intolerance unless it is murder in a god’s name?

Thomas Jefferson was pointing toward centuries of Christian intolerance when he wrote, “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.”[9]

According to one scholar, Christian intolerance has consumed “at least a million people per century” over the past two millennia.[10] This is a staggering bill to have been paid by not only the world’s other religions, but by fellow Christians, who were as often as not victims of their own religion.

But Islam, we are told, is the enemy. From a historical perspective, this claim does not hold water unless all religions which hold claim to some capital-T Truth are also held accountable. And yes, I am looking at Christianity.

Moderate Christians can say the Religious Right does not speak for them, and that it is not, in any case, really Christianity at all. But if the Religious Right is not really Christianity, then it is up to the real Christians to do more than remain silent on the matter, as has so often happened in history when the silent (and peaceful) majority is confronted by a hateful and violent minority.

As Momigliano said, “if there were men who recommended tolerance and peaceful coexistence of Christians and pagans, they [are] rapidly crowded out.” This, while the opportunity still exists, would be a good time for those peaceful Christians to speak up.


[1] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 15.
[2] Peter Brown, “St. Augustine’s Attitude to Religious Coercion,” JRS 54 (1964), 110.
[3] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 159 n. 6.
[4] Augustine, Ep. 91.3.
[5] MacMullen (1984), 19.
[6] Arnaldo Momigliano, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.” in A. Momigliano (ed), The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), 80.
[7] MacMullen (1997), 12.
[8] Origen, C. Cel. 3.10 and 12. See also Ammianus 22.5.4.
[9] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on Virginia, Query XVII, The Different Religions Received into the State” The Works of Thomas Jeffersion, Paul L. Ford, ed. (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. IV: 296.
[10] Gerd Lüdemann, The Acts of the Apostles, 383.

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