Jonathan Bartley

What are the chances of a holy war? by Jonathan Bartley

By Jonathan Bartley
November 4, 2006

An important difference between the circumstances of the early church and post-Christendom is that the modern state makes promises. It promises the potential to change things and influence things. It urges people, including Christians, to engage with its democratic systems and mechanisms, and it assures them that if they do, they can have a stake in government, and even a share of political power. Whether this is the reality or not is another matter, but this is what the state promises.

As the church moves further to the margins with the demise of the Christendom settlement, it will become ever more aware that in fact this is not true in any meaningful sense. And now that many in the church are engaging politically, it is not just possible but highly likely that some Christians will become disillusioned with government and the political system. This is, after all, the trend in the wider society.

If and when that does happen, some in the church will turn to other methods of political engagement outside the system. They, too, may even begin to resort to violence.

This issue has been highlighted recently by a minor row over a prime time BBC TV drama programme called ‘Spooks’, which features Christian violence. The Evangelical Alliance, which focuses a range of opinion, and Christian Voice, regarded as very extreme, have both dismissed the show as anti-Christian and far fetched. In Ekklesia we think that in spite of its melodrama it serves as a timely warning.

It is possible that parts of the church in Britain will choose violence for several reasons:

• Many of the church’s political activities already bear the hallmarks of violence, even if they do not employ physical force. Some of the language the church uses (for example, in denouncing homosexual practice) verges on the violent, and it also shows a readiness to use the compulsion of the legal system to get what it wants. Jerry Springer – The Opera was met with threats not merely to prosecute BBC television executives under the law against blasphemy but even, reportedly, to kill them.

• We have already seen cases in the US where Christians have bombed abortion clinics. Elsewhere in the world Christians continue to be involved in violence. There are, for example, conflicts between Christians and Muslims in places such as the Moluccas, and in Nigeria and elsewhere Anglican conservative Christians have threatened violence against Muslims. Christians could conceivably resort to violence in this country as well.

• In Ireland, though religion per se has often been dragged in to sanction political violence grounded elsewhere, religious rhetoric has undoubtedly contributed to a climate of intimidation and sectarian revenge. It has been reported in the media that Pastor Clifford Peebles, an anti-agreement fundamentalist preacher associated with the LVF and the Orange Volunteers, pleaded guilty in court to the possession of two Russian-made RGD-5 grenades, two detonators and a pipe bomb.

• As the church moves further to the margins, Christians are feeling increasingly vulnerable and fearful, and sometimes fear can lead to irrational responses. The anger generated by the churches’ loss of privilege or by instances of perceived blasphemy or discrimination could drive some Christians to extreme actions.

• Christians have already suggested that they should make a stand against blasphemy ‘like other religions have done’. Sometimes reference has been made to acts of violence by groups of Muslims or Sikhs.

• There are many passages in the Bible that can be read to endorse violence and to give it divine sanction.

• Some popular theologies of the Cross emphasise the idea of retribution, and this can encourage a belief in ‘redemptive violence’ – that good triumphs over evil ultimately through the use of force. This is why apparently sterile theological debates about ‘penal substitution’ are important, because they have moral and ethical implications for (for example) the criminal justice system and the so-called war against terror. It is not that we need to get our doctrine exactly right but that the wrong theology can react with religious zeal to produce very dangerous results.

• Many Christians do not subscribe to a theology of ‘the powers’ (Walter Wink and others) and may therefore come to see the state as ‘the enemy’ per se, rather than the spiritual force that lies behind it.

• There are signs of the emergence in Britain of an ‘other-wordly’ faith that looks forward only to heaven, not to ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. If, for example, a 'premillennialism' again takes hold that despairs of this world (as in the US), it is not inconceivable that some Christians may try to "hasten Christ’s return" by starting its destruction themselves. Some already make a connection between the restoration of the state of Israel and the
Second Coming (as many groups refer to the parousia), and even link opposition to the policies of Israel with hostility towards the church.

Christendom, of course, has been marked and sustained by violence – often perpetrated by the church, against governments, against other Christians (Anabaptists, Quakers, dissenters), against non-Christians, for example in the various crusades and inquisitions and in the Reformation – and some of its attitudes and approaches persist. Indeed, violence with religious connections has been a feature of recent and local conflicts, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as we have already noted. It may even become more prevalent in post-Christendom.

Of course, it may not always be easy to distinguish clearly whether it is ‘real’ Christians who are carrying out acts of violence. Certainly, many in the church will claim that those who have embraced violence are not Christian at all. Members of the British National Party (BNP), for example, have been observed joining Christian protests against Jerry Springer – The Opera. The far right is increasingly employing religious language and imagery in its own campaigning, and talking of ‘defending the Christian culture’ of Britain. However, the fact that such groups can find not just common cause but common arguments with some Christians should in itself be enough to generate alarm.

Whether or not Christians are responsible, violence that is thought to be perpetrated by Christians could result in some very repressive legislation as fears of religious terrorism grow, and this could indeed lead to real persecution of the church. This could in turn radicalise more Christians, increasing the likelihood of Christian violence, and could thus initiate a vicious circle. Which methods Christians resort to in response will depend a great deal on how they believe God's purposes are achieved, and how they interpret Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God, especially with regard to violence.

A Christian commitment to non-violence will be extremely important as post-Christendom develops. Ekklesia has argued that the spirit of peacemaking and a decisive rejection of war and violence as ‘solutions’ should become a key identity marker for followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century.

This is an edited and augmened excerpt from Faith And Politics After Christendom: The Church As A Movement for Anarchy.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.