In a recent commentary, I asked, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” After evaluating the violent history and teachings of Islam as well as some encouraging recent developments, I answered, Not yet.
Surprisingly, the harshest criticism I received came not from Muslims but from Christians. Pointing to violence perpetrated in the name of Christ down through the last 2,000 years, they asked whether the same could be said of Christianity. If Christians are having doubts about the essential nature of the Christian faith, then what must Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Hindus, and secularists be thinking?
Is Christianity a religion of peace? And, if so, what kind of peace? The Hebrew Scriptures use the word shalom, which means more than simply an absence of violent conflict. It also connotes wholeness and well-being. We will examine several lines of evidence–theological, historical, and personal–before rendering a verdict.
First, let us look at the theology of Christianity. What you believe about God determines not only your approach to eternity, but to the here and now. As Indian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi has said, “A people cannot be better than their gods.”
The God of the Old Testament has been described as merciless and bloodthirsty. Admittedly, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of violence, with blood sacrifices required to atone for sin, which is seen primarily as an offense against a holy God. Yahweh set apart his people to not only live holy lives for his glory, but to execute judgment upon the nearby peoples who killed their young, oppressed the poor, and did not fear him. At this brutal time in history, God sanctioned holy war by Israel, which was the world’s only truly theocratic state.
But the Jewish people mostly failed to follow God’s commands, reaping judgment on themselves in the process. However, they recognized God’s kindness along with His severity. The prophet Jonah complained to God when the wicked people of Nineveh, who were Israel’s enemies, turned from their violence and escaped judgment. “O Lord,” Jonah nearly spat out. “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Peace is a prominent theme of the New Testament. Speaking six centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of one who would be called the Prince of Peace. The familiar Christmas passage from the Book of Luke tells us that on the night Jesus Christ was born, multitudes of angels suddenly split open the quiet night sky outside Bethlehem, appearing to some lowly Jewish shepherds. The angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Jesus spoke of peace. To the wind and the waves, he said, “Peace, be still!” To his faltering disciples, before he went to the cross, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Jesus told his followers not to take revenge but to turn the other cheek and to pray for their persecutors. He not only taught this creed; he lived it.
The night Jesus was betrayed to the corrupt authorities of his day, the apostle Peter attempted to launch the first Christian jihad. Peter unsheathed his sword and took a wild swing at a man named Malchus, cutting off his ear. If ever a holy war could be justified, surely it would be this one. But instead, Jesus healed Malchus on the spot and said to his disciple, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Jesus explicitly rejected holy war in his name. To the Roman procurator, Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” Hanging on the cross, his life ebbing away, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
After Jesus offered himself as a blood sacrifice for sin, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee, attempted to prosecute a holy war against the followers of Christ. But Jesus opened his eyes on the road to Damascus, renamed him Paul, and sent him into the Roman world as the apostle to the Gentiles. Everywhere Paul went, he told people of the good news of “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul noted that Christ’s atoning death broke down “the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and non-Jew. Like almost all the other apostles, Paul died while preaching this “gospel of peace” with God and with our fellow man.
It is true that Paul and some of the other New Testament writers called down God’s curses on their theological opponents–whether Jew or Gentile. Hindering the progress of the gospel was serious business, with eternal consequences. But although they were as close to theological truth and certainty as any human being had ever been, these men never attempted to enforce their beliefs through worldly means. They left such things in the hands of God, who had clearly said in the Old Testament, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
What about the history of Christianity? There the record is regrettably mixed.
For several hundred years, Christians were powerless outcasts or afterthoughts in society. Rather than persecutors, they were persecuted. They were also the conscience of society. When the Roman world let unwanted babies die from exposure, Christians rescued them. When the mobs called for more blood in the Coliseum, with dignity Christians ended the practice. When society treated women as cheap labor and as sex objects, Christians regarded them as gifted fellow heirs of Christ’s blessings.
Then Constantine made Christianity legal in the Empire, and soon it became the state religion. Christ’s kingdom “not of this world” became thoroughly of this world–with disastrous consequences. This merging of temporal and spiritual power in Christendom eventually led to various false theocratic travesties such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, various church-supported persecutions of the Jewish people, brutality and murder sanctioned by the great Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, and the Salem witch trials. It is worth noting that Hitler’s Holocaust grew in the fertile soil of European anti-Semitism, which the Protestant Reformation had not uprooted, but only watered.
While such abuses are by no means the whole story of the Christian faith, understandably they have defined it for many thinking people. Far too often Christians–seeking to inaugurate heaven on earth–have instead brought a taste of hell. Like Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheist utopians before and since, Christians too have been corrupted by state power. As Lord Acton reportedly said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The American experience suggests a better and safer course. Eschewing both a godless state and a state church, the United States was built on the foundation of Judeo-Christian virtues, but not on a state religion. While church and state may be legally separate here, they are not enemies. Rather, they are partners for the good of the republic. The state exists to provide order, allowing the church to do its good work in lives and societies. The state depends upon the existence of godly people formed in the church. John Adams, our second president, stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This experiment has worked, for over two centuries. As the 19th century French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
And while looking at the history of the church, we dare not forget the innumerable deeds of peace done in the name of Christ. Missionary William Carey was instrumental in ending the Hindu practice of widow-burning in India. Parliamentarian William Wilberforce followed his Christian conscience and eventually helped end slavery in the British Empire. Christians took prominent roles in the abolition movement in the United States. Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, awakened a nation’s conscience and launched the civil rights movement. Mother Teresa, an unknown Catholic nun, saw dignity in people whom others regarded as trash.
Such acts of shalom continue. Go to any city and you will find hospitals and homeless shelters put there in the name of Christ. (When was the last time you saw a hospital built in honor of atheism?) Churches today are the glue that holds many faltering communities together.
In 2003, Ram A. Cnaan, professor of social work and founding director of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, told Agnieszka Tennant of Christianity Today that the average North American church provides about $184,000 worth of social services annually. (With more than 300,000 churches in North America, that’s a lot of shalom.) Not incidentally, Christians are also at the forefront in global battles for religious liberty and against AIDS and sexual trafficking.
Now we quickly move on to the personal. Does Christianity provide peace? Like any religion, the Christian faith attempts to provide answers to the ultimate questions of life: What is the good? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? On a sociological level, like other religions, Christianity enables people to live together in relative peace. (Unlike other faiths, however, it provided the intellectual and theological rationale for the development of science and democratic government, which in turn have brought unprecedented prosperity and freedom–well-being–to millions.)
But what of the personal level? While individual stories will differ, the Christian faith has produced countless examples of personal transformation–not by a religion called Christianity, but by Christ himself. Just a few will have to suffice here.
John Newton was a debauched 18th century slave trader who became a devoted churchman and humanitarian. David Berkowitz, New York’s tormented “Son of Sam” serial killer, found forgiveness and peace inside his prison cell through the humble Christian witness of a fellow inmate. Recently he told Focus on the Family, “Twenty-six years I have been in this prison, and I can honestly say that I am content.”
Charles Colson was a take-no-prisoners political operative who famously said he would run over his own grandmother if necessary, and then was imprisoned for his role in the Watergate scandal. But after meeting Christ, Colson began to see others–even the incarcerated–as made in the image of God and worthy of respect. When Colson got out, he launched Prison Fellowship, a ministry that has touched prisoners, their family members, and crime victims. His outstanding record rehabilitating prisoners by giving them dignity, hope, and job skills caught the attention of George W. Bush and has become a key component of the president’s faith-based initiative.
Now we come to one Stan Guthrie. Struggling with a physical disability and believing that the universe was probably just a mindless collection of atoms, I had no peace. I struggled to gain acceptance and love from others, and from myself. I didn’t know who I was, why I was here, or where I was going. I figured if there was a God, it was obvious that he didn’t care about me. Craving the attention of others, I nonetheless selfishly resented their wholeness.
Then quite unexpectedly I heard about Christ and his death on the cross. Far from being just another collection of esoteric religious doctrines, Christianity spoke of God stepping into human history in the person of Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for my sins. (If Christianity has a violent side, it is this, that God the Father punished his willing, sinless Son in my place.) This is the meaning of Christmas. I also learned that Jesus didn’t stay dead, but was raised, and that sufficient historical evidence exists to back up this astounding New Testament claim.
For the first time, I saw myself as a valuable person with an eternal future. Receiving his gift of forgiveness through the cross, I started a journey that has brought love, joy, and peace even during the trials of life. No longer afraid of dying, I am ready to live, running the race he has prepared for me. Confident that I am his, I have peace, no matter what the future brings.
So is Christianity a religion of peace? Despite its sinful followers, we must say, Yes. More to the point: Is Jesus the Prince of Peace? Always. As the Bible says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
May God grant you his peace during this Christmas season.