Unfaithful Stewards of the Gospel

The curse of our age has been inhumanity of absolute ideology and of myths of racial and religious supremacy, that have plunged our world into darkness and butchery. What is terrifying is a toxic mixture of religion that has become intolerant and inhuman, economic power sustained at massive human cost, and technologies of destruction that can be used by individuals, governments and terrorist organizations alike for impersonal killing. American Holocaust that killed about 18 million Indigenous Americans, Bengali or Indian Holocaust (A British imposed Bengal famine) that killed 6-7 million Indians in Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa in the period 1942-1945, transnational corporations induced Congo Genocide (“Resource War”) that killed more than 6 million Congolese, US Alliance led Afghan Genocide that resulted in more than 6 million deaths, US Alliance led Iraqi Genocide (1990-2011) that killed more than 4 million people – all varieties of power without a human face, demanding blind loyalties and disregard for the diversity of human life.

But these “great” lies pose a direct and unsettling question: what is the role of Christianity in such lies? The church was a faithful steward of the gospel, which Paul renders as “the good deposit that has been entrusted” (II Tim 1.14 cf. Jude 3), for several centuries. As a result of its faithful stewardship, it incurred the wrath of both the Jewish religious hierarchy and the Roman empire. This persecuted church was radical until it was co-opted by the Roman empire about the time of Constantine. The “illegal” religion became an imperial religion. The sign of the cross was put on the Roman battle standards (war flags/military flags/battle flags). Thus, the symbolic meaning of the cross was changed from a symbol of shameful, violent suffering of the innocent at the hands of religious and political hierarchy to an imperial symbol of violence, war and conquest. Eusebius, 4th century Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, wrote that during the daylight hours of 27th October 312 AD, Constantine and his 98000-man army said to have seen, “a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, “By this conquer”” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.28).

Cross continued to have been used by the western “Christian” empires as the imperial symbol of conquest. In the 15th century AD Christopher Columbus planted the cross in lands he took over in the New World (Central/South America), which he “discovered”, signifying that the land belonged to the emperor of Spain. He presumptuously exploited native people for their natural resources, such as gold, and for human resources, such as slavery. Of course, he also had to “resolve to make them Christians”.

As David Stannard wrote, “At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the (indigenous people) they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance ‘as vassals’ to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer ‘all the mischief and damage’ that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you.”[1]

The National Council of Churches rightly summed up, “For the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands, Christopher Columbus’ invasion marked the beginning of slavery and their eventual genocide.”

Ironically Christopher Columbus believed that God directed him to set sail on a westward journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In a journal he wrote, “It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to Indies…There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because he comforted me with rays of marvelous illumination from the Holy Scriptures.”

Christians are reluctant to see these connections between their religion and extreme violence. They will dismiss it as “madness” rather than confront the Christian element directly. To get past this Christian tendency to excuse Christianity from complicity in mass violence, I think, it is important to understand that this is a theological issue, not an indictment of the whole Christian faith. I believe that certain theological constructions of Christianity or interpretations of the scripture texts “tempt” individuals, groups and nations to violence. These views can give a divine justification to the use of lethal force.

When I consider the theological perspectives that “tempt” some Christians to justify hatred and even lethal violence against others, the following perspectives seem especially prevalent:

  1. Since Christians are the children of God, they are “good”;
  2. Other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” or “of the devil”;
  3. Being highly selective in the use of scriptures, for example ignoring the justice claims of the prophets and using biblical texts that seem to justify violence;
  4. Believing that violence is divinely justified to “cleanse” or “purify” as in a “holy war”.

 

Such theological views, I have found, are more accurate predictors of where political extremism and certain interpretations of biblical texts will mutually contribute to justifying lethal violence.

Take for example the “Christian” country, the US. It views itself as God’s chosen nation, just like the Jewish nation in the Bible, and others as “evil”. This perception justifies its violence against the “evil” nations.

Exceptionalism and Expansionism: Hallmarks of the US

The public in the US believes in the myth of American exceptionalism, moral superiority and innate goodness, and of its divine mission to spread “light” to the world. It is clear from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies on the land of the Indigenous (or Native) Americans, and from the time that John Winthrop made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill” that there has been a strong sense among the European invaders and their descendants that they are a special people with a providential mission to the world.

The claim of American exceptionalism or the “city upon a hill” (Biblical phrase for Jerusalem) mindset has been a pillar of American expansionism since its inception as a country. It was John Winthrop, who first used this phrase in defining the new settlement in North America as the “city upon a hill”. John Cotton, a Puritan preacher, used this phrase to embody the idea of American exceptionalism. Considering themselves as the chosen people of God and as reenacting the Biblical narratives of Exodus and Conquest, the European colonizers occupied the “promised land” through divinely sanctioned violence against the owners of the land. The Puritans of New England applied the biblical texts of Israel conquest of Canaan to their own situation, casting the Native American tribes as the Canaanites and Amalekites. In 1689, Cotton Mather urged the colonists to go forth against “Amalek annoying this Israel in the wilderness.”[2] A few years later, Herbert Gibbs gave thanks for “the mercies of God in extirpating the enemies of Israel in Canaan.”[3] He was referring to the European colonists as “Israel” and the Native Americans as “the enemies of Israel”. Similar rhetoric persisted in American Puritanism through the eighteenth century. Indeed biblical analogies continue to play a part in American political rhetoric down to the present. Ownership of the “promised land” is conferred by divine grant, and violence against the Native Americans is not only divinely sanctioned and legitimate, but also mandatory!

One of the pillars of the “city upon a hill” mindset is bipolarity: good and evil, where European invaders considered themselves “good” as God’s chosen people, and their enemies “evil”. That is why, Puritans saw the Native Americans as “brutes, devils” and “devil-worshippers” in a godless, howling wilderness filled with evil spirits and “dangerous wild beasts”.[4] Native Americans were targeted for removal as the European invaders moved to occupy the “promised land”. God’s invaders “cleansed” the land by exterminating most of the Native Americans (about 18 millions) through “sacred” violence in 40 Native American Wars during 1622 – 1900 C.E.

The characterization of America as the “city upon a hill” has become part of American self-understanding and a basis of American expansionistic policies. The US has a virtuous and divine mission to the world, i.e., the establishment of its form of peace and freedom by exterminating evil. This divine mission to further peace and freedom by eradicating evil in the world is a basic American impulse and justification for its violence throughout the world. With this mindset Americans cast themselves against Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq, entirely in terms of the binary: good versus evil. George W. Bush’s appeal to evil was dominant in his speeches to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. According to Bush, the purpose of his war was not only to bring peace and freedom, but also to end evil. It is this mission to end evil that justifies American genocidal violence. Its genocidal violence is a “sacred” violence or a “good” violence that will “cleanse” Iraq of evil and establish peace and freedom. Death and destruction are nothing but purification of the land. Bush launched his war in the name of God and considered the war as a zealous action of God’s chosen people.

Just after the bombings of September 11, 2001, the US President referred briefly to his “global war on terror” as a “crusade”.[5] On September 16, 2001, the BBC reported Bush had declared a “crusade” when the president remarked, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a long time.” With the ripples of outrage it created in the Muslim world, the apology duly came. However, five months later, the former President repeated the word while addressing US troops in which he termed the war as “an incredibly important crusade to defend freedom.” George W Bush, who describes himself as a “born again Christian”, has been quoted by Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack describing himself as a “messenger of God” “doing the Lord’s will”.

Commenting on the eleventh and the twelfth century Crusades James Carroll says:

In the name of Jesus, and certain of God’s blessing, crusaders (European Christians) launched what might be called “shock and awe” attacks everywhere they went. In Jerusalem they savagely slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike – practically the whole city. Eventually, Latin crusaders would turn on Eastern Christians, and then on Christian heretics, as blood lust outran the initial “holy” impulse. That trail of violence scars the earth and human memory even to this day – especially in the places where the crusaders wreaked their havoc. And the mental map of the Crusades, with Jerusalem at the center of the earth, still defines world politics. But the main point, in relation to Bush’s instinctive response to 9/11, is that those religious invasions and wars of long ago established a cohesive Western identity precisely in opposition to Islam, an opposition that survives to this day.[6]

Characterization of the American “global war on terror” as a “crusade” has not only shaped and given meaning to American violence, but also granted divine legitimacy. So, the US “global war on terror” is a divinely inspired and mandated violence. It is “sacred” violence.

The American history is filled with its “sacred” missions in the world. One of them was to Philippines. William McKinley, then US President explained:

I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me: 1) That we could not give them [the Philippines] back to Spain — that would be cowardly and dishonorable; 2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany — our commercial rivals in the Orient — that would be bad business and discreditable; 3) that we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and 4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the … War Department map-maker, and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large wall map), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President![7]

The President described the combination of sadistic cruelty and starry-eyed self-adulation as a “noble” campaign to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos. “Civilizing” and “Christianizing” the Filipinos took longer than McKinley thought. This “noble” campaign brought out the brute in the soul of the US Christian crusaders. A frustrated US General ordered troops to kill every Filipino male over age ten. The “righteous” American Christian warriors succeeded in their campaign by overcoming local resistance forces through their overwhelming superiority in weapons and sheer ruthlessness. They slaughtered about half-a-million Filipinos within the next few years. The American media explained that it would take patience to overcome evil, and bring liberty and happiness to the Filipinos. One critical citizen satirized McKinley’s war:

“G is for guns

That McKinley has sent

To teach Filipinos

What Jesus Christ meant.”[8]

Thus, the myth of American exceptional status before God and its divine mission to establish peace and freedom in the world has been instrumental in justification of the American violence around the world and its expansionistic policies. This myth has also made it easier to garner public support as Americans are already predisposed to “sacred” violence and receptive to more of it.

As 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard declared, people through the centuries have “sought little by little to cheat God out of Christianity.”

Therefore, quite literally we must separate the chaff from the wheat. Undoubtedly the chaff is religiously inspired violence, and the wheat the love of God and neighbour, our primary commandment and the staff of life. This must be our North Star, the litmus test of all Christian action, and most especially Christian theology.[9]

May God strengthen our resolve to resist the great public inhumanities in the name of Christianity that still menace us all, and to faithfully keep “the good deposit that has been entrusted” to us.


[1] David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 255.

[2] Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1960), p. 168.

[3] Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace, p. 168.

[4] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Modern Library, 1967), pp. 270-271.

[5] James Carroll, “The Bush Crusade,” in The Nation, 279/8 (September 20, 2004).

[6] Carroll, “The Bush Crusade.”

[7] Saul Landau, “Conversations with God about Invading Other Countries,” in Canadian Dimension, 39/1 (January/February, 2005).

[8] Landau, “Conversations with God about Invading Other Countries.

[9] Aruna Rodrigues, Director, Sunray Harvesters, Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, India.

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