Incitements to violence within sacred texts

Over the past millennium so-called Christian societies have shamelessly used religion as an excuse for violence, claims a new book - or is it the other way round? John Kennedy examines the evidence.

In his provocative new book, Does Christianity Cause War?, David Martin picks a fight with the zoologist Richard Dawkins, who claims that Christian certainty causes war; he insists that such infantilism is outdated, along with belief in Father Christmas and the tooth fairy. Professor Martin is a celebrated sociologist of religion, and obviously a Christian believer. He dismisses Dawkins' views as an example of Enlightenment superstition.

Many Christians will tend to side with Dawkins in this Holy War. But the evidence is misleading. Consider, for instance, the First World War memorial to the Machine Gun Corps at Hyde Park Corner. It shows a naked King David, whose bottom gleams up Park Lane. He displays his full frontality down Constitution Hill. He has a very large sword. The inscription reads "Saul has slain his thousands, but David has slain his tens of thousands".

This piece of vainglorious stupidity mocks God and maligns the dead. But it is not specially Christian, although thieved from our sacred texts. And therein lies the problem. Most human governance is ruthlessly tyrannical, and conscripts everything in aid of its projects - especially the sacred. Martin handles this contradiction brilliantly - the zest with which rulers manage and deploy violence, including the Saviour who died by it.

But Martin rather avoids the incitements to violence that lie within those sacred texts, not least the genocidal conflicts of David's time. He also understates one central problem of Christianity: the claim that its universally relevant truth is the property of an exclusive group, the Saved.

Give those keys to the ruler of any worldly kingdom, and justified mayhem is inevitable. But it is remarkable that such purely religious strife arose mainly in the first half of the second Christian Millennium. Here Martin is surely right - but he does let the Crusaders off lightly. Although it is true that they were mainly Gothic thugs from Northern Europe, they were clearly cheered on by Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena. He is, however, right to exclude the 150 years of allegedly religious wars in Europe from 1500; this was essentially a Catholic civil war between Spain and France, driven by national rather than religious identity.

Martin explores the growing diversity of relations between church and society in the following centuries. That Catholic family quarrel war left Christendom in ruins and a new Protestant ascendancy in Britain and North America. These societies retained a shameless capacity for self-justifying violence, in the British Empire and on the American Frontier. But their churches began to peel apart from the body politic, and helped to make that body less tyrannical. They begin to govern by consent rather than by assertion of divine right. Communities are given the freedom to choose, and tend to choose peace. The pattern spreads more widely; liberal democracies do not make war upon one another, and induce others to do so only at the risk of angry protest. There is a Christian root to this, and a Christian future, as suggested in the growth of peaceable Pentecostalism worldwide.

Elsewhere, having given up childish things, Europe got on with some really grown-up wars. Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler are children of the Dawkinsian Enlightenment, though they may have been born on the wrong side of that blanket. It seems reasonable to argue that Christianity does not cause war in itself, and that its restraints have, for most of its history, avoided the horrific conflicts that mar the post-Christendom period.

Martin regrets the inability of the churches to develop some practical wisdom from their revealed truths. He is especially amused by the antics of the international Christian bureaucracy, whose hyper-moralism displays every virtue but that of utility. It's worse than he imagines. The World Council of Churches now proclaims that the Churches should renounce all theological and other justification of the use of military force. In their fanatic zeal they fail to see that such a new commandment is totalitarian rather than pacifist - it simply suppresses debate.

Martin insists that the Christian vocation in public life is inevitably engaged with violence, which sits uneasily with Christian commitment. He indicates the complex relations between the experience of the sacred, the social nature of religion and the logic of politics. He wants another Reinhold Niebuhr to stimulate us, but in the meantime he is not doing badly himself. The next century will be as religious and conflictual as this - but not, God willing, so terrible that a zoologist is a better guide than an expositor of religion.

'Faith and Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely.