Religion(s) of Peace?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. — Matthew 5:9
And if anyone wants to harm them [God’s two witnesses], fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. — Revelation 11:5

Is Islam a religion of peace? Is Christianity a religion of peace? It depends on what you mean by “religion of peace.” It is difficult for me to fathom how such an epithet attached itself to Islam in our culture, but it makes a little more sense as a description of Christianity. As a categorical description, however, “religion of peace” describes neither.

A wise man once said, “Don’t accuse Muslims of being violent, lest they blow you up.” Everybody knows that not all Muslims are terrorists; in fact, most Muslims in the world are not terrorists. But does that settle the issue? If we can prove that, say, more than three-fourths of Muslims in the world are not terrorists, then the whole religion now passes the “religion of peace” test? That seems to be the approach of the Western media. But I think the standard should be higher. In a true religion of peace, there would be a mainstream body that distances itself from the extremists within its ranks and condemns them for contradicting one of the primary tenets of the religion as a whole (i.e., peace). Has this happened? Do “mainstream Muslims” (whatever that might mean) worldwide condemn terror and seek to do whatever is in their power to stop it? No. More often than not, Islamic cultures celebrate when the United States suffers from a terrorist attack (witness the aftermath of 9/11). This is not peace. Mainstream Christian denominations have all distanced themselves from extremists like the Ku Klux Klan. Whenever a Christian zealot bombs an abortion clinic, Christians are the first ones to condemn the act. Violence and terror do not persist in the mainstream Christian community because Christians themselves won’t allow it. Yes, we do have the Crusades on our record, but you would be hard pressed to find any Christian believer today who looks favorably on that blight in our history. It would be interesting, however, to put the shoe on the other foot and survey Muslims of all stripes to see what they think of Mohammed’s military endeavors and the subsequent Islamic conquest of the Christian East and North Africa. Do Muslims today condemn their “Crusades” as strongly as Christians do theirs?

But what about Christianity? Is it a religion of peace? I think the answer must be both yes and no. The roots of the church go back to Israel, a nation founded and sustained largely through conquest and violence. The warfare that claimed the land promised to Abraham was brutal in such a way that oversteps our standards of just war: everything that breathed was devoted to the ban, including women, children, and livestock. This came by divine command. In fact, Israel is presented as morally culpable precisely because they did not do enough killing. This is part of what led to the degradation of the period of the Judges (Judg 2:27ff.). Israel allowed a Canaanite influence to persist within its territory, and the result was that Israel began to “Canaanize,” to the point that the illustrative stories in Judges 17-21 depict a nation that is basically pagan but still holds on to a thin veneer of Yahwism. The story continues from there through the building of the kingdom and includes the conquests of David. It is not until Solomon’s time that there is any period of sustained peace, but the blessings he experienced were limited to his generation as the nation quickly began to spiral into chaos once again after his death. But this is our spiritual heritage, and it is very violent. Not only that, it is violent precisely because God commanded violence as a means of judging idolaters and creating a kingdom in which his people might live under the terms of his covenant without the threat of pagan influence.

But then we flip the page from Malachi to Matthew, and we come to the ministry of Jesus. Unfortunately, Jesus is often presented as the hippie who came along and trumped the Old Testament. The Sermon on the Mount is the “here’s-what-the-Old-Testament-says-but-that’s-wrong-now-listen-to-this” sermon where Jesus shows us the better way of peace over against the violent nature of Israel’s Scriptures. But that is a misreading of Jesus’ “…but I say to you” sayings. Jesus did not come to trump the Old Testament but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-20). He didn’t come to scrap an inferior form of revelation and replace it with something completely new; he showed us the fulfillment of what was already there. The Old Testament is a tree that blossoms in the New Testament. The direction in which the Scriptures pointed was toward Christ and his Kingdom all along, and Jesus’ teaching shows that the way of life in his Kingdom is one of horizontal peace. The theocracy of Israel having served its purpose, Jesus inaugurates an international church that does not have the authority to take up the sword against its enemies. But notice that nowhere does Jesus condemn the Old Testament ethic or seek to distance himself from it. By contrast, he sounds most like a fundamentalist when he talks about the Bible.

What this means is that the peaceful nature of the Christian religion must be affirmed not as a timeless proposition but as an unfolding of redemptive history. We are called to be peacemakers now because God has made peace with us through the cross (Rom 5:1). Those who make peace with their enemies display the character of God and so shall be called sons of God (Matt 5:9). But this does not mean that God pursues a course of perpetual, unlimited peace. There is a boundary to his patience (Rom 2:4-5). A day of judgment is coming that will balance the scales and bring to nothing all rebellion against God. The cross is a prolepsis of that day (Rom 3:21-26), and that is why the cross is so violent. Any attempt to “dewrathify” God (I just coined a new term) essentially “de-Gods” God and makes the universe ultimately a place where injustice prevails. Furthermore, it destroys the internal logic of the cross, where God dealt with sin definitively by means of a substitute, in fulfillment of the sacrificial typologies and prophecies of the Old Testament (see Isaiah 53). In a sense, Christianity is a very violent religion because it affirms God’s complete opposition to sin and his violent reactions to it throughout redemptive history (holy war and finally the cross) and points us to a coming season of great violence when the wrath of God will be poured out in a climactic and final way, leading up to judgment and an eternity of suffering for those who refuse to repent. The book of Revelation closes out the canon, and it is the most violent of all. The Jesus who delivered the Sermon on the Mount is the same warrior who destroys his enemies in John’s apocalyptic vision.

And yet, it is precisely because Jesus Christ’s apocalyptic victory marks the end of tolerance that we cannot prematurely end it ourselves. John Piper has made this argument. If Jesus Christ reserves violent judgment for himself (aside from that delegated to earthly authorities for temporal purposes), then the church sins when it presumes to take up the sword against its enemies. We are called to live in peace in anticipation of both the new creation and of the violent battles that our Lord will fight in order to get us there. In the meantime, we wage war in a different manner, with the armor of God and the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:10-20).

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