One of the most beautiful names given to Jesus is “Prince of Peace”. So why do Christian churches support conflict so enthusiastically – including bitter conflict between denominations and sects, and armed conflict between nations?
It is not Christmas but Easter that is the “holiest” season in the Christian calendar. Christians disagree about many things, but most believe that over a period shorter than a week a passionate young Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was tortured, crucified on a cross he had been forced to carry, taken down from the cross and put into a sealed tomb, then – astonishingly – in some form “rose from the dead”, demonstrating his central teaching that life is more powerful than death. And that despite the violence of his time and death, he had come to bring peace.
Whether Jesus suffered this dreadful fate to “atone” to God for the sins of humankind is far more contentious. Certainly, the notion that “Jesus died for my sins” comforts those who believe this gives them a kind of premium pass to a heavenly reward unavailable to those with a different view. It has also, though, led to a tragic view of a Heavenly Father who plays favourites on an extreme scale, with “losers” not just missing out but suffering unimaginably for all eternity.
I am not mocking this. I am saddened and outraged at how closely this sectarian, parochial arrogance – and the assumptions that drive it – mimic the nationalism and factionalism we witness in secular and political life and, most of all, in right-wing and life-denying politics.
What began as a liberating call to an action path of inclusivity, love, hope and forgiveness – rather than the minutiae of obsessively controlling laws – now props up too many Christian denominations and sects exhibiting “values” that are power-hungry, divisive, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic and, yes, controlling. These groups – some globally vast – offer exclusively male “leadership” as “God’s intention” for his human family. They also routinely support state-sanctioned violence that includes the impoverishment of millions to benefit a few, an abandonment of care for the planet, and an enthusiasm for war – not peace.
In the recent invasion by the Russian Federation of Ukraine, we are legitimately appalled by the slaughter and ruin wreaked there. Where there is less indignation, at least in Australia, is around the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on what The Economist calls “a cult of war”. They report on “a dark and mystical component within it”. Andrei Kurilkin is quoted: “The substance of the myth is less important than its sacred nature…The legitimacy of the state is now grounded not in its public good, but in a quasi-religious cult.”That dangerous loss of attention to the “public good” has strong resonances locally, particularly in the right-wing media’s current “othering” of the Chinese government, even while energetically conflating “Australian values” with “Christian values”.In Russia, the dark notion of a quasi-religious cult of war would certainly seem to be backed up by a report in the French (moderate) Catholic newspaper, La Croix:
On Sunday, March 6, the day before Orthodox Christians began the Great Lent, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow preached a firebrand sermon. He claimed Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine was an act of resistance against Western consumerism and the West’s attempt to impose “gay pride” in the neighbouring country. A week later the 75-year-old head of the Russian Orthodox Church stood in full liturgical dress in the choir of a Moscow church before a large icon of the Virgin Mary. Next to him was General Viktor Zolotov, the director of the Russian National Guard and former bodyguard of Vladimir Putin. Kirill listened religiously as the general spoke about the invasion of Ukraine. Zolotov said it “is not going as fast as we would like” because of “the Nazis [i.e. Ukrainian soldiers] who are hiding behind civilians”. The Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia – Kirill’s official title – then offered the icon of Mary to the general, who said it would protect the Russian army and “accelerate the victory”.
This may seem extreme, even exotic. Yet over two millennia wars have been waged fusing Christian religious fervour with hyper-nationalism. Or wars have been waged over sectarian differences, these as recently as “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998.
Here in Australia, on 19 May, just a couple of days before the election, I will be speaking on a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival on the topic of “Church and State”. https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2022/church-state/ Also on the panel will be Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor at the Australian and a conservative Catholic. We are set to discuss what role “religion and faith play in the decision-making of our political figures”.
It doesn’t need Einstein to parse this to mean: “To what extent are we allowing authoritarian, dogmatic, exclusivist ‘religious’ beliefs to permeate and influence conservative politics? All while supporting the nationalism and militarism that rival the climate crisis in threatening our future?”
“Allowing” is a moot word here. Australia is largely secular, multi-cultural and multi-faith. When Australians hear a Minister or Prime Minister is “religious” they may not be aware what “versions” of Christianity influence conservative politics. The impact of Sikhs, Reform Jews, Quakers, Jains, Sufis, Buddhists, and of socially progressive Christians both Catholic and Protestant, as well as humanists, is critical to integrity politics. But those groups are not seeking power to judge or restrict others, especially around core issues of identity, sexuality, or social and environmental justice.
“Thoughts and prayers” are woefully inadequate.
- When will the most influential Christian denominations demand an end to the insanity of war, rather than promoting the grotesque myth that God is “on their side”?
- When will we see governments moving to resolve conflict with intelligence rather than weapons?
- When will we the public call for a 2% of GDP investment in peace in our region and world?
- When will we face the ugly fact that “war readiness” requires an “enemy”?
- When will we have a commitment to ending the violence of poverty and environmental degradation – as well as war – from conservative politicians claiming to be Christian?
- When will human life matter more than money, power, petrol, oil and gas?
Wars, conflicts, gross economic injustice are sustained over generations by a cascade of decisions and assumptions, including an eyewatering investment of public funds in the “defence” industry, “expected to be worth more than US$1,600 billion by 2025”.
There’s no question that millions of Christians faithfully follow the example of Jesus, within institutional Christianity and beyond it. They heed, “Whatever you do to the humblest (or most humiliated) of my people you do to me.” They hear, “This above all, love one another.” They know the stories of the Good Samaritan and the woman at the well where entrenched “purity laws” dividing people were consciously defied. They know of the women – Jesus’ mother among them – who were last at his cross as he died, and first at the tomb when he reappeared among them. They know of freely given loaves and fishes so that everyone could be nourished; of an invitation to care particularly for “little children”, and to trust in the “Peace I leave with you,” despite the betrayal of his own death.
Perhaps, then, it is unfair to see the failures of “Christianity” as anything but the predictable failures of humankind. Yet the claims of Christianity are different. One sect among many within Judaism evolved into a global religion with more adherents than any other. A faith founded in love for humankind and weighted by calls to peace, has through the last two millennia “fought” its way to supremacy. This has not just been over other faiths but between adherents willing to privilege their sectarian version of the “truth” at any cost, losing sight of the passion for the fullness of life that Jesus so abundantly demonstrated.
Albert Schweitzer put it this way, “What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full-blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”
May this Easter bring another beginning.