Does Christianity foster violence?

Again, I find myself captivated by ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World,’ a book which surveys history and theology over several thousand years, focussing on humanity’s alarming predisposition to embrace and bless violence, primarily through religion.

The book focusses on Jerusalem. In this ancient city, there is a church, known as The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, purportedly, Jesus was crucified.

It was founded after Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early 4th century and claimed to discover the cross on which Jesus had died. (Above is a picture of a sculpture of St Helena and the ‘True Cross,’ inside St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.)

Constantine ordered the building of a new church on the site of his mother’s find.

Commemorating this place of death marked a turning point in Christianity. The early church had refused to depict the crucifixion of Jesus, but building this church placed crucifixion at the centre of Christian piety. Now, suffering and bloodshed were highly prized.

When I was young, only 17, I visited this church. I found it anything but spiritual; it was claustrophobic, dark, distasteful and gaudy.

No doubt, my immaturity prejudiced my response, but reading Carroll’s book has placed my experience in a broader theological context. A morbid focus on Jesus’ death and suffering is indeed lopsided and claustrophobic.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, symbolising Christianity’s new centre, did not remain long in Christian hands. In 638 AD, Jerusalem was conquered by Muslim armies.

It was this ‘intolerable’ fact that festered in the Christian imagination, and eventually triggered the Crusades.

In July 1099, Knights of the First Crusade attacked and successfully breached the defences of Jerusalem. A terrible massacre followed. One writer claims that 10,000 Muslims, sheltering on the Temple Mount including women and children, were slaughtered, ‘If you had been there, you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain.’

When the Crusaders had first caught sight of Jerusalem, ‘many wept and were deeply moved.’

A disturbing equation suggests a correlation between the religious zeal of the Crusaders and their predisposition to slaughter innocent civilians.

By contrast, when Saladin’s army recaptured Jerusalem in October 1187 there was no slaughter; Christians were allowed to remain and worship in their holy sites. Saladin also invited Jews who had been exiled by the Christians to return. The city became a relatively peaceful multi-faith community.

In Europe, news of Jerusalem’s fall and the onset of peace triggered the Third Crusade.

This crusade featured Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, whose legacy generated many myths concerning his piety and chivalry. The historical figure, however, seemed to enjoy fighting and violence, much more so than ruling England. He was rarely there.

The link between theology and war, between the new Christian piety, focussed of bloodshed, and the wanton violence of religious crusaders is troubling.

Today, we are encouraged to fear Muslims, yet the historical record suggests they should fear us.

It is timely that we look at our own faith and culture; when will we rid Christianity of its violence?