Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.

 

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Introvert talking here

Arthur Dent never got the hang of Thursdays. For me, Saturday is the hardest day of the week. I don’t know why. Last fall I tried going to work on Saturday mornings to make the day seem normal, but even at work I still felt unsettled, shaky, and apprehensive.

One morning last week I woke up with that Saturday feeling, even though it wasn’t Saturday. This time I had a reason to feel unsettled: several weeks earlier I had promised to speak to a group of people that morning. It seemed like a good idea when I made the promise, but somehow that morning I didn’t feel ready. My sudden case of stage fright felt just like an anxiety attack, only one with a cause.

I took speech classes in high school and in college. Working for churches, I have had to stand in front of groups of people and talk. Generally I’m fine in the classroom teaching a group of students. I have no idea why this week’s scheduled session should have seemed different to my inner self.

For between four and five years, I was fortunate enough to work alongside the world’s best communications/public relations professional. When this person asked me to speak to a group of people on behalf of our employer, I wanted to say no, but I allowed myself to be persuaded. (For one thing, this speech gave me a chance to promote a book I had just written.) Figuratively speaking, my co-worker held my hand through the preparation and the presentation, and it went fine. When other speaking opportunities arose, I always turned to my co-worker and always got the assurance and encouragement I needed. Alas, we no longer work for the same company, but this same person still comes to mind when I need to summon the courage to give another speech or presentation.

I drove to work that morning, and the traffic put me in my usual bad mood. I went straight to my desk at work without saying a word to anyone. When the time came, I left to give my presentation. Again, I was shaky and nervous while driving. It didn’t help that gusts of wind were pushing at the car. When I arrived and was greeted, a couple people asked me how I was doing. “I’m trembling in my boots,” I told them honestly. They laughed as if I was joking. The time came, I was introduced, and I began speaking. The first two or three sentences had trouble getting out of my mouth in good order, but after that I was in control of the material, and the remaining fifty minutes flew.

Someone commented to me that day that introverts should not be required to speak in public. Both of us knew that this comment was a joke. Many introverts are quite comfortable in public speaking. Introverts make good teachers, preachers, and lecturers, so long as they are speaking on a subject they know and love. We might be more focused on our material because of our personality, and we are less likely than extraverts to be distracted by the people in front of us. When we are nervous, we have learned to use that energy to keep ourselves interesting as we speak.

The defining mark of an introvert, though, is that we expend energy dealing with other people. We gain energy when we are alone. Truthfully, the half dozen one-on-one conversations I had after my presentation were more draining than the fifty minutes spent speaking to the group, even though the conversations all consisted of positive and complimentary remarks. I’ve watched celebrities walk into a room, attract a crowd, interact enthusiastically with each person in that crowd, and bask in their admiration. I might be able to fake the same response, but from me it’s not genuine. I’d far rather stay home and write and send out my words to speak for me.

In public, introverts are actors. We have to be actors. We must appear calm and confident, even when we are trembling in our boots. I expect that some of the finest actors of stage and screen are secretly introverts, hiding their fears and channeling them into convincing performances. I know this is true of several famous comedians, including Johnny Carson and Robin Williams. Their charm and their energy in front of an audience was compensation for being afraid of other people.

Last week’s presentation was the first of a series of eight talks to the same group. I hope that I won’t be so nervous this week, but I offer no guarantees. More likely than not, I will once again be trembling in my boots. It’s no joke to me, but it will make the other people smile. J.