Last week, President Barack Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast remarks about religious violence were not well-received. Noting the relationship between violence and religion in various times and places, he referenced Christianity’s connection with the Crusades, the Inquisition and American slavery and segregation.
It’s true that Christians and the church have been complicit in violence – especially when interacting with those from other cultures. We have nothing to gain by pretending that we have never used our own faith to justify oppression. This is why we need reminders like the Belhar Confession, which affirms that the church’s unity across racial and ethnic lines is a core component of the Gospel.
Yet Obama’s remarks still offered a skewed perspective of the actual causes of violence in the modern world. By lumping disparate phenomena such as the 800-year-old Crusades together with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Obama perpetuates the modern myth that there is something universal called “religion” and that it is somehow prone to irrational violence.
If the circumstances weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable that a commander-in-chief should lecture religious people about violence.
One line in particular stood out as an example of this myth: “No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives.” Of course, what Obama meant was that no religious grievance justifies taking innocent lives. From Sherman’s March to the Sea to American drones over Pakistan, the American government has assumed that all kinds of grievances justify taking innocent lives. Furthermore, if the buck stops with the commander-in-chief, then that office is responsible for innumerable civilian deaths - in Europe, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - in the last 100 years. If the circumstances weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable that a commander-in-chief should lecture religious people about violence. What about the “justified violence” of the state?
Another story made headlines last week, one that reminded me of a time when Christians stood in opposition to the violence of the modern state. Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain in 1980 in San Salvador, was declared a martyr by Pope Francis on Feb. 3. In the midst of oppression and violence by the governing authorities, Romero had the audacity to claim to speak for God to the soldiers of the state. Shortly before he was killed by a government plot, Romero preached this:
No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God… It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
Throughout the past century, the American Christians most likely to kill innocent civilians have not been in extremist religious groups; they have been in the American military, acting on orders of the government. Whereas Obama calls for religious people to know their place in society, I think more Christians need to emulate the witness of Oscar Romero. Only the audacity of a substantive hope in the Prince of Peace would compel Romero to do what he did. May that same hope compel us to have a loyalty to King Jesus and a love like His, enabling us to speak truth and lay down our lives for friends and enemies alike.