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Faith and Violence – Questions to Ask

On the last Saturday of the year, a man entered the home of a rabbi in New York where members of the Jewish community were celebrating Hanukah and attacked them with a machete. This attack prompted a letter from our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in which she reminded all of us that anti-Semitism was a contradiction and affront to the Gospel and a violation of our hope and calling. On the last Sunday of the year, a man walked into a church near Ft. Worth with a gun and killed two members of that community before being killed by another member who was also carrying a gun and was credited with saving more lives because of his quick use of deadly force. In 2019 we saw a rise in anti-Semitic hatred, bigotry, and violence. 2019 saw 417 victims of mass shootings, making headlines that there were more mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019 than there were days in the year.

These two latest incidents of violence in religious places and communities have led me to wonder about the connection between faith and violence. We could dismiss the two incidents by pointing out the mental health problems of the perpetrators of the violence, but does that explain the overall increasing violence, bigotry and hatred in our society? Does our faith, rather than preventing more violence, actually contribute to an environment where it is acceptable to hate those who are different, those who don’t believe as we do? Does our faith make respectful, honest conversations regarding the place of guns not only in our society but in our places of worship more challenging because we don’t want to talk “politics” in church?

In her statement following the attack in New York, Bishop Eaton said that to address what is happening in our country, will require more of us than repeated statements. It will require building bridges of inter-religious understanding in our communities. It will require reaching out to our Jewish neighbors to offer our care, support, love, and protection. It will require our persistence in addressing the root causes of anti-Semitism, and its menacing companions of white supremacy and xenophobia.

I believe it also requires us to begin asking honest and difficult questions in order to address the root causes of both anti-Semitism as well as violence. That is why I am writing this article, to put some of those questions on the table.

Let’s start by asking what is the purpose of our faith as Christians? If faith is about believing the right things (that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins) in order to be saved from those sins, then does it follow that those who don’t believe the right things will not be saved? If they (those who don’t believe like we do, act like we do, look like us . . . ) are not worthy of being saved, then are they even “worthy” people, worthy of equal treatment, worthy of respect?

Certainly, people could argue that I’m oversimplifying, overstating things, but Christianity has a history of arrogant supremacy as witnessed by the Crusades of the past, as well as countless other acts of violence perpetrated in the name Christianity. Is it possible to proclaim the distinctive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that respects the diversity of other religious expressions? Is it possible that the distinctive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ actually leads us to see the breadth and depth of God’s g