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A (Brief) History of Religion and Violence: An Ancient Love Story

Does Christianity cause violence or does it offer a path to peace? There is good evidence on each side. Here at Raven we claim that Christianity is about love and forgiveness. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace and we testify to the power of our faith to make us better human beings.

But today the news about Christianity is that it tolerates child abuse and provides cover for misogyny, militarism and hatred of LGBTQ folk, Muslims, immigrants – if only the list ended there.

So which is it? The sheer difficulty of pulling apart the threads of peace and violence that are interwoven in the modern Christian experience, and all of Christian history for that matter, points to a reality that only René Girard’s mimetic theory has been able to illuminate.

The Time of the False Gods

Girard explains that religion began at the dawn of the human experience, way before there was anything resembling what today we call Christianity. And that ancient religion was intimately tied up with violence, what today we know as blood sacrifice. Humans and animals were sacrificed on altars to appease blood thirsty gods as a method of keeping the violence of the gods at bay.

Or so the people thought. But the truth was that the violence the ancients feared so much was all too human and not divine at all. The bible is the story of a people who began to suspect that the violent gods were not real and that there was a real God who had nothing to do with violence.

But the idea was so radical that from the time of Abraham, who was the first human God called to leave behind the ancient sacrificial religion – from Abraham to our present day, humanity has had a hard time separating violence from the true God.

Here’s a story that might help you see how humanity could have made such a terrible mistake about God and violence.

Wherever there is violence, the true God is found with the victims and not with the perpetrators.

Star Crossed Lovers

It’s a story of star-crossed lovers. The mismatch was obvious from the start – one lover was a paragon of Perfect Love, the one who we meet in the first pages of the bible as a creative force so explosive that everything that is emerged from it. Perfect Love is an infinite being for whom death did not exist and held no meaning at all. Perfect Love overflowed into matter shaping all things to its purpose and one thing in particular in its own image.

This was the Other Lover (us!) who, shall we say, though in the image of Perfect Love was a bit less than all that. There is only one paragon of Perfect Love, of course, an infinite being of boundless energy that permeates all matter but cannot be contained by it. In contrast, Other Lover is a multitude of bounded beings, bits of energy contained in unique bundles of matter. They are many but often exist in loneliness.

In the ancient world, Other Lover was constantly seeking Perfect Love but endlessly falling short, connecting instead to false lovers, idols who promised fullness of life but delivered anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. The best this Other Lover could find was a vague uneasiness, a sense that something was missing but unable to name it or find it.

One day in the days before recorded history, a community of Other Lovers had an incredible experience that convinced them they had at last found the lover they had been seeking. But alas, it was a tragic mistake. Here’s what happened.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

In their loneliness and discontent, conflict erupted regularly among the Other Lovers. When it did, it tended to snowball because the conflict gave them a sense of relief from their unease. In the conflict, at least, there was a purpose – to find the one responsible for their troubles.

One day the conflict was quite terrible because a number of tragedies befell the Other Lovers all at once. There was famine and extreme weather and they had suffered many deaths in violent combat with their enemies.

But worst of all, violence was threatening from within as everyone began blaming everyone else for the tragedies and fights and skirmishes between competing factions began to erupt. As in all communities, there was one person who never quite fit in with the others. He had no family and lived by himself. To his misfortune he walked near a crowd as they argued about who was to blame and one turned toward him and said, “There is the one who caused all our troubles!”

The accusation spread through the crowd and soon everyone had converged on the man and they quickly killed him together, united as if they were one being and not many. As they stood over his dead body, buried beneath the pile of stones they had hurled, they felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

It occurred to them that this man may have been sent by Perfect Love to bring them peace for who else could be the source of such a dramatic end to their conflict. In the afterglow of the murder, they began to work together and instead of arguing they began sharing food instead of hoarding it which solved the food shortage problem. They found better shelter from the weather and they even made peace with their enemies. Surely they had found Perfect Love!

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Undoing Sacrifice

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But the peace was elusive and needed constant renewal. So when strife returned, which it inevitably did, they found a way to turn the spontaneous murder into a ritual which became the ancient religion of blood sacrifice.

Perfect Love watched in disbelief. He could not believe how the Other Lovers could make such a mistake and he hoped they would discover their error for themselves. But they did not.So he began to send messages, gentle hints that they were in error.

He called Abraham and sent many Priests and Prophets but still the Other Lovers clung to their belief that Perfect Love needed someone to die in order to grant them peace.

Finally, after Perfect Love felt they were ready, He himself entered into bounded existence to reveal the truth. Perfect Love took the place of the sacrificial victims. He died on a cross to show that it is not Perfect Love who demands sacrifice, but humans who continue to believe that violence can bring peace. It turns out that Perfect Love is found today as in ancient times among the falsely accused and blindly sacrificed, not with the priestly and political authorities and not with an angry, confused and distraught crowd.

The Story Continues in Hope

I know you have probably heard the story of the crucifixion differently, as something God demanded to appease His anger. That explanation is a big part of why Christianity and violence are still entangled together.

Because a god who demands blood sacrifices is a false idol, plain and simple. When Christianity succumbs to violence, when it justifies abuse, hatred, and exclusion, it has succumbed to idolatry for we have mistaken God for an idol who demands blood.

Wherever there is violence, the true God is found with the victims and not with the perpetrators. But in an undeniable demonstration of Perfect Love, God is able to both comfort the victims and forgive the perpetrators.

For whether we are victims of violence or the ones blaming, accusing, and justifying harm against others, God loves us. God even loves and forgives us when we justify violence in God’s name. Not to excuse us for our sins and faults, but as a sign that if we choose to come home to God, we will find the door flung wide open.

God is perfect love and we are, believe it or not, the object of God’s longing! God longs for us as surely as we long for Him. The God who revealed Himself to us through the prophets and at the cross is waiting in hope for us to solve the case of mistaken identity. When we do, we will recognize the absolute nonviolence of God and find ourselves able to enter into the life for which we were created, one of love and peace.