War in the Name of Christian Faith
And a troubling image of coercive control
A couple of things in today’s Evangelically Departed.
First a quick mention of the Christian nationalist rationale supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
You can find articles in quite a few places on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and his religious championing of Vladimir Putin’s war.
There is a lot to unpack here. Next week we will record a conversation with Orthodox theologian David Goa addressing the role of the Orthodox church in the war and in the Ukrainian resistance and defense. We will include that audio in the newsletter. For now, I offer a consideration of the alignment of Christian faith (or its distortions) with particular nationalist ideas around the world. In the United States there has been, since Sept, 11, 2001, a heightened fear of Islam and how it relates to terrorism around the world. Thoughtful commentators present the more nuanced argument that equating Islam with terrorism is a kind of intellectual and moral laziness that becomes weaponized by partisans and politicians. If we blame Islam for terrorism around the world, ought we to blame Christianity for Putin’s war?
Spare the Rod
Since we are talking about distortions of faith and religion, I thought I’d share a reflection from a book I mentioned recently. “We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland” by Fintan O’Toole is a pleasure to read, even as it offers a glimpse at some disturbing religious and cultural practices.
I’m only a third of the way through the book, but already have come across many incidents and occasions from the author’s life that speak to the state of the church and to perceptions of Christian faith. The Catholic Church was a pervasive presence in the Ireland of O’Toole’s upbringing. Some chapters of the book focus directly on the church and the Catholic system of education in Ireland at the time. Christian religion was not a choice to be made. It was a way of seeing and thinking and living that was both accepted as default by many people, and imposed by the church and the state.
O’Toole writes quite a bit about the “Christian Brother Schools” which he attended. There is mention of how school busses were segregated. When it became unwieldy to have both a boys’ bus and a girls’ bus, a divider was constructed in the aisle of the bus to separate boys from girls. There is also considerable content about the corporal punishment exercised in the schools. O’Toole mentions that it was pervasive and entirely understood as the way things were, even by those at the receiving end of the lashes and other forms of violence.
I do recommend the book, and offer this excerpt:
“Cries of pain and black-robed figures belonged together. Violence and twisted sexuality were the expressions of troubled confusion on the part of the Brothers - not because they had a monopoly on any of these things in a society where violence against children were the norm, but because they were themselves institutionally haunted by their failure to control them. Corporal punishment, delivered mostly with a short, very thick strap called, ‘the leather’ whose blows stung and reddened our tender palms, and administered as often by lay teachers as by the Brothers themselves, was so inescapable a part of the Christian Brothers education that we completely accepted it.
When I was eighteen and in my first year at university, I was still living on Aughavannagh Road. Because I was so close, the head Brother in Scoil Íosagain would occasionally send for me in the morning to fill in for a teacher who had failed to turn up. The first day, I was given my own leather. It smelled of sweat and fear. I could hardly bear to touch it. Thrown in with forty-five eight-year-old boys, I introduced myself and immediately told them that we were all going to behave ourselves and that I would not hit them. The looked at me, not with relief or gratitude, but with a disconcerted puzzlement. As the day wore on, it turned to pity. When it was clear that I would not inflict physical pain, it also seemed obvious to them that there could be no other form of authority. I was lost. In the end, a boy sitting at the front put up his hand and spoke to me in the tone of sorrowful condescension teachers used with pupils, ‘Ah, sir,’ he said, ‘You have to hit us.’”
Any other way could scarcely be imagined. Knowledge and faith and how to “be a good boy” was passed on largely by threat of physical pain. This coercive motivation was taken to be simply the way things were.
In talking with many Christian leaders I see a parallel between this and some of the long held ideas around Christian conversion and salvation. To put it directly, “What happens if we remove the threat?”
If salvation is presented as escape from eternal damnation and torture, even in the current attempts at sounding benign that I see in many “statements of faith” then to some degree we are repeating the tactics of the Christian Brothers. Countless people in congregations become the eight-year-old boy that say to those who aim for a better way, “Ah, sir, you have to hit us.” The word that comes up again and again in my mind as I think through this understanding of faith is “bleak”. It is a bleak view of human nature, a bleak view of faith itself, and a bleak view of God.
It has taken some time, but perhaps it has been shown that despite what the apparently kind and well-meaning boy said, he and the others did not have to be hit.
I am confident that the Christian church will emerge from its dependence on coercion as well. As long as there is an “OR ELSE” attached to declarations of supposed faith, then coercion is still the primary tactic.
I think that true Christian faith is much better than that. I have a sense that many of you do as well.