I’ve been listening to another of Premier Radio’s Unbelievable podcasts.
This one featured a debate between atheist Ed Turner (a lawyer) and Christian Meic Pearse (a historian).
The focus of discussion was Pearse’s recent book The Gods of War (IVP 2007). His contention is that while religion can play a significant part in armed conflict, that point is often over-stated, and the main factors leading to warfare are cultural and economic.
The debate was, as is usual for this show, thoughtful and civilised. Turner stated that he was in considerable (75%) agreement with Pearse’s case.
Two thoughts in particular occur to me.
1. Debates (including this one) dwell too much on religion generally. Christian apologists have no brief to defend ‘religion’ itself. ‘Religion’ means far too many different things to far too many different people for us to be able to say that it either does, or does not, lead to violence. On biblical, as well as historical grounds, we should readily be able to agree that religion is not a ‘good thing’ at all, and that it can often lead to abject misery and terrible hatred. I think that the jury is still out on the question of whether Islam is at its heart a religion of violence.
2. On a different matter, I was surprised and disappointed by one of the moves made by Ed Turner. He cited the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 10:34 –
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Turner asserted that this saying could (should?) be understood to mean that Jesus wanted and expected his followers to take up arms on his behalf.
I don’t accept that at all.
Mind you, Turner is the not the only atheist to make this claim about Matthew 10:34. In a public debate with John Lennox, held in Edinburgh in August 2008, noted atheist Christopher Hitchens declared that there was ‘every evidence’ that Jesus and his disciples meant this saying to be taken literally. But there is no such ‘evidence’ at all. As Lennox was able to point out, everything that we know about Jesus points in the direction of a non-literal interpretation of this saying.
In fact, the very next verse (Matthew 10:35) clarifies the sense in which Jesus ‘did not come to bring peace, but a sword’. As commentator R.T. France explains, ‘The sword Jesus brings is not here military conflict, but, as vv35f show, a sharp social division which even sever family ties…As long as some men refuse the Lordship of God, to follow the Prince of peace will always be a way of conflict.’ (By the way, the parallel in Lk 12:51 has ‘division’ instead of ’sword’.)
The truth is, there is ‘every evidence’ that Jesus both taught and practiced non-violence. When one of his disciples drew a sword and attempted to defend Jesus with it, Jesus commanded him to put his sword away, and he healed the man. (John 18:10-11). And he want on to say, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.”
Professing Christians may occasionally become violent in defence of their cause. But never let it be said that they have any legitimate appeal to Jesus Christ in this.