A brief history of Christian violence

Hypatia of Alexandria was a remarkable woman.  A fourth-century Greek philosopher and mathematician, she taught philosophy and astronomy in Alexandria, Egypt, which was, at the time, part of the eastern Roman Empire.  She was also one of history’s earliest victims of Christian violence.

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Hypatia’s sex, social status, and religion (paganism) ensured that her station in Christian Alexandria was a precarious one.  In the year 415, as a result of a political dispute between the secular governor of Alexandria and the Christian bishop Cyril, she was killed by a Christian mob in a gruesome manner; pulled from her chariot, she was then dragged through the streets and tortured by having the skin scraped from her body using sharpened oyster shells.  Then she was burned alive, her remains publicly mutilated.

The torture and murder of Hypatia was one of the earliest examples of Christian violence–innocent people murdered by mobs who profess to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whom first century Christians had described as the “Prince of Peace”.  But though one of the first, Hypatia was hardly the last.

Everyone at some point has heard of the Crusades, multiple military excursions which began in 1095 and spanned four centuries.  Exact death tolls are almost impossible to come by, but even conservative estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of civilians (i.e. non-combatants) were killed by Christian knights (most victims were Muslims or Jews, but some were themselves Christian peasants) in their wars to recapture Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was conquered by Christian armies in 1099. The conquering soldiers massacred tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews.

Jerusalem was conquered by Christian armies in 1099. The conquering soldiers massacred tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews.

In the 16th century, Christianity split into two traditions in the west: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  This split soon led to a dramatic intensification in the centuries-old Inquisition in the Catholic Church, which saw tens of thousands of people, many of them Protestant heretics, tortured and burned alive for questioning Christian doctrine.  Of course, Christians in Protestant countries conducted similar tortures and executions, many targeting women, the mentally ill, and physically disabed, all in the name of fighting “witchcraft.”  The Salem witch trials in 17th century Massachusets are one of the more well-known case studies in this phenomenon.

Thousands of innocent people--most of them women--were tortured and burned at the stake by both Catholic and Protestant Christians.

Thousands of innocent people–most of them women–were tortured and burned at the stake by both Catholic and Protestant Christians.

The twentieth century also contains examples of Christian violence, some notable examples being the Christian terrorist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the notorious Irish Republican Army, and the racist Protestant Christian hate group the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization that formed in the southern United States in 1865 and reached an astonishing peak membership of six million Americans in the 1920s.  The Klan’s grisly legacy of lynchings is well-known, and unlike the equally violent Irish paramilitaries, the KKK still exists today, albeit in truncated form.

A Ku Klux Klan rally in Georgia, 1923. From its inception in the 19th century, the Ku Klux Klan described itself as a Protestant Christian organization (the burning of crosses was intended to symbolize the glory of Christ).

A Ku Klux Klan rally in Georgia, 1923. From its inception in the 19th century, the Ku Klux Klan described itself as a Protestant Christian organization (according to the Klan, the burning of crosses was intended to symbolize the glory of Christ).

Christian violence has hardly been limited to Europe and the Americas.  In 1982, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, the Lebanese Christian militia group Phalange massacred over 2,000 Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim civilians with the tacit approval and complicity of the invading Israeli Defense Forces.

Graffiti in Beirut, Lebanon, marks the site of the brutal 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Muslims by Christian milita.

Graffiti in Beirut, Lebanon, marks the site of the brutal 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Muslims by Christian militia.

In 2014 Christian mobs wielding machetes displaced tens of thousands of Muslims in the Central African Republic, a country torn for years by repeated sectarian violence between both Christian and Muslim militia groups.

A convoy of Muslims flees their homes after attacks by Christian militias in the Central African Republic.

A convoy of Muslims flees their homes after violent attacks by Christian militias in the Central African Republic.

As you would expect of any religion of the size and antiquity of Christianity, these examples of violence only scratch the surface.  Yet despite it all, I am convinced that Christianity, at its heart, is not a religion of violence, but a religion of peace.

I think this for a reason that is both simple and straightforward: throughout its long history, the vast majority of Christians have always been kind-hearted, moderate, peaceful people.  The actions of a tiny minority of violent extremists–be they 4th century Christians killing pagan philosophers in Egypt or 21st century Christians destroying Muslim homes in central Africa–do not define Christianity, and cannot.

Christianity, of course, is not the only religion that has this problem.  Study the history of any of the world’s religions–Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, to name only the major faiths–and you will find, among other things, a history of violence.  Yet what I’ve learned from looking hard at my own faith tradition is that I cannot possibly judge a religion–any religion–by the actions of a tiny minority who act wrongly in its name.

Can you?

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