This is a very timely question in the wake of two recent violent incidents involving religious differences — the attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Easter Sunday attacks on Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka.

It seems that the victims in the first case were targeted specifically for being Muslims, though the assailant described himself not as a Christian but as an “ethno-nationalist.” And the victims in Sri Lanka seem to have been targeted precisely for being Christians, though the so-called “Islamic State” that claimed responsibility afterwards does not speak for all Muslims, especially in Sri Lanka where the two religions have lived together in peace for several centuries.

Even going back as far as the 12th and 13th centuries, it seems overly simplistic to state that “the Crusaders killed in the name of religion.” The wars designated in that period involved complex questions of entanglement between religion and national governments, as well as struggles over territory that had previously been forcibly seized, and over the pilgrims’ rights to visit holy sites.

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Without passing any moral judgment about the morality of the Crusades (for it is usually unfair to pass judgment on people of another era on the basis of our contemporary standards), it is safe to say that in the Crusades, neither the Muslim nor the Christian sought merely to force others to accept their faith.

It will probably be unfruitful to analyze or blame one religion or the other for violence that has already occurred. Instead, let us ask the question of whether our faith itself justifies a choice of violence in its own name. To be fair, I think that in the case of Islam, the question would need to be answered by a Muslim, and similarly for other faiths. But I will seek to answer it on the basis of my own Catholic understanding of Christian faith.

Undoubtedly, such an answer needs to begin with the behavior and teaching of Jesus Christ himself. Of all that Jesus taught concerning his followers’ way of life, the one norm that he most closely identified with himself — he called it his own “new commandment” — was “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).

Then by his own death on the Cross, he clarified the second part of that law. He thus exemplified the words he speaks in John 15:13 — “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Loving others to the point of being willing to die for them is Jesus’ way.

This is precisely the opposite of killing others in order to promote one’s own beliefs. Jesus made it clear that his followers were commanded to love even their enemies (Mt 5:44).

When Jesus spoke of spreading his own message, he characterized it as the eu-angelion (Greek for “good news”) that was to enter the lives of others, not by force but by its own attractive power, which they would be able to accept in freedom. That attractive power should be supported also by the disciples’ manner of acting. “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16).

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Both the fact that Jesus speaks these words about the Scriptures and gives them prominence suggest that whenever Christians in history might have resorted to violence in order to impose their own belief on others, they have done so not on the basis of Jesus’ teaching but in violation of it.

Closer to our own time, the Second Vatican Council re-affirmed the freedom of each person in matters of faith. “The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all people are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, such that no one is forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own beliefs, whether privately or publicly … within due limits.” These statements certainly imply a rejection of any violence undertaken in order to impose religious belief.

Perhaps a complete answer to your question, however, must also deal with the question
of self-defense. Suppose I or someone else is attacked on the basis of religion; may I then use force to defend myself or the other? I certainly believe so, and the Catholic tradition has been consistent in answering this question in the affirmative.

But any such force would not, therefore, be in the name of religion; it would be for the sake of legitimate defense regardless of the motive of the aggression being repelled.

Even in such a case, however, great caution is necessary, because once violence has begun, even if taken up for a just reason; it easily escalates to the point that unjust motives replace righteous ones. So we must exhaust all peaceful possibilities before resorting to violence even in self-defense.

Msgr. Michael Magee

(Living City, USA)

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