When Christianity Was as Violent as Islam

The central difference between Islamic extremists and peaceful Muslims is how seriously these groups take certain edicts in religious texts written in more primitive times.

That is also a large difference between Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. Most Christians today no longer take seriously the barbarism of “God’s laws” in the Bible (Old Testament and to a degree the New Testament), such as God-ordered and approved genocide, execution, human sacrifice, oppression of women, slavery, genital mutilation, and sex crimes. This is without question a positive step for humanity.

Likewise, many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims tend to focus on more ethically defensible ideas in their holy books, such as “Do not take any human being’s life — that God willed to be sacred — other than in justice” (Qur’an, al-Israa 17:33), and ignore savagery (“Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you” (Qur’an, at-Taubah 9:123).

Christians and Muslims alike are rightly horrified at the evil of extremist groups like ISIS, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda. These groups commit mass murder against nonbelievers, wage war against other Muslims for supremacy, torture enemies, oppress women, rape children — all in the name of God.

Yet Muslims who support religious peace, the right to life, equal rights for women, democracy, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state stand in opposition. Extremist groups and military dictators controlling Muslim populations far less conservative and authoritarian than they often find themselves sabotaged by acts of resistance, some massive — as when millions in several Muslim nations in the Middle East and Africa rose up in rebellion during the Arab Spring starting in 2010.

It is vital to remember that, rather than a defect particular to Islam, extremist violence is common in world history among religious people who believe their actions align with the will of a higher power. Raised to believe in God, and holding a book he or she believes a divine guide, the extremist commits murder and other appalling crimes without question.

That is the story of Christianity as well as Islam. True, we happen to live in a time when Allah-motivated violence is more prevalent than Christ-motivated violence, but it was not so long ago that Christians took what they learned in their holy texts quite seriously indeed, and countless innocent men, women, and children perished because of it. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 300s, Christians throughout Europe and Europe’s overseas conquests often showed extreme violence toward skeptics, people of other religions, and the faithful who stepped out of line in any way. This violence was conducted by state and religious leaders, from Christian Emperor Maximus executing Bishop Priscillian in 385 for heresy (gnostic-esque teachings, in his case) at the request of the Spanish bishops to Christian King Olaf Tryggvason, who said “All Norway will be Christian or die” before beginning a campaign of terror, slaughter, and forced conversion (Reston, The Last Apocalypse) in that nation just before the year 1,000. The violence was also perpetrated by ordinary people, as with the pogroms — when mobs of Christians would kill and drive out Jews, as happened in England in 1189 and 1190.

Consider the Inquisition, in which the Church, beginning in the 12th century, tortured and murdered thousands of people who questioned or rejected Catholic doctrine in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. (The Church committed mass murder of “pagans” and “heretics” in South America as well.) Even translating the Bible was heretical. When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English (his work later became the King James translation), he was chased down and burned at the stake. In 1633, Galileo, even after recanting, was convicted of heresy for entertaining the Copernican notion that the Earth orbits the sun, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Those individual cases are more famous, but countless others exist.

James A. Haught, in 2000 Years of Disbelief, notes many more instances of people being slaughtered or otherwise punished for different views or for questioning religion or for pursuing scientific discovery. “Around 550 at Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Justinian executed multitudes to impose Christian orthodoxy.” Authorities killed Michael Servetus in 1553 in Geneva for “doubting the Trinity,” and England executed Matthew Hamount in 1579 for similar reasons. Giordano Bruno dared suggest the earth circled the sun, and was burned in Rome. Chevalier de La Barre, a French teenager, was beheaded for disrespecting the faith in 1766. Richard Carlile was imprisoned in 1819 by Britain for blasphemy, Denis Diderot in 1749 by France. For questioning Christianity, Massachusetts jailed Abner Kneeland in the 1830s, and Britain did the same to George Jacob Holyoake shortly thereafter, then to George William Foote for “publishing satirical sketches of Bible stories.” Viktor Lennstrand was imprisoned in Sweden in the 1880s and 1890s for spreading atheistic notions. Beyond death and prison, there was torture, fines, censoring, exile, and so forth. Plenty of others were attacked not by the state and its church, but by vigilantes, from the scientist Hypatia, beaten to death (415, Egypt) by Christian monks “who considered her a pagan” to scientist Joseph Priestly (he discovered oxygen), who had his home, church, and lab burned in a riot in 1791 in England. 

A subplot of the Inquisition was the 15th-18th century European and North American witch hunts, which saw 40,000-50,000 people executed, mostly women (see Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World). To be accused of witchcraft was a death sentence.

Christians widely believed (and the Pope taught) that witches had sex with demons or the Devil, so the genitals of women of all ages, from young girls to the elderly, were inspected closely by male judges for “Devil’s marks.” Regardless of whether any “marks” were found, the women were tortured and burned alive. During torment, women were pressed to name other witches, and thus more innocent people were labeled and hunted down. In Europe, members of the courts were handsomely rewarded for each witch burned, the victims’ properties were seized by the Church and State, and in England “prickers” were paid to find more witches — all providing a nice financial incentive to continue the slaughter. Towns would burn to death hundreds of citizens a year (see The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan).

The Inquisition lasted 700 years; the Vatican did not condemned torture until 1816.

Sam Harris (The End of Faith) describes Christian torture during the Inquisition:

Your jailers will be happy to lead you to the furthest reaches of human suffering, before burning you at the stake. You may be imprisoned in total darkness for months or years at a time, repeatedly beaten and starved, or stretched upon the rack. Thumbscrews may be applied, or toe screws, or a pear-shaped vise may be inserted into your mouth, vagina, or anus, and forced open until your misery admits of no possible increase. You may be hoisted to the ceiling on a stappado (with your arms bound behind your back and attached to a pulley, and weights tied to your feet), dislocating your shoulders. To this torment squassation [an up and down jerking motion] might be added, which, being often sufficient to cause your death, may yet spare you the agony of the stake.

If you are unlucky enough to be in Spain, where judicial torture has achieved a transcendent level of cruelty, you may be placed in the “Spanish chair”: a throne of iron, complete with iron stocks to secure your neck and limbs. In the interest of saving your soul, a coal brazier will be placed beneath your bare feet, slowly roasting them. Because the stain of heresy runs deep, your flesh will be continually larded with fat to keep it from burning too quickly. Or you may be bound to a bench, with a cauldron filled with mice placed upside-down upon your bare abdomen. With the requisite application of heat to the iron, the mice will begin to burrow into your belly in search of an exit.

Should you, while in extremis, admit to your torturers that you are indeed a heretic, a sorcerer, or a witch, you will be made to confirm you story before a judge–-and any attempt to recant, to claim that your confession has been coerced through torture, will deliver you either to your tormentors once again or directly to the stake. If, once condemned, you repent of your sins, these compassionate and learned men–-whose concern for the fate of your eternal soul really knows no bounds–-will do you the kindness of strangling you before lighting your pyre.

Torture included the use of the wooden horse (you were straddled over a sharp edge that pierced your crotch, weights added to your legs), racks, thumbscrews, heated iron chairs, and boots you wore that had boiling water or molten lead poured inside them (Sagan). You could be sawed in half, strapped in a chair with spikes, eaten from the inside by rats, or seen your head crushed, limbs broken, or breasts torn off.

Also consider the Catholic-Protestant wars during the Reformation, which reminds one of the Sunni-Shiite conflict among Muslims. In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others broke from the Roman Catholic Church to create a more “pure” Christianity (which involved many executions; Luther even supported the execution of a close friend).

Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas saw “reason” for “putting to death one convicted of heresy” (Summa Theologiae). In England, Mary I executed over 300 heretics, mostly Protestants, following in the footsteps of her father Henry VIII, who executed 81 people for deviating from religious doctrine.

Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens that

…theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the hundreds of thousands. On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind. In this attack, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors). More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence.

Northern Europe became dominated by Protestant states, Southern Europe by Catholic states. Central Europe (primarily Germany) plunged into violence that lasted more than a century. It then culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which devastated Europe and killed some 8 million people (see Harman). The Eighty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, and the English Civil War were also influenced by this religious divide; while not the only factor, it contributed to millions more deaths. And, of course, within many states there was unspeakable persecution and violence toward minority Christian sects, such as the long conflict between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots in France.

In a close parallel to extremist Muslim hatred and persecution of other religions, consider Christian persecution of the Jews, which began to intensify as soon as Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Jews were demoted to second-class citizens, with curtailed legal rights, economic opportunities, and religious activities. They were kept out of public office and could not marry Christians or own Christian slaves. In 423, Rome made it illegal for Jews to build or repair a synagogue. Christians committed acts of violence against them — murder, theft, destroying synagogues — without fear of consequence. For example, in 388 the bishop of Callinicum incited his churchgoers to burn down the local Jewish synagogue. There was no punishment for this (see Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

All this was inflamed by the anti-semitic attitudes of Christian leaders. After all, the gospels blame the Jews for Christ receiving the death penalty, most explicitly in the book of John (and many saw John 8:44 as Jesus calling Jews who wouldn’t believe in him sons of the devil). In the second century, Ignatius of Antioch called Jews the “Christ-killing Jews,” while Justin Martyr said to a Jewish philosopher that “other nations have not inflicted on us and on Christ this wrong to such an extent as you have,” casting blame on the entire Jewish people. Later, Pope Leo spoke of the “blackest darkness” in the “naughty hearts” of the Jews who wanted Christ killed. A church leader named John Chrysostom wrote Orations Against the Jews, saying, “The Jews are more savage than any highwaymen.” Martin Luther wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies. To him the Jews were “poisonous envenomed worms,” a “base, whoring people” full of “devil’s faeces…which they wallow in like swine.” He recommended forced labor for the Jews, with their holy texts, schools, and synagogues burned, their property and wealth seized.

During the centuries of the Crusades, Christian hatred for Jews escalated. (The Crusades are another fine example of senseless slaughter in the name of religion: Some 3 million people died in the conflict. Launched by the Pope in 1095, European Christians attacked the Islamic Empire, desperate to free the Holy Land from Muslim control. The Pope, Urban II, declared those who killed unbelievers would have all their sins forgiven. Christian and Muslim armies battled each other off and on for 200 years, until finally the Europeans gave up.)

While protecting Christians and Christian holy sites was important, the lives of Jews were not. In the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, German peasants and knights attacked Jewish communities and slaughtered the inhabitants. As Ian McEwan writes (“End of the World Blues”), “Jewry and Islam were both victims of the Crusades,” as the “impoverished mob that trailed behind the knights of the first Crusades started their journey by killing Jews in the thousands in the Upper Rhine area.” French Christians did the same in 1147. Hundreds of French Jews were murdered during the Shepherds’ Crusades of 1251 and 1320. 3,000 Jews were murdered after a single accusation of “host desecration” (since during communion bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ, Christians suspected Jews of trying to “kill” Christ again by desecrating these foodstuffs).

Around the continent, hundreds of communities were wiped out. Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. They were accused of “blood libel,” kidnapping Christian children and using their blood in religious ceremonies; Christians believed Jews could not be fertile unless they rubbed the blood of Christians on their genitals (see Harris).

Jews were blamed for the Black Death and many other social ills. Hundreds of thousands were driven out of England, France, Austria. Protestant King Edward I ordered the “Edict of Expulsion” in 1290, exiling all Jews from England. In 1348, 900 Jews were burned alive in one German town, the Strasbourg Massacre. June 1391 saw hundreds of Jews slaughtered in Spain, in cities like Barcelona. In 1492, the Catholics King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I expelled all Jews from SpainIn all, Christian persecution of Jews in Europe lasted some 1,600 years, laying a foundation for later attacks on the Jews by Nazi Germany and other European states.

Indeed, Hitler often called destroying the Jews “God’s will,” writing in Mein Kampf for example, “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” The Jews are the “enemies of the human race.” Hitler was not actually a Christian, but he clearly understood how stirring up Christian prejudice could aid his effort to wipe out the Jewish people.

In a speech in Munich on April 12, 1922, Hitler declared:

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…

He received ample support from German Christians, who made up most of the population, from the Catholic Church, and so on.

The recent past demonstrates that the kind of oppression and violence extremist Islamists partake in today is not as unfamiliar as Christians suppose.

350 years ago, people who expressed different religious views were executed by Christian communities in the American colonies — Quakers were whipped, tortured, had ears cut off, and hanged. Look up the stories of Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Samuel Gorton, people arrested and banished in the 1630s for slightly different religious views — like, respectively, believing only grace saved, not works; or that God held covenants with individuals, not societies or congregations, and therefore church and state should be separate; or defending a maidservant who smiled at a Sabbath meeting. Conservative Paul Johnson writes of these examples in A History of the American People. And others:

In July 1641, for instance, Dr John Clarke and Obediah Holmes, both from Rhode Island, were arrested in Lynn by the sheriff for holding an unauthorized religious meeting in a private house, at which the practice of infant baptism was condemned. Clarke was imprisoned; Holmes was whipped through the streets. Again, on October 27, 1659, three Quakers, William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, and Mary Dyer, having been repeatedly expelled from the colony, the last time under penalty of death, were arrested again as ‘pestilential and disruptive’ and sentenced to be hanged on Boston Common. Sentence on the men was carried out. The woman, blindfolded and with the noose around her neck, was reprieved on the intervention of her son, who guaranteed she would leave the colony forthwith. She did in fact return, and was finally hanged on June 1, 1660.

At the same time, in 1654, as Johnson documents, Jews in New Amsterdam were denied all rights and could not build a synagogue.

250 years ago, if you weren’t a Protestant, you could not vote or run for office in the English colonies or early United States; Jefferson and Madison fought viciously to undo this, and succeeded in Virginia. The states did not begin to do away with the execution of homosexuals until 1786, and it didn’t stop until 1869 (North Carolina).

John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1825, marveling that

There exists I believe throughout the whole Christian world a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the old and new Testaments from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel: in England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red hot poker: in America it is not much better, even in our Massachusetts which I believe upon the whole is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States A law was made in the latter end of the last-century repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the old Testament or new.

In 1834, protestants in Boston burned down a convent, thinking Catholics killed children in dungeons below it (Johnson).

150 years ago, Southern pastors were defending black slavery using the Bible. As John Blassingame writes in The Slave Community:

Pointing to a long list of Bible verses, white ministers argued that Christianity would make the slaves easier to manage because obedience would be inner-directed rather than based on the whip…. Indeed, the Bible verses the white ministers quoted frequently admonished slaves to be orderly and dependable workers devoted to their owner’s interests, to be satis ed with their station in life, to accept their stripes patiently, and to view their faithful service to earthly masters as a service to God…. White ministers often taught the slaves that they did not deserve freedom, that it was God’s will that they were enslaved, that the devil was creating those desires for liberty in their breasts.

Only God’s will could justify the horrors of slavery: “Floggings of 50 to 75 lashes were not uncommon. On numerous occasions, planters branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burned, shackled, tortured, maimed, crippled, mutilated, and castrated their slaves.” The rape of black women was also pervasive. Proponents of Jim Crow laws denounced desegregation as an attack on Christian values (see Racism in Kansas City: A Short History).

60 years ago, just a short while after Hitler’s supposed God-approved Holocaust of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and homosexuals, gay men like Alan Turing in England were being chemically castrated by political leaders upholding Christian values, in an attempt to “cure” them. Turing committed suicide.

As recently as 50 years ago, it was common practice among American Christian men to oppress women (thoroughly indoctrinated women accepted this without question) using the Bible — women were told to submit to the man in all things, forget an education or career, care for the home, bear children. Today this is far less acceptable, but still perpetuated by some members of the religious right, who insist the Bible “tells us that women who fail to obey these divine priorities have turned aside after Satan.”

Only 20 years ago, the Troubles — the 1968-1998 period of violence in Northern Ireland during which nearly 4,000 people were killed and 50,000 injured — came to an end. While this low-level civil war concerned national identity, it was seeped in religious hatred and violence between the Protestant majority, who wished to remain with mainly Protestant Britain, and the Catholic minority, who wished to join mainly Catholic Ireland. The conflict began after a civil rights demonstration by Catholics pushing for an end to discrimination and inequality. And those looking for examples of Christian riots over blasphemous media, to mirror Muslim riots, don’t have to look too far into the past either. For instance, in 1988 French Christians rioted after the debut of The Last Temptation of Christ.

Anyone who pays attention to events around the world today knows there are Christian-Muslim wars in places like Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast, the Philippines, and the Central African Republic (where Christian militias attacked the minority Muslim population with machetes and burned down their villages, causing tens of thousands to flee for their lives in 2014; the nature of religious war is both sides are usually guilty of atrocities…but why not, when each side believes God is with them?). One might also study far-right Christian groups in the U.S. like the “Army of God,” responsible for the murder of doctors and bombing of abortion clinics. The Ku Klux Klan often says it is a Christian group. 

And of course, every so often, an American pastor comes along who says gays should be executed.

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