Blogs > Cliopatria > David Nirenber: Review of Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (UC Press)

Dec 10, 2006 2:27 pm

David Nirenber: Review of Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (UC Press)

The words "religion" and "violence" very often accompany each other these days, but in predominantly Christian Europe or the Americas they are rarely associated with the words "Christ" or "Christianity." On the contrary, a rough caricature of our common knowledge on the subject might look something like this: the God of the Hebrew Bible was a vengeful enforcer of law, and the God of the Koran sent prophets with swords, but the Christian God demands only love. "God is love," Pope Benedict XVI declared in his first encyclical. In this account, suasion and gentle reason, not coercion or authoritarian force, are now and have always been the appropriate paths to faith in this God, as the same pontiff reminded the world in his controversial speech at Regensburg a short while ago. That speech aroused Muslim protest because of the way it seemed to associate the history of Islam with unreason and the violent coercion of faith. But the pope's association of Christ and Christian history with love, reasoned persuasion, and uncoerced faith proved thoroughly uncontroversial.

That silence tells us a great deal about the place and the meaning of religion--and particularly of Christianity in its myriad forms--in much of the developed world today. No doubt there are still skeptics among us, scions of the more radical wings of Enlightenment, who insist that violence and tyranny lurk within every universalizing monotheism. But by and large, those of us who are heirs of the Christian cultures of Europe, whether in their explicitly religious or their secularized ethical forms, look for violence elsewhere. We associate Christianity with the turning of the cheek, not with retaliation; with the persecuted, not the persecuting; with the powerless, not the powerful. Hence the rhetorical effect of the anti-war bumper sticker "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"

Of course we all know that there have been many periods of Christian coercion: crusades, inquisitions, forced conversions, to name only some of the more infamous. So how should we incorporate these histories into our debates about what Christianity is, or should be? This question has occupied minds great and small for many centuries. Often the temptation is toward polemics: either these moments of violence prove the essential hypocrisy of Christian claims to love and nonviolence, or they are merely deviations, errors that may tell us something about, say, the darkness of the Middle Ages or the cruelty of Catholics, but have nothing to do with the teachings of Christ, and bring no stain upon them.

Michael Gaddis's fascinating book focuses on one of the most foundational of these moments: the conversion of the Emperor Constantine circa 315, and the subsequent integration of Christian churches into the power structures of empire and state. If this was a deviation, it was certainly a very long one: the partnership between Christianity and state power that was then established remained firm for nearly a millennium and a half. And because so many of the fathers of the church worked and wrote within this partnership, its consequences for religious and political thought have been enormous. For this reason, the topic of Christian violence and religious coercion in this early and formative period has attracted many fine students of the past, among them Erasmus, Gibbon, and in our day Peter Brown. It is high praise, therefore, to say that this book by Gaddis (who was Brown's student) helps us to understand the old problem in a new way. ...

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/6/2006

...are funny things.

From the Jewish perspective, institutional Christianity has never been about love or understanding, and all about power and violence.