Written by Zia H Shah MD
Anyone who has heard any quotations from the Holy Quran would have heard the often quoted portion of a verse, “There should be no compulsion in religion.” (Al Quran 2:257) This one liner clearly distances violence or compulsion from faith or religion.
To read the context of this verse, the seeker is amazed to find that this is no cursory statement of the Holy Quran, but follows soon after the Crown verse of the Holy Quran, which is a jewel, describing the attributes of All Knowing and All Powerful God. So, this verse against violence purports to say that anyone, who has seen even a small glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, would find no reason to enforce God’s religion through coercion on others.
The context of Pope Francis’ statement, “Faith and violence are incompatible,” making the title of this post, is the recent violence in Egypt and especially the burning of the Churches. Here, we are on the same waive length as the Pope, we strongly condemn the destruction of Churches or any places of worship, for that matter. Destroying any Church is polar opposite to the teachings of the Holy Quran. It says that the very purpose of Jihad or defensive wars is to secure the sanctity of places of worship, including Churches, Synagogue and Mosques. Interestingly enough, when talking about this issue, the Quran mentions the Churches and Synagogues before the Mosques, ensuring religious freedom for the whole of mankind:
And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty. (Al Quran 22:41)
The question arises that if the Quran is so clear about religious freedom, why do some of the extremist Muslims resort to violence. Here, allow me to point out that humans are creatures of rationalization. They can read their vain desires into any scripture or religion. Not to talk of ordinary Christians, a person no less than Pope Urban II, was able to find violent Crusades in the teachings of Christianity and the Catholic Church tagged along for centuries to come. There were more than a dozen Crusades, from eleventh till the seventeenth century.
All Crusades were announced by preaching. After pronouncing a solemn vow, each warrior received a cross from the hands of the pope or his legates, and was thenceforth considered a soldier of the Church. Crusaders were also granted indulgences and temporal privileges, such as exemption from civil jurisdiction, inviolability of persons or lands, etc.
In reality the Crusades continued until the end of the seventeenth century, the Crusade of Lepanto occurring in 1571, that of Hungary in 1664, and the Crusade of the Duke of Burgundy to Candia, in 1669.
It seems that Pope Francis has overlooked many of the verses of the Old Testament in making his statement after recent events in Egypt.
The reason, why I say that he may be teaching from the Quran is that there are no verses in the Holy Quran to trigger and promote genocide, but there are in the Bible: When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-17)
There are no verses in the Holy Quran to destroy polytheism with sword and kill all polytheists and even their livestock, regardless of whether they are at war or not, but in the Bible there are: If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely,both its people and its livestock. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt. (Deuteronomy 13:12-16)
There are no verses in the Holy Quran to kill people for sexual misconduct but there are in the Bible: If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10) And: If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire. (Leviticus 21:9) There are no verses in the Holy Quran ordering to attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. There is nothing in the Quran ordering, ‘do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,’ but there is in the Bible: Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim—two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand from Judah. Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. … But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed. (1 Samuel 15:1-9)
To read further account of some of the violent teachings in the Old Testament, read the following article:
The Pope did try to explain away one of the verses of the New Testament, which is often quoted to show that its teachings is not all about turning the other cheek. Here I quote from a recent Huffington Post article:
The pope focused on a passage of scripture that has, in the pontiff’s words, “lead to confusion or misunderstanding.”
The Christian text is Luke 12:51, which reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Pope Francis explained that the passage was intended to encourage Christians to place God in the center of their life and not just as a decoration. The Catholic leader explained that Jesus does not want division, but God does lay down the choice that you can live for yourself or live for God.
But, if we read the verse in the full context, Pope Francis’ and other Christian apologists’ Monday morning quarterbacking, does not amount to much.
It seems to me that the Pope has ignored the context of Luke 12:51, in his explanation.
Let me quote the relevant verses from a few different versions of the Bible, to show that what Pope is saying is at complete odds with the Biblical message of fire, conflict and discord.
Common English Bible:
I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
1599 Geneva Bible:
I am come to put fire on the earth, and what is my desire, if it be already kindled?
Notwithstanding I must be baptized with a baptism, and how am I grieved till it be ended?
Think ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay, but rather debate.
For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father: the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother: the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49-53)
I came to send fire into the earth, and what will I, but that it be kindled?
And I have to be baptized with a baptism, and how am I constrained, till that it be perfectly done [till it be perfectly done]?
Ween ye [Guess ye], that I came to give peace into [the] earth? Nay, I say to you, but parting.
For from this time there shall be five parted in one house; three shall be parted against twain, and twain shall be parted against three; the father against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the husband’s mother against the son’s wife, and the son’s wife against her husband’s mother. (Luke 12:49-53)
Lexham English Bible (LEB):
In this Bible, we also see the heading, “Not Peace, But a Sword of Divisiveness.”
I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish that it had been kindled already! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am distressed until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to grant peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! For from now on there will be five in one household, divided three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49-53)
If we try to find the broader context of this verse in the New Testament, the text in the Gospel of Matthew is very similar but it talks of a “sword,” rather than “division.” Read the full text:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39)
Another verse from the New Testament that contextualizes these verses is the one labelled as, Sell your cloak and buy a sword. It is an instruction by Jesus, may peace be on him, to his disciples, which has been recorded in the Gospel of Luke. At the Last Supper Jesus says:
He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’ (Luke 22:36)
The exegesis of the Bible is often very liberal. The Christian apologists can read anything in the verses of the Bible and the violence in the Bible can be made to look like ‘turning the other cheek.’
In the first 6 centuries through the various Ecumenical Councils and legislations, the early Church was able to transform One and the Only God of the Old Testament, mentioned thousands of times in the text of the Old Testament and understood by Jewish people in a Unitarian sense, for two thousand years, before the time of Jesus, into a Triune God of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So, for the creative Christian apologists sky is the limit.
The Pope may see in Luke 12:51 a message for exclusive devotion to God, but to those who are not indoctrinated with the obsession of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the verse speaks of conflict and struggle in human society, which at times becomes violent, for a fault of one party or the other.
For now, let us spend a few paragraphs on how violence defined the Christian faith in the early centuries.
According to a Pentecostal priest, Robert A Sabin, “Trinity was a doctrine drawn from inferences, made into formulations, the formulations were canonized, made holy and to be believed, then they were imposed, you must believe it and those who did not believe these were demonized. Folks, it has gone one for 17 centuries.”
The Emperors that followed Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century forced their views on the point of sword. Constantine I, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, exiled those who did not believe in the creed of Nicaea.
Constans, Roman Emperor from 337 to 350, was tolerant of Judaism but promulgated an edict banning pagan sacrifices in 341. He suppressed Donatism in Africa and supported Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism, which was championed by his brother Constantius. Although Constans called the Council of Sardica in 343 to settle the conflict, it was a complete failure, and by 346 the two emperors were on the point of open warfare over the dispute. The conflict was only resolved by an interim agreement which allowed each emperor to support their preferred clergy within their own spheres of influence.
Jovian (Latin: Flavius Jovianus Augustus; 331 – 17 February 364) was Roman Emperor from 363 to 364. Upon the death of emperor Julian the Apostate during his campaign against the Sassanid Empire, Jovian was hastily declared emperor by his soldiers. He sought peace with the Persians on humiliating terms and reestablished Christianity as the state church. His reign only lasted eight months.
Jovian, a Christian, reestablished Christianity as the state church, ending the brief revival of paganism under his predecessor. Upon arriving at Antioch, he revoked the edicts of Julian against Christians. The Labarum of Constantine the Greatagain became the standard of the army. He issued an edict of toleration, to the effect that, while the exercise of magical rites would be punished, his subjects should enjoy full liberty of conscience.
However, in 363 he issued an edict ordering the Library of Antioch to be burnt down, and another on 11 September subjecting those who worshiped ancestral gods to the death penalty. He extended the same punishment on 23 December to participation in any pagan ceremony (even private ones). Jovian entertained a great regard for Athanasius, whom he reinstated on the archiepiscopal throne, desiring him to draw up a statement of the orthodox faith.
Arcadius (Latin: Flavius Arcadius Augustus; Greek: Ἀρκάδιος; 377/378 – 1 May 408) was the Byzantine Emperor from 395 until his death in 408. In 399 CE, at the peak of his power, on the 13th July, Arcadius issued an edict ordering that all remaining non-Christian temples should be immediately demolished.
This is not a comprehensive discussion but only a demonstration that faith was always coerced in the early Christian centuries until the Protestant reformation in the 16th century.
I will mention the thirty year war between the Protestants and the Catholics, only in name here, for the sake of brevity and move onto linking here a more detailed study on the issue of violence and the Christian dogma:
Despite this violent history spread over 15 centuries, the Christian apologists keep weaving stories of love, compassion and tolerance, without grounding their presentation in the Bible or the history of the Church, banking on the successes in the past.
However, what escapes them often is that non-Christians and the 50% agnostic or atheist population of Western Europe and the 25% unaffiliated in USA and Canada are able to see through their verbose make belief and juggling.
Human life and society is more complex than can be managed with “feel good,” one liners like turning the other cheek or “Faith and violence are incompatible.” We need a well founded religion and philosophy that not only justifies love and compassion but also, just war, policing, punishment of crimes, checks and balances and all other aspects of modern civilization, including the need of intelligence agencies, operating within a given country and without.
Let me share a real life story that may drive the message home.
It is said that a teaching of the Bible is that if a person is smitten on the right cheek he should present the left one to the one who smites. This sounds very attractive so long as it is not put into practice. But if an attempt is made to act upon it, it is soon discovered to be entirely impractical.
It is related, that a Christian missionary used to preach in the streets of Cairo how full of love and tolerance the teachings of Jesus were. He would cite the injunction to turn the left cheek when the right one is smitten as an example, and make unfavorable comparisons with the teachings of other faiths. His discourses were couched in a very fine language and his audience used to be greatly affected. A Muslim, who had heard the missionary preach in this fashion on several occasions, became much upset. He wondered why no Muslim divine cared to tackle the missionary on the comparative merits of Islamic and Christian teachings. One day while the missionary was in the middle of his discourse this man approached him and expressed a desire to speak to him. The missionary inclined his head towards him to be able to listen to what he had to say. But the man instead of saying anything gave the missionary a violent slap on the face. The missionary was taken aback for a moment, but then fearing lest the man should proceed to further violence, raised his own hand in order to strike his assailant. The man remonstrated with the missionary and pointed out that he was expecting that in accordance with the Christian teaching, the missionary, instead of preparing to strike him in return, would turn his other cheek towards him. The missionary said, “I have decided today to act upon the teaching of the Quran, not the Bible
It may be that Pope Francis is also emphasizing the teachings of the Quran rather than the Bible and emphasizing the Crown verse of the Holy Quran, followed by the verse stressing the freedom of religion and disparity between faith and violence:
Allah — there is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining. Slumber seizes Him not, nor sleep. To Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that will intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them; and they encompass nothing of His knowledge except what He pleases. His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth; and the care of them burdens Him not; and He is the High, the Great.
There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Al Quran 2:256-257)
We applaud the Pope for upholding the Quranic teachings and shying away from the violence in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which forms 75% of the volume of the Bible.