Christian terrorism? Nonsense, we immediately think when we hear those words — what strange and offensive nonsense. Christianity and terrorism, we know, are utterly incompatible.
And yet the fact is that there was a period in French history when many people of Christian heritage committed widespread acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens. The violence was so extensive, in fact, that the period after the French Revolution became known as the Reign of Terror. Acting on what they considered to be the morally justified motive of exacting justice against their oppressors, people in France in the late 1700s descended into a frenzy of violence. And, we can assume, all those busy people operating the guillotines were baptized Christians.
I was reminded of the Reign of Terror this summer when I re-read my tattered high school copy of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” I thought I’d take a break from my focus on the Middle East and read about something totally different for a change. After all, who can resist re-reading a classic which begins with the famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . . .“
But instead of escaping, I found myself confronting some of the same very issues we’re facing today. According to National Geographic’s History magazine, in the Reign of Terror “as many as 300,000 people were arrested, 17,000 executed, and 10,000 more died in prison or awaiting trial.” (July-Aug. ’16) “Plus ça change,” as the French saying goes — the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Terrorism is most certainly not just a modern phenomenon committed by “those people” “over there.” We in the largely Christian West have been responsible for terrible violence against our neighbors during our history. Aren’t the Holocaust, colonialism, slavery, and our genocide of the Native people living in North and South America examples of terrorism in its broadest sense? And to cite a personal example, the fact that I’m writing this is the United States is because my Mennonite ancestors in Switzerland were terrorized — we usually say “persecuted” — by their fellow Christians and fled for refuge here in America. That experience is recorded in a famous book of “Christian” terrorism call the “Martyr’s Mirror.” A current exhibit at the Kaufman Museum at Bethel College in Kansas explores the book and that experience: https://kauffman.bethelks.edu/martyrs/index.html
Those of us who have spent time reflecting on the Christian faith will recall that one of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus was that we should avoid self-righteousness. We’re all imperfect, He told us over and over again. The people who really got Him angry were not the sinners but the self-righteous Pharisees. We in the West need to stop our self-righteousness about the current Great Conflict we’re engaged in and acknowledge our part in creating the current crisis: the Crusades and colonialism historically; the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in the recent past; and currently the millions of dollars we provide to rebels in the horrific proxy war in Syria and the $8 million each day the U.S. provides to Israel despite its continual theft of Palestinian land.
And let’s notice one more thing about the concept of “Christian” terrorism. Did you feel a little twinge of annoyance when you read that term for the first time at the beginning of this blog, perhaps even a little bit of offense? We need to remember that Muslims feel the same thing when we in the West talk about “Islamic terrorism” as if the two are somehow synonymous. In their hearts, Muslims know that their faith teaches peace and mutual respect, and they are offended when we equate Islam with terrorism, just as we would be offended if someone equated Christianity and Nazism.
Something we in the West need to realize is that a large part of the conflict we now find ourselves in is due to the fact that many of our country’s policies and much of our rhetoric insults the people of the Arab and Muslim world. The first step we need to take to begin the journey to peace is to recognize the common humanity we share with the people in the Arab and Muslim world and to stop insulting them.
New York City
Oct. 28, ‘16