Christianity and Violence

Miroslav Volf

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center it was not unusual to hear that the attack “changed everything.” “Everything” is certainly an exaggeration, but 9/11, as the terrorist attack is sometimes called, did change a good many things, including our relation to religion. For the attack, in which more than 3,000 lives were lost and the economic life of the nation was disrupted in a major way, was in part motivated by religion. 

Religion, we were led to conclude, is alive and well today, and is a force not only in private but also in the public lives of people around the globe.

The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence…. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

This is not what the mainstream sociologists of the 20th century, who followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emil Durkheim, were predicting. Instead of slowly withering away or lodging itself quietly into the privacy of worshipers’ hearts, religion has emerged as an important player on the national and international scenes. It is too early to tell how permanent this resurgence of religion will be. The processes of secularization may well continue, though likely not in the older sense of an overall decline of religious observance, but rather in the newer sense of the diminishing influence of religion in contemporary societies. Nevertheless, religion is presently alive and well on the public scene.

In many people’s minds, the reassertion of religion as a political factor has not been for the good. It seems that the gods have mainly terror on their minds, as the title of Mark Jurgensmeyer’s book on the global rise of religious violence suggests.1 Among the intellectual elite in the Western cultural milieu the contemporary coupling of religion and violence feeds most decisively on the memories of the wars that plagued Europe from the 1560s to the 1650s, in which religion was “the burning motivation, the one that inspired fanatical devotion and the most vicious hatred.”2 It was these wars that contributed a great deal to the emergence of secularizing modernity. As did key Enlightenment figures, many contemporaries see religion as a pernicious social ill that needs aggressive treatment rather than a medicine from which cure is expected. Did not the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack appeal to religion as the primary motivating force for their act? In the recent war in the Balkans, did not the Serbs fight for the land on which the holy sites of their religion stood? Is not difference between Catholicism and Protestantism at the heart of the civil war in Northern Ireland? Is not religion a major factor in clashes in India? The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence—at least in the public perception. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

In this essay I will contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and argue that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments. This may seem a bold claim. Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify my thesis. I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and does not continue to be employed to foster violence. Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made. Not only have Christians committed atrocities and engaged in less egregious forms of violence during the course of their long history, but they have also drawn on religious convictions to justify them. Moreover, there are elements in the Christian faith, which, when taken in isolation or when excessively foregrounded, can plausibly be used to legitimize violence. Second, I will not argue that Christianity has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions. I am not sure whether this is or is not the case, and I am not sure how one would go about deciding the issue. 

What I will argue is that at least when it comes to Christianity the cure against religiously induced and legitimized violence is almost exactly the opposite of what an important intellectual current in the West since the Enlightenment has been suggesting. The cure is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion. I don’t mean, of course, that the cure against violence lies in increased religious zeal; blind religious zeal is at the heart of the problem. Instead, it lies in stronger and more intelligent commitment to the faith as faith. In terms of how Christian faith is conceived, my thesis is this: The more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity which serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose content is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be. “Thin” but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; “thick” and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace.3 This thesis amounts to the claim that approaching the issue of religion and violence by looking at the quantity of religious commitment—more religion, more violence, less religion, less violence—is unsophisticated and mistaken. The most relevant factor is, rather, the quality of religious commitments within a given religious tradition.

I will support the above thesis by countering some influential arguments about the violent character of Christianity. This is only half of what I would need to do to make my thesis plausible, a negative half. The other, positive half would be to show that at Christianity’s heart, and not just at its margins, lie important resources for creating and sustaining a culture of peace.4 In the past, scholars have argued in a variety of ways that the Christian faith fosters violence. In a representative way I will engage two arguments which, in my estimation, go to the heart of the matter.


Some scholars, like Regina Schwartz in her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, argue for the Christian faith’s complicity in violence by pointing to the fact that, along with Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a monotheistic religion and therefore, Schwartz argues, an exclusive and violent religion. “Whether as singleness (this God against the others) or totality (this is all the God there is), monotheism abhors, reviles, rejects, and ejects whatever it defines as outside its compass.”5 Given that the belief in one God “forges identity antithetically,” it issues in a mistaken notion of identity (“we are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them’”) and contributes to violent practice (“we can remain ‘us’ only if we obliterate ‘them’”).

This argument should be taken seriously. And yet it is not clear that an affirmation of divine oneness as such leads to violence. Does not the monotheistic claim to universal truth work also against the tendency to divide people into “us” and “them”? If one accepts the belief in one God, in an important sense everybody is “in,” and everybody is “in” precisely on the same terms. True, “being in on the same terms” may feel like violence if you don’t want to be “in” or you want to be “in” on different terms. But take monotheism away, and the division and violence between “us” and “them” hardly disappears, and if “us” or “them” are religious, they each will appeal to their good to wage war. This is in fact what happens whether religion is monotheistic or tribal. In a polytheistic context violence may reassert itself with even more force, because it will necessarily be justified by locally legitimized or arbitrary preferences, against which, in the absence of a divinity that overarches the parties, there now can be no higher court of appeal. Even if monotheism is taken vaguely and abstractly as belief in one God without further qualification, it is not clear that it is likely to generate more violence than polytheism or atheism.

None of the monotheist religions espouses such vague and abstract monotheism, however. Specifically Christian monotheism contains a further important pressure against violence, especially violence caused by self-enclosed and exclusive identities of the type criticized by Schwartz. For Christian monotheism is of a Trinitarian kind. What difference does Trinitarianism make?6 One of the socially most important aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity concerns notions of identity. To believe that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is to believe that the identity of the Father, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father’s identity is from the start defined by the Son and the Spirit, and therefore it is not undifferentiated and self-enclosed. One cannot say without qualification that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit because to be the Father means to have the Son and the Spirit present in one. The same holds true, of course, of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father and one another.

Moreover, the divine persons as non-self-enclosed identities are understood by the Christian tradition to form a perfect communion of love. The persons give themselves to each other and receive themselves from each other in love. None has to wrest anything from others, none has to impose anything on others, and none needs to secure himself from the incursions of others. Far from being a life of violence, the life of the divine being is characterized by mutually uncoerced and welcomed generosity.

It would be difficult to argue that such monotheism fosters violence. Instead, it grounds peace here and now in the “transcendental” realm, in the love and peacefulness of the divine being. The argument for inherent violence of Christianity’s monotheism works only if one illegitimately reduces the “thick” religious description of God to naked oneness and then postulates such abstract oneness to be of decisive social significance. I do not dispute that such reduction in fact happens within the Christian community. I do contend, however, that this is a sign that the Christian faith has not been taken seriously enough, rather than that it is inherently violent.


So far I have argued that Christian faith may generate violence in its “thin” but not in its “thick” form—when a “thick” character of divine being’s differentiated and complex identity is reduced to an undifferentiated “One.” But what about the argument that some very “thick” and “concrete” Christian convictions generate violence? Central here are the convictions about the world’s creation and redemption.

It is a basic Christian claim that God created the world. In her influential book Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Ruether starts with the observation that in the Hebrew Bible, the creator is like an artisan working on material outside his own nature. God does so, she argues, by “a combination of male seminal and cultural power (word-act) that shapes it ‘from above’.”7 In such an account, creation is a result of an imposition of form on formless matter from outside by an alien force. Hence creation is an act of violence.

So what is wrong with this account of creation? Everything—almost. Even if we assume that creation is best described as “forming” pre-existing mate- rial, one would have to argue that this material is “something,” and that it is a specific kind of some- thing, which deserves respect. But it is not clear at all that chaos, which according to this account of creation God formed, is a “something.” And if the chaos were a “something,” why would it not be something analogous to a boulder from which an artisan can fashion a sculpture? For all the sparks flying off his chisel, Michelangelo working on David can hardly be described as perpetrating violence. For he activity of “forming” to do violence, the entity that is formed must possess an integrity of its own that demands respect. If someone were to smash Michelangelo’s David into pieces, this would be an act of violence.

On the whole, however, the Christian tradition has not understood creation as “forming.” Instead, it has underscored that God the creator is not a demiurge working on pre-existing matter; God created ex nihilo, out of nothing. The consequences of this understanding of creation for its putative violent character are significant. As Rowan Williams puts it in On Christian Theology, when we say that God creates we do not mean that God “imposes a definition” but that God “creates an identity.” He continues, “Prior to God’s word there is nothing to impose on.”8 From this it follows that creation is not exercise of an alien power over something and therefore not an act of violence.

Creation, then, is not a violent act. Indeed, one may even argue that short of having a doctrine of creation, relationships between entities in the world, especially human beings, will be necessarily violent. If identities are not created, then boundaries between identities must be emerging out of interchanges between these entities. And these interchanges themselves must be described as violent, since boundaries, precisely because they are always contested, must be described as arbitrary from a vantage point that transcends either of the contesting entities. Given scarce resources, boundaries will always be the products of power struggles, even if those power struggles take the form of negotiations. Moreover, no appeals for arbitration between the contending parties can be made to something which ultimately stands outside the power struggle.


If creation is not a violent act, Christian convictions about creation do not generate violence—provided, of course, that they are not stripped of their specific texture and reduced to the formula “x imposes order upon y.” But what about the new creation? What about God’s activity to redeem creation from consequences of sin? Clearly, the new creation is not creatio ex nihilo (out of nothing), but creatio ex vetere (out of old creation), and that “old” and “sinful” creation does possess an integrity of its own (even if it is an integrity in tension with its true character), and can and does assert its will over against God. In redeeming the world, God intervenes into the existing sinful world in order to transform it into a world of perfect love. Is this intervention not violent and does it therefore not generate violence on the part of human beings?

The most radical critique of redemptive divine engagement as violent and violence inducing comes from post-structuralist thinkers. For them, any determinacy of the goal to be achieved by divine trans- formation of this world and any specificity about the agent of transformation already breeds violence. On their account, for what needs to come, in contrast to what is, not to be violent, it must always remain completely other and cannot be expressed as “onto-theological or teleoeschatological program or design.”9 Any and every Messiah is problematic because by necessity he would exclude something or someone. Hence the only acceptable goal of desirable change is “absolute hospitality,” a posture of welcoming the stranger without any preconditions, just as the only acceptable engagement to achieve it is “radical and interminable, infinite…critique.”10

“Absolute hospitality” seems generous and peaceful, until one remembers that unrepentant perpetrators and their unhealed victims would then have to sit around the same table and share a common home without adequate attention to the violation that has taken place. The idea ends up too close for comfort to the Nietzschean affirmation of life, in which a sacred “yes” is pronounced to all that is and “But thus I willed it” is said of all that was, with all the small and large horrors of history.11 Absolute hospitality would in no way amount to absence of violence. To the contrary, it would enthrone violence precisely under the guise of non-violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied. Hospitality can be absolute only once the world has been made into a world of love in which each person would be hospitable to all. In the world of injustice, deception, and violence, hospitality can be only conditional—even if the will to hospitality and the offer of hospitality remain unconditional.

Transformation of the world of violence into a world of love cannot take place by means of absolute hospitality. It takes radical change, and not just an act of indiscriminate acceptance, for the world to be made into a world of love. The Christian tradition has tied this change with the coming of the Messiah, the crucified and the resurrected One, whose appearance in glory is still awaited. Is this messianic intervention violent? Does it sanction human violence? The answer is easy when it comes to the Messiah’s first coming. Jesus Christ did not come into the world in order to conquer evildoers through an act of violence, but to die for them in self-giving love and thereby reconcile them to God. The outstretched arms of the suffering body on the cross define the whole of Christ’s mission. He condemned the sin of humanity by taking it upon himself; and by bearing it, he freed humanity from its power and restored their communion with God. Though suffering on the cross is not all Christ did, the cross represents the decisive criterion for how all his work is to be understood. Does the belief in the Crucified generate violence? Beginning at least with Constantine’s conversion, the followers of the Crucified have perpetrated gruesome acts of violence under the sign of the cross. Over the centuries, the seasons of Lent and Holy Week were for the Jews a time of fear and trepidation; Christians have perpetrated some of the worst pogroms as they remembered the crucifixion of Christ for which they blamed the Jews. Muslims too associate the cross with violence; crusaders’ rampages were undertaken under the sign of the cross.

However, an unbiased reading of the story of Jesus Christ gives no warrant for such perpetration of violence. The account of his death in 1 Peter sums up the witness of the whole New Testament well: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (2:21-24). If there is a danger in the story of the cross in relation to violence, it is the danger that it might teach simply to acquiesce to being mistreated by others, not the danger of inciting one to mistreat others. Whenever violence was perpetrated in the name of the cross, the cross was depleted of its “thick” meaning within the larger story of Jesus Christ and “thinned” down to a symbol of religious belonging and power—and the blood of those who did not belong flowed as Christians transmuted themselves from would-be followers of the Crucified to imitators of those who crucified him.

Finally, what about the Messiah who is still to come in glory? He will come with grace for his fol- lowers. But does not the book of Revelation portray him as a Rider on a white horse whose “eyes are like a flame of fire,” whose robe was “dipped in blood,” from whose “mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down nations” and who is coming to “tread in the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:11-16)? Some New Testament scholars have attempted to re-interpret the Rider so as to make him fit the generally non-violent stance of the New Testament. What is right about such efforts is that in Revelation the martyrs are the true victors so that, paradoxically, the “Beast’s” victory over them is their victory over the “Beast.” In this they mirror Jesus Christ, the slaughtered Lamb, who conquered his enemies precisely by his sacrificial death.12

Yet, the Rider is not simply the Lamb; he is the Lamb in his function as the final judge. But why is the final judgment necessary? Without it, we would have to presume that all human beings, no matter how deeply steeped in evil they are, will either eventually succumb to the lure of God’s love or, if they don’t, willingly embrace not only the evil they do but the destructive impact of evil upon their own lives. This belief is not much more than a modern superstition, borne out of inability to look without flinching into the “heart of darkness.” True, evil is self-contradictory and, if unchecked, is bound to self-destruct. But evildoers are so much “better” as evildoers, the better they are at knowing how to keep making themselves thrive while wreaking havoc on others. No doubt, goodness can and does overcome evil. But the power of evil rests in great part in the fact that the more one does evil the thicker the shield becomes that protects the evil from being overcome by good. The book of Revelation rightly refuses to operate with the belief that all evil will either be over- come by good or self-destruct. It therefore counts with the possibility of divine violence against the persistent and unrepentant evildoer. Those who refuse redemption from violence to love by the means of love will be, of necessity, excluded from the world of love.

How should we understand this possible divine violence? In the context of the whole Christian faith, it is best described as symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. Will God finally exclude some human beings? Not necessarily. I called the divine “violence” “possible.” For it is predicated on human refusal to be made into a loving person and therefore to be admitted into the world of love. Will some people refuse? I hope not—and the Bible along with the best of the Christian tradition has never affirmed with certainty that some will refuse and therefore be excluded. 

It is possible (though not necessary) that the coming about of the new creation will require divine violence of exclusion of what is contrary to the world of perfect love. The crucial question for our purposes is whether this possible divine violence at the end of history sanctions actual human violence in the middle of it? The response that resounds throughout the New Testament, including the book of Revelation, is a loud and persistent “No!” Though imitating God is the height of human holiness, there are things which only God may do. One of them is to deploy violence. Christians are manifestly not to gather under the banner of the Rider on the white horse, but to take up their crosses and follow the Crucified. If they were to do otherwise, once again, they would be involved in “thinning” out a “thick” element of faith and making a mischievous use of it. They would be arrogating for themselves what God has reserved only for himself, to transpose the divine action from the end-time to a time in which God explicitly refrains from deploying violence in order to make repentance possible, and, finally, to transmute a possibility of violence into an actuality. “Thick” reading of Christian eschatological convictions will not sanction human violence; to the contrary, it will resist it.


Let me underscore one more time that my point in this lecture is not that the Christian faith has not been used to legitimize violence, or that there are no elements in the Christian faith on which such uses plausibly build. It was rather that neither the character of the Christian faith (it being a religion of a monotheist type) nor some of its most fundamental convictions (such as that God created the world and is engaged in redeeming it) are violence inducing. The Christian faith is misused when it is employed to underwrite violence.

How does such misuse happen and how should we prevent it? If we strip Christian convictions of their original and historic cognitive and moral content and reduce faith to a cultural resource endowed with a diffuse aura of the sacred, we are likely to get religiously legitimized and inspired violence in situations of conflict. If we nurture people in historic Christian convictions that are rooted in its sacred texts, we will likely get militants for peace, if anything. This, I think, is a result not only of a careful examination of the inner logic of Christian convictions; it is also borne by a careful look at actual Christian practice. As R. Scott Appleby has argued in his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred, on the basis of case studies, contrary to a widespread misconception, religious people play a positive role in the world of human conflicts and contribute to peace not when they “moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs,” but rather “when they remain religious actors.”13

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. His recent books include Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (1998), both winners of Christianity Today book awards. A member of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia, Professor Volf was involved for a decade in international ecumenical dialogues. A native of Croatia, he regularly teaches and lectures in Central and Eastern Europe. 

1  Mark Jurgensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

2  R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion,Violence, and Reconciliation (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999) 2.

3  The best way to explain my use of “thick” and “thin” is to compare it with usage by others. Clifford Geertz has made popular the use of the contrasting pair “thick” and “thin” (Interpretation of Cultures [New York: Basic Books, 1974] 3–30). In his book Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), Michael Walzer has introduced an altered sense of “thick” and “thin” as he applied them to moral argument. “Thin” for me is, for instance, when the words “under God” on the Pledge of Allegiance are drained of specific religious content so that they become more a cultural tradition than a theological assertion; “thick” is when “God” in the said phrase refers to the God of Jesus Christ or to Allah or to Jahwe, which would make the phrase unconstitutional under the “no establishment” clause. I am concerned to show how “thinning” of religious practice opens religious convictions to be misused to legitimize violence because it strips away precisely what in “thick” religious faith guards against such misuse, whereas Walzer is concerned to show that morality is “thick” from the beginning and that the “thin” morality as universal always resides within the “thick” as particular (Walzer, 4).

4  See my Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

5  Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997) 63.

6  For the following see Miroslav Volf, “ ‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Shape of Social Engagement,” Modern Theology 14:3 (July 1998): 403-23.

7  Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 77.

8  Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 68.

9  Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994) 75.

10  Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 90.

11  See Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1954) 139, 253.

12  See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 74, 90.

13  Appleby, Ambivalence of the Sacred, 16.