On this Fourth of July week, we celebrate American freedom, and remember the history that made her great. One of the hallmarks of the American experience is our belief in religious freedom. But is that freedom all that the history books have reported? Smithsonian Magazine’s Kenneth C. Davis writes that the storybook version we have learned may contain fact, but that it also neglects some key points of history. In 1620, pilgrims from the Mayflower settled in Massachusetts, fleeing religious persecution in England. But far from creating a bastion of religious freedom, they became intolerant of anyone whose views differed from their own. Davis says:
The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.” [i]
Let me step outside of the American experience and look at the violent history of our own faith on a global scale. From the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine enforced Christianity with the sword, and made heresy a crime punishable by death. In the Middle Ages, crusaders were guaranteed salvation if they marched to Jerusalem and took it for Jesus—because as the pope said, “God wills it!” Millions of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the name of Christ. Then there were the tortures and executions of the Spanish Inquisition, and the extermination of Native Americans by the Conquistadores in the New World. Violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Jesus is a horrible scar on our faith. This is why we must not define a “Christian” as someone who is baptized, who is a member of the church, or who signs a creed on the dotted line. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:35[ii]).” So we must ask ourselves, How Christian is the history of Christianity?
You see, we Christians have a bit of a martyr complex. Certainly, we have been the victims of much persecution and violence, but we need to come to terms with our own history of violence in God’s name. As we say in the South, “we come by it honestly,” meaning that we inherited this legacy through many generations. Even in Jesus’ day, religious people persecuted other religious people who didn’t see things the same way. In John 11:45-57, the high priest (who should have been the most godly man in the nation) conspired with other religious leaders to put Jesus to death. Jesus had to go into hiding and stop His public ministry because of their persecution. John 12:9-11 tells us that they not only planned to kill Jesus, but that they wanted to kill Lazarus too, because he was evidence of Jesus’ claims. Violence perpetrated by religious people for the sake of religion is all over the Bible—and it seems that Jesus’ followers have learned from this example.
How different this is from the character of Christ himself—who never wielded His word as a weapon, and who spoke against violence and advocated peace. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:52). The problem is that many Christians who have learned about the “sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)” have forgotten that the Bible is a weapon against demonic strongholds (Ephesians 6:12), and have instead used physical or verbal violence against people for religious ends. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” But we have taken up the sword instead of the cross. Instead of laying down our lives for others as Jesus did, we choose to sacrifice others at the altars of our own spiritual smugness and religious egos.
We do this every time we degrade others because of their ethnicity, gender identity, nation of origin, their faith, or lack of faith.
We do this whenever we deny others the same rights we enjoy, because they follow different convictions from our own.
We do this whenever we insist that our way is the way it ought to be, because we happen to be in the majority.
What if one day they (whoever they are) are in the majority? Do we want the religious views of the majority to be the law of the land? Or do we want a land that is governed by equality, where people of every faith, and no faith at all, stand on level ground? Those who stood opposed to Jesus decided that verbal and physical violence was the way to accomplish their goals. Too often, Christians have learned from biblical violence and become persecutors instead of peacemakers. Jesus told Saul on the road to Damascus that when he persecuted others, he was persecuting Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4). Jesus said whatever we do to others, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40). So, when we marginalize others for the sake of our religious convictions, we marginalize Jesus too. Jesus’ Golden Rule teaches us to do to others what we would have done to us (Matthew 7:12). What could be more plain? Why can’t Christians just treat others nicely, even if they have different views? Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” This Fourth of July weekend, as we celebrate our freedom, let’s never let our religious liberty be a stick we use to beat others with, and take away their freedom. Instead, let’s show we are Christians by our love.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.