Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just How Violent Is Jesus?

Someone recently directed me to this article, which is just nonsensical enough to be dangerous. The question posed is whether or not the typical representation of Jesus as a peaceful prophet and Muhammad as a violent prophet is accurate. The conclusion: Jesus is perhaps the most violent religious figure of all time.

Let me begin by stating that I do not believe that Muhammad was especially violent. The article suggests that the demonization of Muhammad relies on the depiction of him as particularly bloodthirsty. If there are those who believe that, I think that is a deeply unfounded view of history. The fact that the author of the article turns around and attempts to demonize Old Testament figures is hypocritical and equally misguided. Muhammad was not especially violent and neither was Moses or Joshua or David. They were all a quite typical level of violent for warlords or kings of their periods. (I will not go into here the hermeneutics necessary to understand the violence of Old Testament figures, as the post is primarily an issue about Jesus.) Muhammad, had he been a simple king and not a religious figure, would probably be remembered as the military and political genius who inaugurated one of the great empires in medieval if not world history. So the author is right to oppose historical misrepresentations of Muhammad.

When addressing the question of whether or not Jesus is a more violent figure, however, the author leaves the bounds of his own investigation in an attempt to make his case. It is here that the argument falls woefully short. He wants to compare the past historical actuality of Muhammad’s actions to the prophesied eschatological judgment which has Jesus as its agent. An intellectually honest answer to the question of which religious leader was in fact more peaceful requires a direct comparison with corresponding parameters. Islam, no less than Christianity, understands God to be a just God who will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. If we compare the religions in terms of their eschatological picture of the fate of the enemies of God, both are “violent” (if we want to use that word in a superficial way). If we really want to get to the root of each teacher’s character, however, then it is appropriate to confine ourselves to the actual evidence relevant to the question: the behavior and teaching, between birth and death, of each man.

These, in a brief and inadequate way, are the actual facts:

  • Muhammad was a political leader who ordered, endorsed, and conducted military campaigns. He gave his disciples a framework for a future philosophy of violence which set boundaries on its appropriate use. His life and teaching led immediately to an expansive empire founded on military conquest.

  • Jesus was a political pariah who never attacked another person, never endorsed attacking another person, and who ultimately died in peaceful submission both to God and the political authorities. He explicitly forbade violence of any kind, never retaliating for any physical affront and never intervening violently to prevent affronts against others. When his apostles behaved violently anyway, he rebuked them and corrected the damage caused. The church, adopting this teaching, was led to centuries of voluntary persecution.

Those facts cannot be disputed and are not disputed by the article. Instead, the author tries to draw deeply flawed parallels between the temporal life of Muhammad and the eschatological destiny of Jesus. The parallel becomes particularly weak when the difference between the way the two figures function in their respective religions is observed. Muhammad is believed to be the culmination of a line of prophets; Jesus is believed to be God. Acting as God in the final judgment, he is the agent of divine wrath and will naturally be presented in a way which enacts judgment on evildoers in a way roughly analogous to the way the just God of Islam will dole out justice.

As a human agent, however, the career of Jesus could not be more distinct from that of Muhammad. Only by fundamentally altering the rules of engagement can the author even begin to depict Jesus as more violent than Muhammad. Even the suggestion that Jesus’ pacifism could be a product of his political situation patently contradicts the narrative in the Gospels. Jesus is expected by his disciples to seize power and at one point a mob even tries to make him king. At every turn he rejects the possibility of political authority, finally concluding before Pilate that “if my kingdom were of this world, my followers would fight.” He redefines rather than conforms to the militaristic messianic expectations of contemporary Jews.

Ultimately, the linked article represents the same ugly polemic that “Islamophobes” use to try to discredit Islam. It is methodologically flawed and transparent in its motivation. It is possible to admit that the historical person of Muhammad was violent in a way typical and even necessary of political leaders and to realize that Jesus was nonviolent and eschewed political power without being an “anti-Muslim ideologue.” A calm, cool examination of the facts will reveal that eschatologically, Islam and Christianity have similar conceptions of God’s justice (which, in Christianity, includes the agency of Christ as a member of the Trinity) but that the actual careers of their “founders” are profoundly different on the question of violence.


  1. Nice rebuttal. The stuff over at loonwatch is enough to make me want to vomit. The problem is there's a little truth in what they write -- just enough to fool most people. Most of us don't have the time to wrestle with all the theological and historical considerations in these debates. Nice work.

  2. 'The respondent says'

    An intellectually honest answer to the question of which religious leader was in fact more peaceful requires a direct comparison with corresponding parameters.


    By saying such, it shows how much you have directly rejected the central faith that suggest- Jesus second coming as the Saviour - which will quash all his enemies via violence will indeed materialise.

    Secondly, Jesus is not God. If he is god, why would he would be that weak to die for my sins?

    Thirdly, your article is comparitively short and a convenient one.

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