Mural in the Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga, Oxford, England, depicting the execution
of a Catholic priest under Elizabeth I (Credit: J. Budziszewski)
Recently an Iranian convert to Christianity appealed to the U.K. for religious asylum because he feared persecution. The Home Office, which handles such cases, questioned his story by quoting several verses from Exodus, Leviticus, and Revelations. “These examples,” he was told, “are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful religion’ as opposed to Islam, which contained violence and rage.”
When the incident became public, the Anglican Bishop of Durham slammed the statement for biblical illiteracy and remarked, “To use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a Government report on the impact of Climate Change is advocating drought and flooding.”
True. But if I were a biblically illiterate Home Office official, I would want to know how I went wrong. Why shouldn’t I have said what I said? Being a Christian, I want biblically illiterate officials to know too. The U.K. Home Office backed down, but next time it might not. If our own illiterates have their way, the U.S. is next.
It would take a long time to cover all the ins and outs of biblical interpretation. Besides, Holy Scripture is interpreted by Sacred Tradition. So let us consider what the Church herself has taught from earliest times.
Contrary to secularist clichés, the Fathers of the Church pioneered the doctrine of religious toleration. And yes, they did this not only while the Roman Empire was persecuting them, but also afterward.
“There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Let [the persecutors] unsheathe the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted. We are prepared to hear, if they teach; while they are silent, we certainly pay no credit to them, as we do not yield to them even in their rage. Let them imitate us in setting forth the system of the whole matter: for we do not entice, as they say; but we teach, we prove, we show. And thus no one is detained by us against his will, for he is unserviceable to God who is destitute of faith and devotedness; and yet no one departs from us, since the truth itself detains him. … Why then do they rage, so that while they wish to lessen their folly, they increase it? Torture and piety are widely different; nor is it possible for truth to be united with violence, or justice with cruelty.”
“But, they say, the public rites of religion must be defended. Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion, and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense. For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free‑will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist. The right method therefore is, that you defend religion by patient endurance or by death; in which the preservation of the faith is both pleasing to God Himself, and adds authority to religion.”
Hilary of Poitiers:
“God does not want unwilling worship, nor does He require a forced repentance.”
Isidore of Pelusium:
“Since it seems not good forcibly to draw over to the faith those who are gifted with a free will, employ at the proper time conviction and by your life enlighten those who are in darkness.”
Isidore of Pelusium again:
“Human salvation is procured not by force but by persuasion and gentleness.”
“It is the law of mankind and the natural right of each individual to worship what he thinks proper, nor does the religion of one man either harm or help another. But, it is not proper for religion to compel men to religion, which should be accepted of one's own accord, not by force, since sacrifices also are required of a willing mind. So, even if you compel us to sacrifice, you will render no service to your gods. They will not desire sacrifices from the unwilling unless they are quarrelsome — but a god is not quarrelsome.”
“For see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it. Not even a human being would care to have unwilling homage rendered him.”
“Such is the character of our doctrine; what about yours? No one ever persecuted it, nor is it right for Christians to eradicate error by constraint and force, but to save humanity by persuasion and reason and gentleness. Hence no emperor of Christian persuasion enacted against your legislation such as was contrived against us by those who served demons. Just as a body given over to a long and wasting disease perishes of its own accord, without anyone injuring it, and gradually breaks down and is destroyed, so the error of Greek superstition, though it enjoyed so much tranquility and was never bothered by anyone, nevertheless was extinguished by itself and collapsed internally. Therefore, although this satanic farce has not been completely obliterated from the earth, what has already happened is able to convince you concerning its future.”
Chrysostom considers the Christianization of the imperial government a decidedly mixed blessing:
“When a Christian ascends the imperial throne, far from being shored up by human honors, Christianity deteriorates. On the other hand, when rule is held by an impious man, who persecutes us in every way and subjects us to countless evils, then our cause acquires renown and becomes more brilliant, then is the time of valor and trophies, then is the opportunity to attain crowns, praises, and every distinction.”
Athanasius argues that by relying on coercion instead of persuasion, those who cling to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ, prove that they have neither arguments, confidence, nor divine authority for their beliefs:
“Now if it was altogether unbecoming in any of the Bishops to change their opinions merely from fear of these things, yet it was much more so, and not the part of men who have confidence in what they believe, to force and compel the unwilling. In this manner it is that the Devil, when he has no truth on his side, attacks and breaks down the doors of them that admit him with axes and hammers. But our Savior is so gentle that he teaches thus, “If any man wills to come after Me, and, Whoever wills to be My disciple” [Matthew 16:24]; and coming to each He does not force them, but knocks at the door and says, “Open to Me, My sister, My spouse” [Song of Solomon 5:2]; and if they open to Him, He enters in, but if they delay and will not, He departs from them. For the truth is not preached with swords or with darts, nor by means of soldiers; but by persuasion and counsel. But what persuasion is there when the Emperor [Constantius] prevails [in favor of Arianism]? or what counsel is there, when he who withstands them receives at last banishment and death? Even David, although he was a king, and had his enemy in his power, prevented not the soldiers by an exercise of authority when they wished to kill his enemy, but, as the Scripture says, David persuaded his men by arguments, and suffered them not to rise up and put Saul to death. But [Constantius], being without arguments of reason, forces all men by his power, that it may be shown to all, that their wisdom is not according to God, but merely human, and that they who favor the Arian doctrines have indeed no king but Caesar; for by his means it is that these enemies of Christ accomplish whatsoever they wish to do.”
As in the previous passage, so in the following, Athanasius develops his doctrine not in spite of Holy Scripture but because of it:
“The other heresies also, when the very Truth has refuted them on the clearest evidence, are wont to be silent, being simply confounded by their conviction. But this modern and accursed heresy, when it is overthrown by argument, when it is cast down and covered with shame by the very Truth, forthwith endeavors to reduce by violence and stripes and imprisonment those whom it has been unable to persuade by argument, thereby acknowledging itself to be anything rather than godly. For it is the part of true godliness not to compel, but to persuade, as I said before. Thus our Lord Himself, not as employing force, but as offering to their free choice, has said to all, “If any man will follow after me”; and to His disciples, “Will you also go away?” [John 6:67.]”
Episodes of persecution in context
Needless to say, Christians have not always practiced what these Fathers of the Church preached. But episodes of persecution reflect not the essence of Christianity, but reversions to sub‑Christian understandings of what it means to adhere to God – understandings that fall lower than “faith working through love” [Galatians 5:6].
It is not always obvious which episodes really did constitute intolerance of the sort reprobated by the Fathers.
Consider the case of Augustine of Hippo, condemned by secularists for having changed his mind about the treatment of the fifth‑century heresy of Donatism. According to the conventional account, although at first Augustine favored converting the Donatists through persuasion, he later agreed to coercion because persuasion was not working. The critical question, omitted by this account, is what it is that persuasion was not working at. Although, with Augustine's support, the profession of Donatism was indeed made a criminal offense in A.D. 412, what changed Augustine's mind was not that the Donatists refused to accept the Catholic faith, but that in the promotion of their own views they resorted to violence:
“Catholics, and especially the bishops and clergy, have suffered many terrible hardships, which it would take too long to go through in detail, seeing that some of them had their eyes put out, and one bishop his hands and tongue cut off, while some were actually murdered. I say nothing of massacres of the most cruel description, and robberies of houses, committed in nocturnal burglaries, with the burning not only of private houses, but even of churches — some being found abandoned enough to cast the sacred books into the flames.”
The point here is not that Augustine made the correct prudential judgments about how to deal with such violence, but that the question about the correctness of his judgments has been framed improperly. The issue before him what not what to do about false belief, but what to do about violence motivated by false belief. If a comparison with our own day is needed, we may say that from Augustine's point of view, the suppression of Donatism was less like, say, the suppression of Islam, than like suppression of an Islamic terrorist organization such as al‑Qaeda or ISIS.
Gregory of Nazianzus might almost be taken to be speaking of certain U.K. Home Office officials when he explains that in the Age of the Church, the Old Testament passages about “stoning” those who misrepresent doctrine are to be taken in their spiritual meaning, not their literal meaning – for in the age of the Church, to be “stoned” is to suffer the logical refutation of one's arguments:
“But if any is an evil and savage beast, and altogether incapable to taking in the subject matter of contemplation and theology, let him not hurtfully and malignantly lurk in his den among the woods, to catch hold of some dogma or saying by a sudden spring, and to tear sound doctrine to pieces by his misrepresentations, but let him stand yet afar off and withdraw from the Mount, or he shall be stoned and crushed, and shall perish miserably in his wickedness. For to those who are like wild beasts true and sound discourses are stones.”
The common sense of the matter is that whether any particular religion favors toleration will depend on its other convictions. Some religions favor toleration, others do not. I am speaking not only of avowed religions, but also secularist ideologies such as the ones those Home Office officials seem to hold – for although they reject the God revealed in Scripture, they serve gods of their own devising.
You cannot know whether God loves or loathes persecution unless you have some idea who He is.
* All quotations from J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, Chapter 10. Details about the sources of the quotations are found there.
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist.