A Public Faith: Part 3, Coercive Faith

I have been working through Miroslav Volf’s book “A Public Faith” here in a series of posts. As I said in an earlier post, Volf works to eliminate two extremes: (1) Religious Totalitarianism, and (2) Religious Idleness or Irrelevance. One says that Christians should manage, control, dominate or run society – namely by controlling the government. The other says that faith has little or nothing to say to the larger world – religious life is relegated to what happens at church on Sunday with no meaning for our collective life in the world.

Before he gets to a proposed alternative to these two, Volf spends some time dealing with each (each getting one chapter of the book – chapter 2, “Idleness” and chapter 3, “Coerciveness”). Volf takes the opportunity in his chapter on coercive faith to talk about “religious violence.” Volf broadens the horizons of “violence” to include those acts which employ fear and foster discord/hatred toward a political end.

Some would argue that this is just what Christianity is. They perceive all Christians to have a Pat Robertson/ Jerry Falwell agenda. To their credit, those examples are case-in-point malfunctions of faith. The problem is, this is a caricature. Most Christians do not want to operate this way. Of course, many Christians do, and they tend to speak louder, and turn up the volume so that many of us who operate in more compassionate and reasonable ways are drowned out under the noise. Volf does not ignore that Christians have operated in horrifying ways. But, for Volf, this is not grounds to dismiss Christianity, any more than it is grounds to say we shouldn’t have Republicans anymore because 10 percent of them are racist (or whatever it may be). Instead, Volf proposes that Christians engage with a more “intelligent” faith.

“First, I will not argue that the Christian faith was never violent or that it 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 those acts. Moreover, there are elements in the Christian faith that, when taken in isolation or when excessively foregrounded, can 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 against Christian violence is not less of the Christian faith, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more of the Christian faith. I don’t mean, of course, that the cure against violence lies in increased religious zeal; blind religious zeal is part of the problem. Instead, it lies in stronger and more intelligent commitment to the Christian faith as faith.

In terms of how Christian faith is conceived and practiced, my thesis is this: The more we reduce faith to a vague religiosity that serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose course is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith that maps a way of life, and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history, 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. This thesis claims that approaching the issue of religion and violence by looking at the quantity of religious attachments – more religion, more violence; less religion, less violence – is unsophisticated and mistaken. The most relevant factor is, rather, the quality of religious commitments.”

If I am honest, I have heard and seen a lot of things in the last few years, from my own close kin in faith, that worry me. Just weeks ago, I heard some friends laughing about an anti-Obama campaign slogan that was not only ignorant and socially backward, but also deeply sinful, racially charged and hate-filled. I called that on the carpet. But I am worried that what we have is so pervasive we need broader teaching on this matter. Religiously charged language that is violent or hate-filled is not okay. The reason I love Volf’s book is that it provides at least the beginnings of a language that helps us teach and move forward.

I think Volf rightly names that Coerciveness is the problem we face. We (Christians) become willing to employ violence (in language and action) when we feel the need to manage or control society. Some even try to legitimize this urge to control society with scripture – I would argue to the neglect of most of the New Testament. But, if we can re-frame the issue for our people, perhaps we can squelch this urge. It reminds me of one of my favorite John Howard Yoder quotes:

“How inappropriate and preposterous was the prevailing assumption, from the time of Constantine until yesterday, that the fundamental responsibility of the church for society is to manage it.”

But if we are not called to manage society, yet we are called to an active faith that shapes the world, then HOW do we go about it? Is there a third way between Religious Idleness and Religions Totalitarianism? YES! Stay tuned for more posts on “A Public Faith” to see what third way Volf proposes for us.

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