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The increasing violence in the name of religion staggers the imagination. In fact, one wonders if religion does not provoke more strife than it prevents. Yet, it is nothing new. A cursory review of history would certainly support such a conclusion.

Some suggest, for example, that Islam has one of the bloodiest records of the world’s great religions. And yet, its holy prophet and founder Muhammad dreamed of a universal religion based on the noblest of ethics. He taught that conversion by the sword was not conversion at all. Two years before his untimely death in 632, however, Muhammad dispatched an expedition against Syria, which was the beginning of a crusade that continued for nearly 100 years. By the time they were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732, Islam had carved out the largest religious empire the world had ever seen, primarily at the point of the sword.

But the use of violence by religious forces is not limited to Muslims. The Christian crusades of the Middle Ages employed violent measures to regain access to holy sites in Israel and Palestine from the Muslims, including the Children’s Crusade in 1212 which mobilized 50,000 French and German children to go to Jerusalem. None of them reached the Holy City and thousands died en route, while Christian merchants sold other thousands into slavery in North Africa.

Unfortunately, religious bodies have not always directed their violence toward the forces of ungodliness and evil. Much of it has been directed against the faithful.

No record of religious violence and persecution would be complete without a mention of the Inquisition. The Roman Church, as it was commonly called in the Middle Ages, claimed power over all its subjects with sanction of punishment, including death, over the disobedient.

Martin Luther–whose insistence on salvation by grace not only rocked the power and corruption of the Roman Church but also ushered in an era of unparalleled social advance–was not above suggesting violence as a means to oppose those who disagreed with him.

Speaking of Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals of the day, Luther suggested that they deserved an uprising that would sweep them from the face of the earth. Then he added, “and we would smile to see it happen.”

This same Luther proposed burning synagogues, destroying the homes of Jews and forbidding their rabbis under the threat of death to continue teaching. Little wonder that following Luther’s death, Europe was wracked by 100 years of religious wars.

Of the current and two previous wars involving Iraq, Iran and Kuwait during the past decade, an Iranian commander describes them as a war of faith.

Much of the violence in the Middle East is traceable toward the faithful. For example, a strip of land known as the West Bank of the Jordan River has produced five major wars because Jews claim the Bible gives them title to this land.

Much of the violence in India is the result of religious fanaticism between Hindus and Muslims. Likewise, the people of Sri Lanka have suffered a thousand years of ethnic-religious infighting, primarily between Hindus and Buddhists.

Although economic discrimination and civil rights are involved, religion is seen as an underlying major factor in the violence in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants.

In America, Christians in general and Baptists in particular must never forget that the attempt to justify the use of violence for religious purposes is ever present. In our earlier history, a New England Calvinist recommended the capture of William Penn and his Quaker followers so that they might be sold into slavery before their “heresy” could be spread to the New World.

Mormons, being driven out of Missouri, were attacked in the massacre at Haun’s Mill, where 20 defenseless members died. After settling in Nauvoo, Ill., leader Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were jailed. A mob broke in and shot both men to death.

More recently, a Nebraska Baptist pastor asked, “in the authoritative name of Jesus,” that God convert, restrain, remove or kill certain governmental officials opposed to his Christian school.

Most Christians, as well as devotees of Islam and other major religions of the world, would have nothing to do with overt acts of violence in the name of religion. But far too many wreak emotional destruction through character assassination, innuendo and half-truth. While such techniques are not as outwardly violent as suicide bombings or assassinations, they still fragment fellowship, erode faith and confidence among believers, and cause the world to doubt and reject the church and it teachings.

Violence has left an ugly stain on the pages of religious history. Oh that it would serve as a sobering reminder that even the best motives can be perverted with destructive results.

Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from SamfordUniversity after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. This column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.

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