Christianity and “Old Testament” Violence: Historical Examples of Christians Using the Bible as Inspiration for Violence and Genocide

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

Christianity and “Old Testament” Violence: Historical Examples of Christians Using the Bible as Inspiration for Violence and Genocide

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“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction[a] all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”[1]

            Christian apologists often claim that the violent commands of YHWH in the “Old Testament” were only for “that time” and that Christians have a “new covenant” that does not allow for such barbaric acts of violence.[2] However, most Christians still believe that violence can be used when needed (e.g., fighting against an aggressive enemy army). But what rules of war would they follow? Historically, Christians have not been averse to using the “Old Testament” for inspiration about developing rules of war and this has oftentimes resulted in horrific acts of genocide. In this article, we will see some terrible examples of Christian violence against other Christians and non-Christians, based on the “Old Testament” rules of war. These examples have been discussed by author Philip Jenkins in his book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.[3]

“Chosen People”

            Historically, both Jews and Christians believed that they were the “chosen people” who had to usher in the messianic age. As Jenkins explains, this would inevitably involve occasionally fighting against God’s enemies:

“Both faiths cherished a glorious vision of a divinely chosen people that sought to accomplish God’s purposes in this world, until the process was eventually fulfilled in a messianic age. But for both, the process involved enemies who had to be overcome, and sometimes that meant inflicting real destruction upon material human foes.”[4]

            Apologists like to point out that the early church largely eschewed violence and adopted a pacifistic mindset. However, as Jenkins points out, this was when Christians were the minority in the Roman Empire. Once the empire became Christian, things changed. Jenkins states that:

“[a]t least until the fourth century, Christians had strong doubts about the legitimacy of serving in the armed forces. This situation, of course, once the Roman Empire accepted Christianity, and Christian rulers began waging war in the name of God. At that point, church leaders sought biblical passages that could sanctify their efforts, and often they found them in the Old Testament references to Canaanites and Amalekites.”[5]

Amalek Reborn

            One Biblical story was used more often than others for inspiration: the centuries-long struggle against the Amalekites. Due to their emphasis on the “parallels” between Moses and Jesus, Christians were able to use the former’s fight against the Amalekites (in which he raised his arms) as a “parallel” to Jesus spreading his arms on the cross.[6] The story of Moses raising his hands during the battle against the Amalekites is found in Exodus 17:10–13:

“So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.”

It should be noted that this analogy was not used by laypersons, but rather, the Christian clergy, as Jenkins explains:

“[w]hen Christianity became the religion of kings and states, the analogy provided the basis for a whole theology of sacred warfare, which influenced conduct up to modern times. In this reading, clergy imitated Moses by spreading their arms in prayer, while secular generals performed the role of Joshua, going out to smite Amalek. Clerics liked the analog because it gave them a precise and indispensable role in the struggle.”[7]

One of the most famous Christian leaders, Pope Urban II, who called for the “Crusades” against the Muslims, used the analogy of fighting the Amalekites to spur Christians into battle. According to Jenkins, the pope told the Christian soldiers that:

                     “[i]t is our duty to pray, yours to fight against the Amalekites…”[8]                    

Pope Urban - Council of Clermont
Figure 1: Pope Urban II speaking at the infamous “Council of Clermont”, where the call for the Crusades was first made (Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d5/CouncilofClermont.jpg).

            Incidentally, the Crusaders were accompanied by “loose women”, a situation that religious leaders despised. Their solution to the problem was to invoke the example of Phineas, the priest who saved the Israelites from God’s wrath by murdering Zimri and his Midianite wife Cozbi (see Numbers 25).[9]

            However, it was not just Muslims who were given the role of “Amalekites” by Christians. During the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, the former often depicted the latter as “Moabites, Amalekites…whom they deemed it their duty to extirpate [i.e., destroy]”.[10] At other times, Jews and other Protestants were also depicted in this way. By referring to their enemies as “Amalekites”, these Christians were justifying not only fighting against the enemy but annihilating the enemy as well.

            Protestantism, as Jenkins puts it, “was born in war”,[11] and between 1550 and 1648, it was fighting for its survival against a powerful Catholic force. Calvinists would develop a “potent theory of resistance against unjust rulers, usually framed in Old Testament terms…”[12] This included trying to inspire “zealots” to assassinate “unjust rulers” like Queen Mary. The Scottish Protestant John Knox openly called for the assassination of Queen Mary, and like the clergy invoking the example of Phinehas to remove “loose women” during the Crusades, Knox also invoked the example of Phinehas.[13]

Reviving “Herem”

            When it suited them, Christians abandoned “just war” theories and adopted a more extreme view. The Swiss protestant “reformer” Heinrich Bullinger wanted to revive the practice of herem, the ritualistic slaughter of “idolaters and enemies of the true and catholic faith”. This would entail killing “without pity or mercy”.[14]

            For Bullinger, the “Old Testament” could be used to develop rules of warfare. He referred to the instructions in Deuteronomy 20 as “both profitable and necessary” and even stated that “these laws of war are still bidden to be kept” in scripture, in direct contrast to the views of many modern Christian apologists.[15] This was not the opinion of an insignificant extremist. Rather, Bullinger was extremely influential in Europe among Protestants.

            Other influential Protestants also tried to revive the practice of herem. The English Puritan William Gouge used Exodus 17 (the battle against the Amalekites) “to argue that religious wars were not just permissible for faithful Christians but required.”[16]

Finding Amalekites in the New World

            Calls for violence against “enemies” of Christianity also reached the New World, as Christians found “Amalekites” to kill in America as well. Once again, the “covenant relationship” between God and the “chosen people”, in this case the people of “New England”, became the inspiration for waging a religious war against “heathens”. One Christian leader, John Winthrop, warned Christians that refusing to follow through with the covenant, which would entail destroying “Amalek”, would result in losing the “kingdom” that God has bestowed on the Christians, as Saul lost his when he failed to destroy Amalek.[17]

            Of course, these kinds of teachings would eventually be used against the Native Americans. Cotton Mather referred to the Pequot Indians as “Ammonites” as well as “Amalekites”. Mather also praised Winthrop and would inspire soldiers fighting the Native Americans “that they were the soldiers of Moses and Joshua” and:

“…promised to pray for the Christian army ‘while you are in the field with your lives in your hands against the Amalek that is now annoying this Israel in the wilderness.’”[18]

            In Australia, British Christians also used the Bible to justify destroying “primitive races”, in this case, the Aborigines.[19] It has been estimated that there were “at least 270 frontier massacres over 140 years of Australian history” and that by the early 1900s, the “First Nations” (i.e., the natives) population had decreased from between 1–1.5 million before the arrival of the colonialists to less than 100,000.[20]

Massacre_at_Skull_Hole.cb9915c.width-1600.770b03e
Figure 2: The “Skull Hole” Massacre was one of hundreds of incidents of mass killings of Aborigines by Europeans (Source: https://australian.museum/learn/first-nations/genocide-in-australia/).

            In 1857, during the Indian mutiny, the British evoked the memories of Joshua and Oliver Cromwell (who identified himself with Gideon during his battles against Catholics) and depicted the struggle against the mutiny as a sort of “Christian holy way”.[21]

            Wiping out “primitive races” was also attempted by Christian Europeans in Africa. In 1838, the Dutch defeated the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River and interpreted this as a sign of “divine rescue” like that of God rescuing Israel.[22] Not surprisingly, the Dutch referred to the black Africans as “Amalekites”, thus justifying their destruction. Not surprisingly, the Dutch referred to the black Africans as “Amalekites”, thus justifying their destruction. Once again, the belief in a “divine covenant” inspired this conquest of “Canaan” in Africa. It also eventually led to the belief in “strict separation” between white European Christians and the “heathen peoples” (black Africans), which became known as apartheid. In South Africa, the white Nationalist Party ruled from 1948 to 1994 and enjoyed support from “Reformed” (Calvinist) churches”.[23]

            Germany too was on the warpath, long before World War I or World War II. Like the British and Dutch, the Germans had an empire in Africa to maintain as well. The German colonialists worked closely with churches to justify their violent subjugation of Africans using Biblical imagery.[24] In 1904, when the Herero and Nama peoples in South Africa (modern-day Namibia) rebelled, the Germans reacted with extreme ferocity. One major in the army stated that the orders were that “nothing living was to be spared”, including women and children. This campaign of terror resulted in the deaths of 80% of the Herero people,[25] and 50% of the Nama people.[26]

            Ironically, in Africa, even Christian Africans would come to use the Bible to justify killing other Africans. In 1994, during the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people (mostly Tutsis) were murdered, Hutu leaders used “Christian inspiration” to depict the Tutsis as “Amalekites” who needed to be destroyed. One Hutu pastor claimed that if the Hutus did not kill the Tutsis, they would be “rejected” by God.[27] In 2017, Pope Francis acknowledges the role that Catholic priests and nuns played in the genocide and formally apologized for the church’s involvement in the violence.[28]

Conclusion

            History is full of examples of Christians using the Bible to conveniently develop theories of war that fit their situations. Whether fighting for survival against Catholic persecution or expanding their empires, Christians had no qualms against using the “Old Testament” for inspiration. This resulted in mass killings, genocide, colonialism, and religious wars which killed millions of people, including women and children. The specter of “Amalek” has been used over and over again to inspire horrific acts of violence by Christians against other Christians as well as Muslims, Jews, Aborigines, black Africans, and others.

            And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] 1 Samuel 15:3. All Bible translations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

[2] See Deuteronomy 7 and 20 for examples of such violent commands.

[3] Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2011).

[4] Ibid., p. 123.

[5] Ibid., p. 125.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 127.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 128.

See here for more information on “herem” warfare in the Bible: https://twitter.com/MrQbblog/status/1443658821956739075?s=20

[15] Jenkins, op. cit., p. 128.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 133.

[18] Ibid., p. 134.

[19] Ibid., p. 136.

[20] https://australian.museum/learn/first-nations/genocide-in-australia/

[21] Jenkins, op. cit., p. 136.

Not even other Europeans could escape being consigned to destruction for daring to resist the British Empire. The Irish were one such group. In 1870, Friedrich Engels claimed that the Irish resistance to England could only be suppressed by “extermination”. Other people came to the same conclusion and used the Bible for support (Ibid., p. 139).

[22] Ibid., p. 137.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 139.

[25] Ibid.

[26] https://museeholocauste.ca/en/resources-training/herero-genocide-namibia/

[27] Ibid., pp. 140–141.

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/20/pope-francis-asks-for-forgiveness-for-churchs-role-in-rwanda-genocide

In contrast, the tiny Muslim minority in Rwanda was praised for its role in protecting refugees from the massacres. As a result, conversions to Islam increased in the aftermath of the genocide (https://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/07/world/since-94-horror-rwandans-turn-toward-islam.html). Before the genocide, the Muslim community in Rwanda was probably around 1%. It is now estimated to be between 12%–15% (https://www.trtworld.com/africa/from-the-ashes-of-genocide-islam-rises-in-rwanda-25565).

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