In season of peace, recalling Christianity’s violence

Americans enjoyed celebrating lynchings with photographs that often were made into greeting cards. Images via Wikimedia Commons.Two new books challenge us all
to truly make this a season of peace

This Advent season, two best-selling Christian authors are urging readers to remember the great injustice and violence surrounding the Christmas story. First, N.T. Wright urged readers to remember the full scope of Mary’s famous hymn of praise, which includes a dramatic celebration of the poor finally finding relief from the world’s injustice. Then last week, John Eldredge urged readers to remember that Jesus came into a very dangerous world, fully aware of the deadly violence swirling around the Jewish people under the fist of the Roman empire. Both writers are saying that, in Advent, Christians celebrate Jesus’ message of hope for survival and renewal in the midst of whatever evil the world throws at us.

THIS WEEK, two scholar-authors are taking this provocative warning one major step further:
Before we blame others for the danger and violence in our world, we must start by confessing that Christians have a historical record of acting as the perpetrators of injustice and deadly violence.

THIS ALSO IS THE WEEK WHEN HANUKKAH BEGINS. Read our main Hanukkah story for a reminder that this eight-day festival, beyond candle lights and presents for Jewish children, is a story of an ancient liberation movement that finally fought its way to freedom. In 2011, Hanukkah—like the Christian Christmas—is now known as a season of peace. But Hanukkah marks a wary peace. The story of Hanukkah reminds us that our current freedom of diversity and religious expression can face new forms of lethal challenge in every age.

Right now, over the holidays, millions of Americans also are thinking about the New Year—and books they want to discuss in their small groups this winter. We urge you to consider these two compelling books. They will spark spirited discussion and heart-felt reflection that can transform our attitudes toward the world. Yes, both books focus mainly on Christianity, but both are great choices in any adult educational setting.

Click on the linked book titles, below, or on the covers of the books in today’s article to jump to Amazon and order copies of:
Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, by Philip Jenkins
The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone


Many Westerners consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the words of the Quran standing in vicious contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians and Jews, the Quran teaches warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. For the prophet Micah, God’s commands to his people are summarized in the words “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Christians recall the words of the crucified Jesus: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

But in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claims about the superiority of the Bible to the Quran would be wildly wrong: It’s easy to see the mote in somebody else’s eye while missing the beam in your own. In fact, the Bible has its own bloody and violent passages, which have troubled faithful readers for centuries … The Bible overflows with “texts of terror,” to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible, and biblical violence is often marked by indiscriminate savagery. One cherished Psalm begins with the lovely line, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”; it ends by blessing anyone who would seize Babylon’s infants and smash their skulls against the rocks. …

Religions need to grow past their bloody origins, but at the same time they must be able to admit those origins, come to terms with them, and understand where they fit into the broader scheme of faith. My goal in writing this book is to suggest specific ways of reading and hearing the texts—even the most difficult passages, such as Phinehas and the Canaanite massacres—and to show how they can be absorbed, comprehended, and freely discuss. Modern believers need to confront those dark passages, to acknowledge perhaps the evil committed in their name, but also to build upon them, to understand the processes that make the scripture and the religion. …

After a scathing denunciation of atrocities recounted in Numbers and Deuteronomy, Mark Twain urged Christian preachers to offer these texts to their congregations alongside the Beatitudes, in order go give “an all-around view of Our Father in Heaven.” Although his goal was to subvert religion, Twain’s approach can be applied rather differently. By all means, let congregations hear, perhaps for the first time, just what is written in the darker parts of the Bible. More important, let them appreciate the different strategies that Christians have employed through the centuries to deal with these tales. The more honestly believers comprehend their faith, including its most unsettling components, the better they can engage constructively with other religions, and with the enemies of all religions.


The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2,000 years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy. Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from black poets, novelists and other reality-seeking artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is a challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society. ….

This work is a continuation and culmination of all my previous books, each of them, in different ways, motivated by a central question: how to reconcile the gospel message of liberation with the reality of black oppression. But in many ways this book is particularly personal. Its subject brings me back to my first memories of hearing the gospel, as well as back to primal memories of terror and violence that were part of the reality of growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, I watched my mother and father deal with segregation and the threats of lynching and was deeply affected by their examples, and by the sacrifices they made to keep their children safe. ….

In writing this book, my primary concern is to give voice to black victims, to let them and their families and communities speak to us, exploring the question: How did ordinary blacks, like my mother and father, survive the lynching atrocity and still keep together their families, their communities and not lose their sanity? … I wrestle with questions about black dignity in a world of white supremacy because I believe that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal more effectively with what is called “the war on terror.” If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population—slavery, segregation and lynching—then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something about terror because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.

I do not write this book as the last word about the cross and the lynching tree. I write it in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us. The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.

Meet Jenkins & Cone in our author interviews.

Interview with Philip Jenkins on ‘Laying Down the Sword’

Interview with James H. Cone on ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

Care to read more on meeting violence with peace?

Nationally known peace activist (and World Sabbath co-founder) Rod Reinhart writes about his own pilgrimage from a life of faith and action on behalf of peace—to working arm in arm with returned U.S. military veterans. This is especially important as winter arrives across our hemisphere.

Want to find peace in your reading—and group discussions—this winter?
Consider also learning about Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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