Conversion by the Sword

Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?

4 Replies to “Conversion by the Sword”

  1. Do you ever feel as though a writer may be conflating ideas?
    Either a governmental system is a theocracy, or it is not.
    You seem to want to mush the ideas of religious belief with political systems when you say
    “Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry. ”
    The US led a coalition of the willing in to effect regime change in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
    We can argue that there is some sort of “Constitutional creation myth” afoot, because stuff like http://www.amazon.com/Americas-Constitution-Akhil-Reed-Amar/dp/1400062624 isn’t widely read enough.
    We can argue that patriotic songs are hymns of a sort.
    We can argue that the blessings of capitalism are a Kingdom of Heaven (modulo last year’s economic cratering).
    Except that this seems a farce; Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has been parcelled 50 ways. They don’t know “The Star Spangled Banner”. They are not using the US dollar for currency.
    How about a little Matthew 22:16-21, then?
    http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=22&v=21&t=KJV#comm/16

    Summary: I just don’t think this is a useful analogy.

  2. Two points:

    1) It seems you have an argument without an issue. Is there anyone advocating that Christianity convert by the sword?

    2) I must vehemently disagree with your pronouncements on the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed because of 40 years of American opposition to Communist expansion. The Domino Theory came true: we lost in Vietnam and we saw the fall of Cambodia and Laos and Thailand had to severely curb its association with America. Your premise that the Soviet Union was bound to collapse because of it’s “inherent weaknesses” is flawed. The Eastern Bloc collapsed after 1989 and the Soviet Union ceased to exist before 1992. Only a dozen years earlier, the world saw the greatest expansion of communism since Yalta: communist inroads into Latin America, particularly Grenada; the invasion of Angola by Soviet backed forces and Afghanistan directly the Soviets; and the fall of Indochina. How does a system that was on the cusp of a worldwide economic revolution (practically everyone in the late 70s felt that if communism wasn’t the wave of the future, clearly some watered down version was: democracy and capitalism were finished) collapse a mere dozen years later? Simple, on it’s own, it doesn’t. The Soviet Union only collapsed because of the pressure put on them by the policies of Ronald Reagan. He was the first to say, there will be no detente, no spheres of influence. We will stop them and roll them back.
    apparently so weak from

  3. Thank you for your comment as always Mr. Castus.

    As to your first point, I don’t think that there are too many people who support forced conversion to Christianity, though there are a few who support such a plan in Iraq (and hold Iraqi lives in little regard until and unless such conversions take place).

    As for the collapse of the Soviet Union, I won’t deny the importance of Reagan, but military force and the threat of military force alone does not account for the collapse of communism. I think it is important to note the actions of Nixon and Kissinger as well. Are we not the beacon of hope? We have freedom and prosperity. Don’t we serve as a model for other nations to follow of their own free will? For another point, look at Poland. After WWII, they were converted by the sword, but fought against this imposed system through violent and non-violent means. They did not simply wait for a liberator and took action into their own hands. Though it took many lives, they threw off the shackles of their oppressors and earned their own freedom that they enjoy today. What concerns me is that people have a natural desire to control their own destiny and resent when foreigners try to decide for them. Enter Iran and Cuba for example here. Will the Iraqis too resent having western style democracy thrust upon them and form some sort of reactionary government in response? It is certainly possible.

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