In the current issue of Christianity Today (this article is not online), the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf and his colleagues at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture suggest that, if Christians are to exemplify a “counterculture for the common good,” we will have to become aware of various “malfunctions” of the faith. One such “malfunction” occurs when Christianity becomes oppressive. But what exactly could have gone wrong in such a disturbing situation? Obviously, there are many possible answers, but Volf suggests three. His reasons all seem to be based on the lack of confidence that Christianity can survive in perilous times unless we substitute desperate and cruel measures for the apparently quixotic means that the faith actually commends.
Here is Professor Volf and his colleagues:
So why have Christians, who embrace a peaceful faith, often been so violent? There are three main reasons, and they roughly correspond to the three reasons for faith’s idleness.
First, a thin faith. Too many Christians embrace the ends mandated by their faith (for instance, maintaining the sanctity of unborn life or just social arrangements), but not the means by which faith demands that these ends by reached (persuasion rather than violence). The cure for religiously induced violence is not less faith but more faith – faith in all its full scope, faith enacted with integrity and courage by its holy men and women, faith pondered responsibly by its great theologians.
Second, seemingly irrelevant faith. Can a faith born 2,000 years ago tell us anything useful about democratic governance, running a modern corporation, or defending a nation from terrorists? Sensing a tension, we use faith merely to bless what we think is right to do. It takes hard intellectual and spiritual work to learn to understand and live faith authentically under changed circumstances. This work cannot be placed only on the shoulders of theologians; it must be an endeavor in which faithful people from all walks of life are engaged, and study of a variety of disciplines must be involved.
Finally, unwillingness to walk the narrow path. Often “impractical” slides into “overly demanding.” Someone has violated us or our community; we feel the urge for revenge – and we set aside the explicit command to love our enemies, to be benevolent and beneficient toward them. Or we believe that our culture is going down a perilous road; we want to change its self-destructive course – and we forget that the ends that Christian faith holds high do not justify setting aside its strictures about the appropriate means.
And so we’re back at the question of character. In addition to applying an authentically understood faith to various spheres of life, we need properly formed persons who resist misusing faith in oppressive ways. For the Christian faith produces devastating results when it devolves into a mere personal or cultural resource for people whose lives … may be guided by anything but that faith.