taking the words of Jesus seriously

Whenever there is a tragedy in America you can count on some politically saturated Christian leaders to rush in to make stupid statements. Certainly it has happened again with the heartbreaking murders in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Politician/minister Mike Huckabee was quick to say, “We ask why there’s violence in our school but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools have become such places of carnage?”

When he took flack for the statement -“from liberals, ” according to him- he clarified, claiming he didn’t say a tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if officially orchestrated school prayer was allowed. Rather he was speaking of the broader exclusion of God from the public square and he went on to make a number of standard culture war complaints. In essence, he still suggested that if God was given more of a legally sanctioned presence in public schools, courtrooms, and government property horrendous violence would be less likely to occur.

Is an official acknowledgement of God in the various institutions or manifestation of the government really a significant factor in the level of violence we experience in our country? Those who agree with people like Huckabee say, “Yes!” But the real evidence says otherwise. In fact it seems that God in America is actually part of the problem. Or maybe I should say, it could be that part of the problem is with the kind of God promoted in American church and culture.

First of all, the nations in the developed world where God has even less official acknowledgement, violence is not nearly as prevalent as in the US. There are no shortage of countries where religion –Christianity and otherwise- has been much more marginalized than in the US. Not only do they not have prayer in schools or the Ten Commandments posted in every courtroom, they don’t even have politicians who feel compelled to conclude every speech with “God bless America, ” I mean, France or Sweden or Spain or whatever.

Second, not only is the US one of the most religious nations in the developed world yet with the highest murder rate by far, the most religious region of the US is precisely where the murder rate is at the top. In both church attendance and murders, is Number One. Christianity permeates culture in the South more than any place else in the country. Yet in regions where God is less conspicuous in public murder rates are lower.

Third, who are the best armed people in America? Are the atheists and agnostics the ones storing weapons and ammo? No. Instead those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace are more likely to be gun owners have shown that gun ownership increases the risk of violent death at home. Whatever impact God is having on those who regard themselves as Christians, the practices of too many of them are not helping to reduce violence in our country.

Fourth, at the beginning of the war in Iraq, a Gallup Poll conducted in October 21-22, 2002, found that 54% of the public supported the invasion of Iraq. The same level of support was shown among those who attended church weekly (55%) as was found among those who never attend church (55%). Those who identified themselves as part of the religious right showed the highest level of support for the invasion of Iraq (63%). The researchers reported, “Gallup data suggests that devotion to a religion doesn’t necessarily dictate a commitment to peace…”

Fifth, several years later another conducted from early 2005 to February 2006 showed even more discouraging results. Among those with no religion 62% answered that they believed it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. Of those affiliated with a non-Christian religion 58% said the war was a mistake. A smaller percent of those who identified themselves as Christians agreed, with 52% of Catholics and just 45% of Protestants saying it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. The study showed that the greatest opposition to the war came from black Americans who also tended to be highly religious and predominantly Protestant. When only whites were considered fully 50% more Protestants supported the war in comparison to those with no religion. “In general, ” the report stated, “the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war was a mistake.”

Sixth, more disturbing still are the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center about whether the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified. This study stimulated quite a lot of discussion when it first appeared. It showed that the greatest support for torture – those who believe that it often or sometimes can be justified –was found among those who attend worship services at least weekly (54%) and especially among white evangelicals (62%). White non-Hispanic Catholics and white mainline Protestants fell between the other groups, with 51% of Catholics and 46% of mainline Protestants expressing support for torture. In contrast, support for torture was found to be significantly less among those who seldom or never attend religious services (42%) or are religiously unaffiliated (40%).

Based on all this evidence, it could be argued that when it comes to violence in America, God is not the answer but the problem.  I’m not willing to come to that conclusion. However, I am inclined to see the evidence as suggesting that it is not the absence of God in ways that concern the culture warriors that should worry us. Rather there is something about the way God is presented in America that gives us reason for worry. The way God is depicted may exacerbate rather than alleviate the violence that is all too common. This American God has a way of encouraging weapons, death, war and even torture…all for good cause, of course. But good causes that have little to do with actually following the lessons and life of Jesus.

When American Christians are more supportive of weapons, war and torture than their unbelieving neighbors, something has gone terribly wrong. When the greatest amount of violence is found precisely in the region of the country where church membership and attendance is the highest we might ask what kind of influence Christians are exerting. Complaints about a lack of official prayer in schools or an absence of religious symbols in the public square don’t get even close to identifying the source of the violence problem. But so long as Christians cast their lot with forces of death, they will not be seen as credible witnesses for peace.

Christians are going to be part of the solution to the violence in America –or anywhere else- only if they start being more like Jesus. When Christians sound and act like they follow the nonviolent Prince of Peace they are more likely to be instrumental in the healing of the nation(s). Christians need to earn a reputation as “peacemakers, ” happy to influence the world as “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:9, 13). If Christian leaders will quit trying to impose themselves and their views upon the world as culture warriors but act humbly as servants, they will more likely to have something to offer that others will gladly receive.

Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book  (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

About The Author


Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist. He is lives with his wife Cindi in Oaxaca De Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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