I recently got an e-mail from a friend who is struggling with (what he calls) the spiritualization of Christ’s peace. That is, he does not like the fact that many will so spiritualize the peace of Christ that it seems to have no influence on their violent behaviour. Of course, “to spiritualize” as my friend is using the word, merely means to create a feeling that has no bearing on the whole rest of one’s life. That is not how the Orthodox Church understands something that is spiritual.* Nevertheless, my friend gives an example of this from St. Augustine of Hippo whom he reports has written that a soldier can experience Christ’s peace in his heart even while he is running his enemy through with a spear.
Below is part of what I wrote in response, trying to unpack as best as I could what some of issues are as I see it:
I don’t know about Augustine’s peace while running someone through with a spear, but I have experienced peace while spanking my child. Maybe it was mere personal tranquility and not really Christ’s peace. I think it was Christ’s peace. I experience Christ’s peace–or at least what I think is Christ’s peace–even when I have to do things that I know are not ideal, but are the least bad–or the least bad given my level of spiritual, emotional, intellectual development and the options I am able to conceive at the time. I experience a profound peace that in spite of my weakness, God is able to be strong. That is, in spite of my inability to do the ideal that I conceive, or more often, my inability even to conceive in the moment of what the ideal is, in spite of this huge flaw in my life, God still receives what I offer (befouled and stinky as it is) and somehow is able to save, to bring life, to heal even that which I have wounded.
There is a huge irony here: I wound in the name of the God who heals. This of course assumes that I am trying to imitate Christ and heal–even if that healing seems to me to require some wounding to accomplish (like cauterizing an infected wound); it assumes I am striving to be like Him. But I am not yet like Him–in fact, I am so much not like Him that I am often blind to what the loving, God-like path in any given situation is. Often I am merely hoping that what I am doing is the Christ-like, loving thing to do.
As I grow in my life in Christ, I look back and cringe at all of the very stupid and often hurtful things I have done thinking at the time (and with all my heart) that I was doing the loving, Christ-like thing. I have begged God for forgiveness and prayed that He would somehow fix what I have broken. In His mercy, God helps me most of the time to forget about these terrible mistakes; otherwise, I would be completely frozen with despondency.
And that is the point. We grow. In fact, I think I can say that it has been Christ’s peace that has taught me to use less force, less coercion. But we live in a very messy world. To me, the helpful question is not, “Why do Christians use violence?” The helpful, even profound, question for me is “Why do a few Christians actually succeed in becoming a Christ-like presence in the midst of chaos?”
Why should we be surprised that Christians kill, steal and fornicate? We are, after all, sinners being saved (stress the being). God’s not finished with us yet. This is not an excuse, it is an observation. I’m talking about the murdering, coveting and lustful Christians who want to be changed, saved and healed–not the ones who don’t give a damn. I’m talking about the ones who try hard, who care. I have spoken to Christians who are experiencing the Grace of God in some small, but overwhelming ways even while they are regularly fornicating, or coveting and stealing (in various ways), and hating, fighting and who might even kill if given the opportunity. How else would they change if Christ didn’t first come to them?
Just a few days ago, someone asked me about how I became a Christian. I said that I had become a Christian by the time I was sixteen, but that I had started to become a Christian at least two years before that; it just took two years before what was happening inside me began to effect in any noticeable way what I did or said outwardly. I was encountering God, experiencing God’s peace–even while I had to fight to survive in the violent world of teenage boys growing up in foster homes.
So …, to try and specifically answer your question: yes, there is such a thing as people intentionally using religious concepts as excuses to do what they want–even to kill. It is both common and despicable. However, there is also the reality that people are often trapped by circumstances, training, ignorance, and weakness to do sinful things–perhaps even kill–yet God is at the same time drawing them, giving them His Grace and helping them to grow and repent. And what makes all of this really difficult is that we never know which is the case with someone else. Heck, I often don’t know which is the case for myself. This is why it is so unproductive to judge others’ motives. The only person I can change is myself, and I’m not very good at that at all. Why am I so worried about what others are doing and why they are doing it and how they do or do not justify it to themselves? If I can acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit, others will be saved too. That’s my Goal. That’s how, I think, anyone can best bring peace to the world.