“The word of the Gospel does not, therefore, authorize the use of force to spread the faith. It is exactly the opposite: the Christian’s real force is the force of truth and of love, which involves renouncing all forms of violence.”
— Pope Francis, Angelus, August 18, 2013 (L’Osservatore Romano, English, August 21, 2013)
Pope Francis manages to cover several issues in even his shortest talks, often because the liturgy itself for a given day will open several avenues of reflection and truth. Following a passage from Hebrews (12:1-2), cited at the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square on August 18, Pope Francis tells us that Christ is a “perfecter” of our faith. Jesus establishes our relation to the Father. “He (Christ) is the only mediator in this relationship between us and our Father who is in heaven. Jesus is the Son and we are sons in him.” In the divine plan, Christ is the “way” to the Father. If God wanted to establish another way, He would have told us.
This passage from Hebrews contains more than we might suspect. Are there other claims to be the direct mediators or avenues between humanity and God? If so, they cannot be true. Do other ways call God precisely “Father?” Why not? When we address God as “Father,” it presumes that we know what a “father” is. Fatherhood is not something that we can shove aside as a mere accident. It has roots in the fatherhood within the Godhead. We also recognize that a filial relation to God means that God is personal, not just an abstract idea or being, let alone a being that does not know or care for us. We are indeed “sons”—the word obviously includes “daughters”—specifically “in Christ” who is the “only-begotten” Son.
We are “adopted” sons, not by right but by grace, yet in fact.
The Pope next turns to the famous passage in Luke (12:51) where Christ states that He did not come to put peace on the earth but “division.” Francis tells us that we need to examine the meaning Christ had in mind here. Faith is not a sort of frosting on the cake. “Faith means choosing God as the criterion and basis of life, and God is not empty, God is not neutral.” The age-long experience of Christians is that the truth and the way of life that Jesus taught us to follow both divides and unites.
Those who reject Christ’s teaching separate themselves; those who accept it find themselves in the same world as others who understand and believe it. Francis adds in a powerful phrase: “After Jesus has come into the world it is impossible to act as if we do not know God, or as if he were something that is abstract, empty, a purely nominal reference. No, God has a real face, he has a name.” The fact is, however, that, after Christ came into the world, many people did and do act as it nothing happened.
We read that passage about God having a face and a name. But in the light of the liberal, and even constitutional, notion what we now have a “right” to choose whatever view of the world that we want, it becomes clear that we must reject this view as a form as relativism. Christ, in stating who and what He is, does not intend to divide people. On the other hand, His very affirmation, its truth, requires everyone to take a stand. “Who do you say that I am?” is ultimately a question addressed to everyone, not just to Peter and the Apostles (Mk 8:29).
Is or is not this Christ what He said He was? The denial that Christ is the Son of the Father is not simply a “neutral” statement. It directly challenges the precise revelation that God has chosen for us in His divine plan.
“It is not that Jesus wishes to split people up. On the contrary, Jesus is our peace; he is our reconciliation! But this peace is not the peace of the tomb, it is not neutrality, this peace is not a compromise at all costs.” It is not, in other words, relativism or a multiculturalism that justifies anything just because it is different. When “neutrality” means a studied refusal to make a judgment about the truth or falsity of anything on the grounds that no standards exist, we are dealing with the very denial of what it is to be human—or divine, for that matter.
To follow Christ means “giving up evil and selfishness and choosing good.” Thus it also means that there is such a thing that is good and such a thing that is evil because it lacks some due good. To know that good and evil are not the same is the essence of civilization and stands at the center of human dignity. We know that we can understand the difference, if we only will.
Christ did come to make, or reaffirm, that division between good and evil. It is the denial of that division that causes division. It happens within families, cities, and nations. As the Pope says, “It even cuts the closest ties.” Christ said that His presence would cause strife within families (Lk 12:53). And it has. But it is not “Jesus who creates division! He establishes the criterion: whether to live for ourselves or to live for God and others; to be served or to serve; and to obey one’s own ego or to obey God.” Jesus is, in this sense, a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34).
It is at this point that Pope Francis recalls the truth that “the Gospel does not authorize the use of force to spread the faith.” One cannot read this line without recognizing that, in Islam and other religions and movements, the use of force is often recognized as a legitimate way to spread the ideology. Benedict XVI, in the Regensburg Lecture, directly referred to this same issue. Benedict said that God does not approve the use of violence to spread the faith. But there is no sense in denying the fact that violence has been used, often successfully, in setting up a religion in other lands. Much of the present Muslim world was originally Christian, but was lost by force of arms, by violence. That is simply a fact.
Pope Francis states that it is truth and love that are the proper means of presenting one’s faith and belief. “It involves renouncing all forms of violence. Faith and violence are incompatible. Instead faith and strength go together.” In reading this latter affirmation, one wonders if further distinctions ought not to be made. Yves Simon once pointed out that the term “violence” meant the use of force outside the law. As such, violence was either good or bad; it depended on the situation. The term “violence” meant, properly, use of force in situations outside civilized conditions. Coercion means use of force by legally constituted authorities according to law.
Force or violence may have to be used at times to prevent unjust aggression or attack on human life and goods. Hopefully, more “violence” or “force” is found in the hands of those who use it justly according to law than in the hands of those who do not so use it. Cities and kingdoms are set up in part to assure this position. It is simply not true to say that “violence” or “force” is always illegitimate without proper distinctions about its use and who uses it.
It is correct to say, of course, that the faith should never be spread by “violence,” where the term means the unjust use of force or terror. This unjust use has happened in history, and it happens still today. Violence or force, however, is also sometimes the only way to stop unjust violence from destroying oneself or other innocent people. Police or armies are not always present to protect us. Nor are they always on the side of justice. But when such violence is being used against what is right and peaceful, not to resist it with force is itself a capitulation before unjust force. It allows Machiavelli to win both the territory and the moral grounds.
Part of the Muslim conquest of much of the known world was due to the unpreparedness of Christian armies to stop them. One cannot have “peaceful” dialogues or discussions if the enemy uses force and terror to prevent it. Rational discussion also depends on sufficient use of force and power to allow it to happen. There are those who do everything they can to prevent any such discussion of religion or truth. They need to be constrained by force.
When we say that the spreading of faith means that no “violence” may be used, the word, “violence,” here cannot mean that counter-force cannot be used to prevent the success of such “violence.” We live in a world, including the world of “democracies,” in which violence (and even law) are used to prevent even the presentation of truth and faith to others. If we are to “renounce all forms of violence,” it is incumbent on us to state precisely and accurately just what we mean by violence.
Do we deny any just use of force to defend ourselves or protect the innocent? Do we mean the illegal impositions of our views on others against their wills? Do we mean the use of “violence” in a war of religion in which we declare all opposed to us to be infidels, therefore guilty and worthy of punishment? Do we mean trying to stop such an aggression?
In conclusion, when Christ told us that His presence in the world would often lead to “division,” He was quite right. That is what has happened. The reason for this division is that the essence of civilization is to uphold the distinction of good and evil. They cannot be joined together, as the Pope said, as if they were “neutral” issues so that it made little difference what side we choose. If anything, in our time, Christ becomes a greater sign of contradiction, a greater cause of division as the culture and its members increasingly decide to define what is evil to be good and to live accordingly.
Other states and religions do seek to impose their worldview on us. We can allow our weakness to let them do so. But we cannot defend ourselves by becoming like those for whom the distinction of good and evil is a “neutral” question. We cannot “compromise” everything “at all costs” and expect to remain a free people capable of recognizing and affirming the truth of things. The peace we seek, as the Pope said, is not that of the “tomb” and “it is not neutrality, Jesus does not bring neutrality…”