On why Christians tortured people

Nick Spencer explains how coercion came to seem ok to some Christians – and the irony of that.



Nick Spencer explains how coercion came to seem ok to some Christians – and the irony of that.


In one sense, the reason why Christian history contains so much coercion in there is simply because it has been so unchristian. And that will strike some people as a slippery answer – but it’s true. Now, there is an irony, to put it very mildly, in following the Prince of Peace, who explicitly abjures violence, violently.

So that’s one straightforward answer: it hasn’t been very Christian. The more kind of detailed answer is that, the way the Christian mind works – and certainly drawing on some of Augustine’s teaching about how one should deal with heretics – was that salvation is of ultimate and complete, infinite importance. And therefore, however much pain, coercive pain, you put on somebody here, it will be outweighed by the glory you have won them.

So you’re putting a simple equation there: you have eternal life and glory and so on and so forth, and a little bit of … judicial torture, shall we say. So if I’m going to win your eternal salvation by a little bit of coercion, a little bit of judicial violence, you will thank me in the end, because I’ve saved you. And if you add to that fact your heretical views are actually a threat to us orthodox people over here, so by coercing you I am also protecting us, well, it makes a lot of sense. It might not be very pleasant for you, but ultimately you and we will be grateful for it. That’s a kind of mentality that Christianity – in fact, any purely ideological, if you like – viewpoint lends itself to.

QUESTION: It is, nonetheless, you would say, a contradiction?

It’s a profound contradiction, but it’s one of those ways in which, if you don’t root your Christianity in Christ, you soon drift away. You can, through certain internal kind of logical moves and arguments, gradually move towards conclusions that when you look back happen to be a very long way away from where you started.