Religion as Conflict


Here is an interesting little historical story:
Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli were two theologians who disagreed vehemently with each other. Point of contention: the interpretation of Christ’s statement that “This is my body” uttered at Holy Eucharist.
Zwingli argued that “This is my body” should be understood in a metaphorical sense, and should not be connotative of the actual presence of Christ in the bread. It “should not be understood naturally, but figuratively,” he wrote.
Luther, on the other hand, said, “Our adversary says that mere bread and wine are present, not the body and blood of the Lord. If they believe and teach wrong here, then they blaspheme God are giving the lie to the Holy Spirit, betray Christ, and seduce the world…” For Luther the Eucharist was a co-union (communion) with the divine, an act of eating categorically different than eating any other physical substance.
Luther and Zwingli met to confer over their differences in 1529. Reconciliation between the two proved impossible, and their disregard for the other did not diminish in the least. (Their inability to resolve this debate civilly was indicative of the split between Lutherans and Protestants, which exists to this day.)
Another theologian of the time, John Calvin, was enraged by the lack of respect between the two. For Calvin, such antagonism between believers could not be representative of the love of Christ. He wrote:

“Both parties failed together to have patience to listen to each other, in order to follow truth without passion, wherever it might be found. I deliberately venture to assert that, if their minds had not been partly exasperated by the extreme vehemence of the controversies, the disagreement was not so great that conciliation could easily have been achieved.”

Calvin sounds like an angel in this context. Not so fast. Despite his disillusionment with Luther and Zwingli’s hatred for each other, he himself had an adversary in a man named Michael Servetus. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Calvin said, “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”
This was much more than an empty threat. On October 27, 1553 John Calvin approved the execution (burning at the stake) of Michael Servetus as a heretic. What was Servetus’ crime? He did not believe that the teaching of Trinity (God as Three Persons) was biblical.
Calvin’s murderous antics make the squabble between Luther and Zwingli look beautifully harmless in comparison. At least nobody got executed over that discussion; it was just a major church split.
Now for the best part of the story.
Zwingli, Luther’s nemesis, wrote:

Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.

Here is an excerpt of a prayer by Martin Luther:

May God bestow on us his grace and favor
To please him with our behavior
And live together here in love and union

Here is a clip from a sermon by John Calvin himself:

Therefore, you must be gentle with others. Now, this is not only for God’s service but also out of common charity which ought to be applied between neighbours, whether or not they are subordinate to us.

It is extremely easy to be a watchdog for hypocrisy; using these theologian’s own writings “against” themselves is admittedly a rather juvenile act of rhetoric. However, this is the point I want to make: Religion will always be a case study in hypocrisy. This is because the ideal of religion is harmony but the practice of debating theology is dissonance. Thus religion is  intrinsically orientated around conflict/debate because it is inherently subjective.
The unavoidable conundrum of religion is that it is an argument about how to achieve unity.

One thought on “Religion as Conflict

  1. Fascinating history and strong insight on a subject that, by the nature you pointed out, is inherently “touchy”. Yet, you manage to make that point with a level of compassion and grace so rarely found today. Kudos.

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