My good friend Michael is worried about his son. He and his family are embarking on a two year mission of passive proselytizing in Azerbaijan. A few weeks ago an acquaintance of mine posted a Facebook comment promoting religious tolerance in regard to the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’. The ensuing comment string was volatile enough to have the discussion withdrawn. This was all vitriol from her friends. Notwithstanding Facebook friendship being by definition a new variation of friend, the old etiquette about not discussing money or religion seems proven valuable. That isn’t an extraordinary conversational tone these days.

On the days after the peculiarities of local 9/11 commemorations it was a struggle for the opprobrium of news coverage. FOX versus Al Jezeera. Hardly anyone believes print anymore. Newspapers, blogs, books are variations of true and false to reinforce what you believe. Our religious dialog doesn’t seem like national expression as much as a series of drunken barroom tirades by screaming television heads. Thoughtfulness isn’t a very highly regarded as a contemporary virtue. One Saturday afternoon I was witness to a group of photographers tracing a GPS map of Vice President Dick Cheney’s face over the open ground surrounding the Menil Museum. At the same time from behind a hedge of bamboo I could hear the amplified voice of a Rabbi deploring the burning of sacred texts. Using my cell phone I photo-documented a satellite directed point of an imaginary shirt collar close enough to the protest of another protest to overhear members of an Ecumenical group praying for tolerance of one another. Somewhere in Gainsville The International Dove church store room awkwardly housed a couple hundred Qu’rans and a banner that designated 9/11”Burn a Koran Day”.

Anti-Islamic sentiment seems free flowing, popular and restrained about as much as cursing in front of children. Islam-o-facists, Extreme Islam, ect. are common parlance on public airwaves and hardly attracts anything but an approving shrug. It’s infotainment. This kind of prejudice is an example of an acceptable behavior from a dominant group towards a minority. I recognize this because I come from a long tradition of religious extremists; I was raised in a Roman Catholic Slovak parish in the 1950s.

I went to Mass every day. I memorizied my prayers  in Latin, English and Slovak. I learned how to burn frankincense in a censer. Our Christmas hymns were strange beautifully inintelligible atonal chants. No woman or girl entered my church without having her head covered.  Fasting was seasonal and commonplace. To eat meat on Friday was to purchase an eternal ticket to Hell. My pastor wore a cassock and biretta fashionable in the 11th Century while riding in his Chrysler Imperial. Nuns dressed in habits one veil shy of a birka taught in my parochial school and struck students with impunity if they didn’t learn. Our church community was insular, both protected and embarrassed by its other worldly character. We felt selected by God, but persecuted by a barbarous world that ate steaks on Friday, went to movies on Sunday and looked at the clergy we respected as side show freaks. I empathize with my Islamic brothers and sisters. America hasn’t always been a tolerant country; Christians haven’t always been a tolerant people.

The Roman Empire reached its peak under the Emperor Trajan around 112 AD. A century later on October 12, 312 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine saw a glowing “in hoc signo vinces” before the Battle of Maxentius. His vision transformed the symbolic Cross of the Christ from lamblike surrender to sacrifice into a battle standard. Within seventy years the Roman Empire effectively became the Holy Roman Empire, but the romance of persecuted Christians continued.

The most melodramacizied Christian persecutions were those by the cinematically affected Emperor Nero following the Great Fire in Rome in 64AD. The reality was at that time Romans regarded Christians as one troublesome sect among troublesome sects of Judaism. The Roman Army was engaged in an unsuccessful “paxification” of Palestine that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It was also around this time that Gospel of John was completed. It features the prophetic “ …destroy this temple and in three days…” [John 2:19], as well as predicting the martyrdoms of the apostles Peter, James and John. Not disputing the nature of inspiration, these are prophesies of events that had already happened by the time the Greek text was compiled. For many theological historians the cult of martyrdom and instantaneous heaven had its origins during that era.

Third Century hagiographies of Christian martyrdom under the Emperor Diocletian note that the persecutions actually began as an attack on Manicheans, followers of Mani. Mani was a Persian prophet who combined the teachings of Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. St. Augustine was at one point in his life a Manichean.

Spurred by reading bird entrails, Diocletian shifted his persecutions to Christians known as the “Great Persecutions”. The murders took place primarily in Antioch, not in Roman coliseums. The “Great Persecution” lasted approximately twenty-five years. Roman officials did provide an option for Christians to surrender their scriptures to be burned instead of having their tongues ripped out, or any of the plethoras of cruelties otherwise awaiting them.  Early Church historian Eusebius reported that some Christians willingly sought out martyrdom.

Diocletian committed suicide in 311AD.

In 313AD Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire.

By 380 Theodosius declared Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The history of Christians persecuting other Christians began within the same year.

The politically empowered Christians began persecuting heretic sects including Arians, Danists, those Christians who had surrendered their Scripture during the Great Persecution, and, of course, Manicheans.

By 381 pagan sacrifices were forbidden under pain of death.

Within a decade Christians had by law co-opted Roman holidays and began destroying temples and replacing them with churches.

If all of this seems ironic, it should. Theocracies, like revolutions, tend to be harsh and inhumane because of their radical dependence on an exclusive orthodoxy. Consider some of the extravagant history of the seven Crusades. Christianity’s march as if to war.

The Crusades began with a call from Constantinople for rescue from the Seljuk Turks. Constantinople was to the late Middle Ages what New York City was to the Twentieth Century ; it was the new Rome. The capital of the deteriorating Byzantine Empire, it was an exotic, tolerant marketplace where vast wealth accumulated and changed hands. Roman Christians, Moslems, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Vikings, even Manicheans, all found ways to moderate religious differences for the sake of trade.

In 1056 the Eastern and Roman Churches split ostensibly over the theological doctrine of “filioque”,i.e., whether the Eucharist should be made of leavened or unleavened bread (still unresolved). In 1071Seljuk Turks, under Alp Arslan, defeated the Byzantine Army at Manzikret and took control of Anatolia (which became modern Turkey). The Seljuk Turks, who descended from the Central Asian Tartars had already conquered Persia and Bagdad under the rationale of reclaiming the empire of Mohamed. Anatolia had been the eastern half of the Byzantine Empire that merely fifty years before provided safe passage for pilgrims and traders to Jerusalem. In 1096 Pope Urban II promised heaven to any man or woman who died helping Emperor Alexius I recover the Byzantine Empire from the Seljuk Turks.

Hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Europeans dressed themselves with red crosses and became “Crusaders”. In the first year Peter the Hermit, among others, led pious, but disenfranchised, mobs across Europe chanting “God Wills It!” They looted their way along their ill-planned pilgrimage east. Thousands of Jewish people were robbed and massacred in the Rhine. Christian Hungarian cities were besieged for their supplies. When this People Army arrived at Constantinople, a large portion was promptly slaughtered by the Turkish Army in their first encounter.

Meanwhile French and Norman nobility were borrowing money from Venice and Genoa to equip troops and arrange passage by sea. The reality that Constantinople could no longer defend its empire meant all of its real estate was on the market to anyone with a private army equipped to take it.When they arrived the Crusades began in earnest. Crusaders who came to support Emporer Alexius found it easier to capture territory than to return liberated land to Constantinople. They wanted to establish private fiefdoms both in this world and the next, typical of this group of Soldiers of Christ was Bohemund of Normandy. 

Bohemund was part of the army of European nobles who laid siege to Antioch. After a long siege, both sides were facing starvation. Remnant pilgrims from the People’s Army were given over to cannibalism. Finally the citadel gate of the Two Sisters was opened by a bribed Armenian with a grievance. Slaughter ensued. Bohemund along with Tancred and Robert of Normandy occupied the city and its palaces.

However nearly immediately they were trapped inside Antioch under siege from the late arriving Islamic relief army led by Kerbogha. Desertions ensued.

Faced with more starvation and an overwhelming military force, the Crusaders were  miraculously directed to find lost pieces of the “Holy Lance” that pierced the side of Jesus. Relic inspired  the Crusaders went to battle reporting widespread visions of Sts. George, Demetrius and Maurice. Turkish desertions ensued. After a short brutal battle, Antioch remained in the hands of Bohemund.

Having secured the city, Bohemund wrote to the Pope, was relieved of his vow to return Byzantine lands to Alexius, and had himself declared Prince of Antioch. His crusade ended in profit. He wasn’t alone, Crusaders continued gaining, regaining and losing territory for centuries. Jerusalem was only briefly under Christian control.  Byzantium disappeared. Throughout there was a steady flow of treasure. It wasn’t until 1798 when Napoleon dispossessed the Knights of Malta from their island fortress that the last Crusaders left.

The First Crusade brought martyrdom on both sides that was beyond medieval methods of calculation.

Estimates range between one to five million European casualties.

 300,000 people were killed at the Siege of Nicea.

100,000 Moslems were massacred after the Fall of Antioch.

100,000 Christians were killed at the Fall of Acre.

These numbers are nearly incomprehensible, but not unprecedented in the history of religious warfare.

Following missionaries Spanish Conquistadors left between 10-15 million corpses before the Americas accepted the Peace of Christ.

Bernal Diaz in his description of Aztec human sacrifice reported that he found 136,000 human skulls neatly racked in Tenochitlan.

The Sixteenth Century French Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots left three million dead.

While the US was engaged in its bloodiest conflict, the Civil War [750,000 casualties],the Taiping Revolt in China left an estimated 20,000,000 people dead as Hong Xiuquan attempted to establish a Christian-like “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”.

The knowledge and innovations of the Twentieth Century theocracies added only more efficient brutality and the cruel irony of merciless state religions of Atheism.

Churches have been burned, temples destroyed, shrines defaced, icons stolen. The blood of martyrs and heretics seems a constant flood to water deserts, fields, forests, and cities. Judeao-Christian, Islamic, and Hindu texts are embroidered with tales of battle, territorial wars and divine battle plans. Buddhism came to Tibet at the point of a sword (and appears to be leaving the same way). Mohamed came to Mecca leading a conquering army. Arjuna received his enlightenment from Krishna the night before a horrific battle.

We’ve learned to expect excess in religious wars, probably as much as we’ve learned to accept religious wars. Organized religion can often be a mitigating force in cultures bringing virtue, commonwealth and generosity, but its shadow theology also provides a system for rationalizing the widespread murder and torture that is a violation of the precepts of nearly all religious thought. Faith is private and irrational; we all have to believe in something. Faith by governmental decree seems at best hypocritical and in light of history, dangerous. The difference between a Christian Nation and a nation of Christians is more than a grammatical revision.

I’m not much of a history repeats itself believer. That seems merely entertainment to pass a long car drive ,or a way to twist a few historical sinews into a propagandistic Frankenstein.  We’re not acting as Crusaders or even pilgrims when we burn books, vandalize mosques or condone the slander entire religions without even a cursory pretext of understanding. In spite of our fears we are required to consider from past religious wars is the horrific scale of casulties embraced by pious, intolerant people.

So if people want to look to artificial stars to guide them to face a version of a father war god, or amplify their voices to speak to no one, they seem more rational to me than flying planes into buildings, detonating  C-40 vests or occupying countries. I appreciate religious art, cathedrals, mosques and shrines. If religious battles for supremacy must be waged, I suggest architecture. In the long history of religious war, I haven’t encountered any that have been won or glorified their dieties.  Being religious , or spiritual doesn’t relieve us of responsibility. We are responsible for what we know. We’re responsible for what we permit. We are responsible for what we believe; it isn’t responsible for us.