You may have heard it said that in the history of the human race, religion has been the cause of war more than anything else. Honestly, I do not believe that. As an amateur student of world history, I think land has been the biggest reason for war between peoples.
Whatever the biggest reason has been, I think we all can agree that religion has been a major cause of conflict, both on an international level and a very personal level. I would guess that every person reading this column has at one point or another been in conflict with another over religion. It happens, and it happens a lot.
From the Christian perspective, we know that conflict over religion was inevitable, because Jesus said it would be so! “Do not suppose that my mission on earth is to spread peace. My mission is to spread, not peace, but division. I have come to set a man at odds with his father, a daughter with her mother, a daughter-in-law with her mother-in-law. In short, to make a man’s enemies those of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36). Pretty amazing words from the Prince of Peace!
So how do we make sense of this seemingly out of character quote from Jesus?
First I would like to say this: Religious arguments can be a good thing. In fact, I think we need more religious arguments, because religion has become such a private affair, when it should be anything but private. Everyone who knows us should clearly know that we are Catholic. It should be obvious, and if it is not, then we have some work to do.
So how is it that arguments over religion can be a good thing? Let’s look at the basic definition of an argument. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an argument is “a discussion of different points of view; debate.”
If our faith and religion are among the things we hold most sacred, then we should want to argue about them with people who have a different viewpoint. But what is most central, and what is most important to be aware of, is why would we argue religion?
The very worst reason to argue about religion is to win an argument. If that is your intent when engaging in an argument, then shut your mouth and walk away. The last thing an argument over religion should be is a contest to victory. So if that is what you do, stop. An argument over religion should be a free-flowing sharing of ideas in which we try to offer a logical counterpoint so as to win someone over to Christ.
When Jesus said those words that I quoted above, conflict was not his purpose, but he knew it would happen as a result of his coming. He is the Prince of Peace, and he wants all to accept him, but he also knows that many will reject him, and that will cause conflict. Think of all the conflicts you have had in your life due to your believing in Jesus and the church he founded.
So arguing about religion is a good thing, as long as we do it in charity and with the sole purpose bringing people into relationship with Christ and his church. We should argue religion because we love the person we are arguing with! And if we love that person, that means we will necessarily argue with charity.
One of my closest friends has become Pastor Peter Kowitz of United Lutheran Church in Proctor. Our whole relationship as friends is based on healthy debate and even argumentation. He has been my sparring partner in the Theology Uncapped series held in Duluth every three months for the past couple of years. I bludgeon him in our discussions, but we do it in faith and charity, and the funny thing is that he thinks he bludgeons me! But we have become great friends because of debate and argumentation.
So ask yourself, when you are tempted to get into a religious argument: Will the argument help or hurt your relationship? It is important to know the answer to that question.
The fact is we need more arguments about religion, and if we never had them, where would we be? It is how Christianity spread in the first place! “Paul entered the synagogue, and for three months debated boldly with persuasive arguments about the Kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]