“We Were Motivated by Religion”


After an initial interrogation of alleged Boston Marathon bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, officials have ascertained that he was in fact “motivated by religion.” It appears that he was an ardent reader of jihadist propaganda in the anti-American vein of Islam. Currently unable to speak, on account of gunshot wounds to his throat, Tsarnaev has started to reveal his religious commitments by writing down answers for investigators. Meanwhile, as the story unfolds, headlines across the nation are highlighting the motivation for his evil crime: “religion.”

What does religion have to do with violence anyhow? Quite a lot, it turns out. Ever since Cain killed Able, human history has witnessed a pattern of holy war in which spiritual decisions were countenanced at the end of a sword. Muslim jihadists are perhaps “Exhibit A” in today’s world, but it wasn’t very long ago that Christendom was famous for its own examples. It was only as recent as 1965, we should remember, when the Catholic Church finally issued its encyclical, Dignitatis Humanae, in which the Church spells out its opposition to religious coercion in support of liberty.

The headline, “Motivated by Religion,” against the backdrop of human history, will naturally lead some to identify all forms of religious commitment as potentially dangerous. The syllogism is fairly straightforward: religious fundamentalism of any kind is bent on creating a theocracy in keeping with its narrow doctrine; culture is moving in a different direction from such religious fanatics; therefore, we can expect to see more religious extremism. Whether it is an attempt to establish Sharia law, opposing a woman’s free choice to abort a baby, or denying homosexuals the right to marry, religious conviction is often indiscriminately lumped into the same category and labeled as “dangerous.”

So how should followers of Christ respond to this concern? It is at this point that the biblical notion of dying to self is so crucial. Yes, Jesus came to “bring the sword” (Matt 10:34) in a sort of holy war, but it’s certainly not the kind that exacts violence upon others. It is, rather, directed at our sinful selves. Our Lord said, “Put to death the deeds of the flesh” (Rom 8:13); “Present yourselves as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12”1); “Overcome evil with good (Rome 12:21). Having been “crucified with Christ,” Paul the Apostle exclaims in Galatians 2:20, men and women in Christ life by faith, with their lives consecrated for the sake of God’s grace and peace. Indeed, this is a rather different model of holy war. I like how the late John Stott stated it:

Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, “I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.” Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is here, at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our true size.[1]

The cross instills brokenness and humility, not triumphalism. Precisely because our identities have been crucified with Christ, we operate from a place of weakness and humility. This is the Christian way, and it is the very thing that distinguishes genuine Christianity. To understand this pattern, we must look to Jesus, the One who washed his disciples’ feet in John 13, and, ultimately, who went to the cross to shed his own blood. This is the motivation of religion; it’s not dominance but love.

Here is our motivation. It is Jesus. By humbly looking to his cross, we are poised to advance his kingdom of peace.

[1] John Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 179.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Dear Chris,

    Thank you for your post helping us to understand the distinctiveness of being Christians in contemporary culture. Just a couple of things though. I don’t mean to be a stickler but—as I am sure you agree—it is important to be accurate. Although it was put into effect by a formal public announcement of Paul VI—and hence promulgated–Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom, December 7, 1965) is not an encyclical, but one of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) –http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html.

    Furthermore, I am puzzled by your statement about the Catholic Church and religious freedom. What exactly do you mean by stating, “It was only as recent as 1965, we should remember, when the Catholic Church finally issued its encyclical [sic], Dignitatis Humanae, in which the Church spells out its opposition to religious coercion in support of liberty.” Are you suggesting that the Church only affirmed for the first time as late as 1965 that “no one is to be coerced into faith”? What do you mean by “spells out its opposition to religious coercion”? That the Church was in favor of religious coercion before 1965? Here’s what Dignitatis Humanae states:

    “In faithfulness therefore to the truth of the Gospel [see no. 11 for the Council’s biblical justification for religious freedom], the Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes and gives support to the principle of religious freedom as befitting the dignity of man and as being in accord with divine revelation. Throughout the ages the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine received from the Master and from the apostles. In the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm. Thus the leaven of the Gospel has long been about its quiet work in the minds of men, and to it is due in great measure the fact that in the course of time men have come more widely to recognize their dignity as persons, and the conviction has grown stronger that the person in society is to be kept free from all manner of coercion in matters religious” (no. 12).

    In this passage, the document recognizes not only that the Church has not always lived up faithfully to the spirit of the Gospel in regard to religious liberty, indeed, her actions at times opposed it, but also that its deep, long-held conviction that no one is to be coerced into faith gradually over time took a deeper hold on the Church such that she now can say unequivocally: “The declaration of this Vatican Council on the right of man to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person, whose exigencies have come to be are fully known to human reason through centuries of experience. What is more, this doctrine of freedom has roots in divine revelation, and for this reason Christians are bound to respect it all the more conscientiously” (no. 9).

    You might ask in response: Didn’t the popes (Pius IX and Leo XII) of the nineteenth-century reject religious liberty? To answer this question properly we would need to consider the development of Catholic teaching on church and state relations, in which the key issue is the matter of religious freedom. For our purpose here, suffice it to note the historical context in which the Church rejected “modern liberties” such as religious freedom. The Church was rejecting–and still rejects–the false philosophy presupposed by secularists of the absolute autonomy of the self, of human reason and will; she rejected the religious subjectivism, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism implied by secularism, restricting religion to the private realm, and to freedom of worship. “Modern liberties” were taken to be absolute and limitless such that rights were unhinged from their corresponding obligations either toward truth or the common good or even toward our fellow man. “Yet,” Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher, correctly notes in 1951, “that does not mean that the ‘modern liberties’ soundly understood are to be denied. And that does not prevent the Church from putting forward today such freedoms as freedom of conscience, freedom of teaching, etc.” (Man and the State, 180-181). That is exactly what happened in the twentieth-century. The Church reformed its understanding of “modern liberties” by the retrieval of the truth of Biblical revelation and reason regarding human dignity, and renewal of her teaching followed.

    One last point. I know you didn’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between Islamic jihadism and Christendom (i.e., the Catholic Church). Even today I doubt whether you could find many Islamic countries that would affirm what the nineteenth-century English Churchman, Henry Cardinal Edward Manning already fully affirmed in his 1875 work, The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance wrote: “If Catholics were in power tomorrow in England,” Cardinal Manning wrote, “not a penal law would be proposed, not the shadow of a constraint put upon the faith of any man. We would that all men fully believed the truth; but a forced faith is a hypocrisy hateful to God and man. . . . If the Catholics were tomorrow the ‘Imperial race’ in these kingdoms they would not use political power to molest the divided and hereditary religious state of the people. We would not shut one of their Churches, or Colleges, or Schools. They would have the same liberties we enjoy as a minority” (93-96). Has the Church always been faithful to this biblical teaching and truth of reason regarding religious freedom. No, that is why the Church is committed to the principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est. Thanks again for reminding us that the motivation of the Christian is not dominance but love–humbly looking to the cross of Christ in order to advance the Gospel of peace, reconciliation, and truth.

  2. Thanks, Ed. I understand that D.H. came from Vat II. I used the wrong word when I called it an “encyclical.” Thanks for the correction. As for the problem of religious coercion in the history of Western Christianity, I had in mind inquisitions over the centuries. That the church ceased to use such tactics earlier than 1965 is of course true; my point is that it wasn’t until D.H. when such a position was made so explicit. It’s rather remarkable that it took so long.

  3. Thanks, Chris. You speak in such generalties about “inquisitions over the centuries.” Let me refer you to an article by historian Thomas F. Madden, “the Truth about the Spanish Inquisition” (http://catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0075.html). Madden is professor and chairman of the department of history at St. Louis University. Here’s a particularly important passage from this article: “One of the most enduring myths of the Inquisition is that it was a tool of oppression imposed on unwilling Europeans by a power-hungry Church. Nothing could be more wrong. In truth, the Inquisition brought order, justice, and compassion to combat rampant secular and popular persecutions of heretics. When the people of a village rounded up a suspected heretic and brought him before the local lord, how was he to be judged? How could an illiterate layman determine if the accused’s beliefs were heretical or not? And how were witnesses to be heard and examined? The medieval Inquisition began in 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent a list of heresies to Europe’s bishops and commanded them to take an active role in determining whether those accused of heresy were, in fact, guilty. Rather than relying on secular courts, local lords, or just mobs, bishops were to see to it that accused heretics in their dioceses were examined by knowledgeable churchmen using Roman laws of evidence. In other words, they were to “inquire” – thus, the term “inquisition.”
    Most people accused of heresy by the medieval Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentence suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely departed out of hostility to the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to the secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Church did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.

    As the power of medieval popes grew, so too did the extent and sophistication of the Inquisition. The introduction of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the early 13th century provided the papacy with a corps of dedicated religious willing to devote their lives to the salvation of the world. Because their order had been created to debate with heretics and preach the Catholic faith, the Dominicans became especially active in the Inquisition. Following the most progressive law codes of the day, the Church in the 13th century formed inquisitorial tribunals answerable to Rome rather than local bishops. To ensure fairness and uniformity, manuals were written for inquisitorial officials. Bernard Gui, best known today as the fanatical and evil inquisitor in The Name of the Rose, wrote a particularly influential manual. There is no reason to believe that Gui was anything like his fictional portrayal.

    By the 14th century, the Inquisition represented the best legal practices available. Inquisition officials were university-trained specialists in law and theology. The procedures were similar to those used in secular inquisitions (we call them “inquests” today, but it’s the same word).”

    Worth reading.
    All the best,

  4. Thanks, Ed, Sorry for the quick response. It is not born out of disinterest. Yes I recognize the reduction that happens in the name of “inquisition.” Wars of religion, political antagonism and violence in the name of Christ… the spirit of the inquisition is a long and rather embarrassing part of our history. Protestants should blush as much as Catholics. This is what I was referring to in the above context.

    Please pardon me if I’m not able to respond to your comments. Like I said, it’s not disinterest. This is an extraordinary period for the Castaldo family. Thanks, Ed.

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