“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.

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