Religious discussion these days often lacks nuance. Luckily, historian David Nirenberg of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought has plenty to spare for the rest of us. He recently reviewed Michael Gaddis’s new book, There Is No Crime For Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, in the New Republic (paid subscription required). Nirenberg writes:

“The point of Michael Gaddis’s book is surely not that Christianity has a propensity for violence, or that its professions of love are hypocritical. Its point is simpler, more banal, and, although it is mentioned almost in passing, much more important: that ‘Christian scripture and doctrine contained the basis both for violence and for the condemnation of violence.’ The same could be said of every rich scriptural tradition in the world. The great Christian theologians of late antiquity seem not to have forgotten this ambivalence; and neither, at a time when religions are again beginning to test their moral muscles against one another, should we.”

If that’s too judicious for you, there are always the words of the bishop Optatus, writing in the 300s:

“For this is the voice of God, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and this is the same God’s voice, ‘If a man is found sleeping with a woman who has a husband, you shall kill both.’ One God and two contending voices. When Phinehas, son of a priest, found an adulterer with an adulteress, he raised his hand with his weapon, and stood uncertain between the two voices of God. If he struck, he would sin; if he did not strike, he would fail in duty. He chose the better sin, to strike the blow.”

Ambivalence is one secret of Christianity’s prevalence: one God, many contradictory ideas.