Priests in a public brawl inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem captured broad public attention around Christmastime. Photos of priests, dressed in cassocks, hitting one another with sticks and brooms, and throwing stones at one another, have appeared in newspapers around the world.
This image of priests fighting inside a church is a symbol, a picture that captures centuries of religious misunderstanding and scandalous ways of handling religious differences. Religious differences continue to fuel similar hostilities throughout the world. In the face of this scandalous reality, decent religious persons have to pause and ask: Are there not better ways of relating to one another and handling religious differences?
Christianity, over the centuries, has split into thousands of different denominations and communities. The fighting priests were from two Eastern Orthodox communities: Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox. Together with Roman Catholic priests, they administer the Church of the Nativity which was built over a grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born. Each religious group claims control over a certain section of the shrine, separated one from another by lines drawn on the floor of the church.
Priests fighting inside a church creates a powerful portrait of the whole Christian world. Thousands of different churches are separated one from another by lines drawn not on a floor but on a text, or on a theological conviction, or on a geographical territory. The differences are between Western and Eastern Christianity, Roman and Orthodox Catholics, Anglican and Continental Protestants, etc., etc. The fighting priests symbolize the world-wide fragmentation of Christianity and the scandalously hostile way different groups relate to one another.
The Church divisions and associated hostilities have taken place over the long history of Christianity. The earliest divisions took place between the first followers of Jesus and groups of gnostics. The Eastern-Western split began with Constantine in the early 4th century. The Eastern churches were never centralized the way they were in the West. Instead of a Roman pontiff who ruled over communities in many different geographic areas, Eastern Orthodox bishops of a capital city ruled over other bishops and the church in an ethnic area (Armenia, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Ukrainia, etc.).
Some Eastern churches are united with Rome but most are not. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests who were engaged in the public fight were not responsible to any single church authority. The fighting that took place in Bethlehem symbolizes the long historical fragmentation of Eastern Christianity and the split between Eastern and Roman Catholics.
For Christians in the West, fragmentation of the church began during the Renaissance because of corruption within the papal system of government. Certain reformers decided to break away from Rome rather than carry out reform within the whole Western Church. One break-away reform took place on the British Isles and was closely bound up with the British monarchy beginning with Henry VIII (Anglican Reformation). A different reform movement took place at different locations on the European continent. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others were the major reformers and their churches were united with rulers in different geographic areas.
In every case there were lines drawn, followed by extensive fighting and killing. The Reformation Movement which began in the early 16th century, over the years split into thousands of different churches. The priests fighting inside the church in Bethlehem create a shocking image from which all Christians can learn something important. What the priests were doing is what Catholics and Protestants have been doing for centuries. It’s time to recognize this shocking reality and to do something about it.
Who will speak for the millions of innocent men, women and children who have been victims of this violence over the long history of Christianity? When will some courageous members of the different Christian communities stand up and announce: “Enough is enough. We have had enough fighting, killing, criticizing, proving who is right and drawing of lines. The priests fighting with one another is a scandal and so are the on-going religious battles, competitions, criticisms, prejudices. All this is scandalous because the moral core of Christianity is: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
After so much fighting, where are the peace builders? Where are the new images and the non-violent symbols of Christianity? Some peace builders are out there. They need ordinary people from all the different congregations in order to fill their ranks and expand an ecumenical interdenominational campaign for peace and reconciliation. Enough is enough. Love is what counts.
Drane is Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.