DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Conversion or Conquest?

Written by: on May 10, 2014

In his award winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond attempts to discuss the history of everyone over the past 13,000 years.[1]  What I most appreciated about this book was Diamond’s attempt to give a history of the World that was not limited to Western history.  This was a welcome change from our readings for last semester.  Diamond appears to take a very secular approach to his work and definitely has a bias (as all authors do), but even this was refreshing to me.  In particular, when discussing the historical development of states, Diamond makes his biases known.  But even as a Christian, I was not offended by our text since all of us need to take an objective look at ourselves and at our history.  And, historically speaking, Christianity has a lot of repenting to do.  At least I know that I do.

As my doctoral research has taken me into the history of Native-American cultures, I have already read much of what Diamond points out in his text.  In his book, Utopian Legacies, John Mohawk discusses the negative influence of Western conquest:

The ideals that are pursued by those in power rarely concern such matters as harmonious relations among peoples or the regeneration of the ecology of a distressed region.  They are almost always ideals that, if pursued, involve some level of dispassion, removal of populations, exploitation, pollution, economic devastation, or other evil.

These tendencies have not existed in every culture of the world or at every moment in history, but it is important to acknowledge that they are major themes – perhaps characterizing themes in Western culture.  Revitalization movements have energized people and have given them permission to commit horrible crimes against humanity in the pursuit of utopia.  The pursuit of the ideal has provided a stream of rationalizations that justified plunder, racism, and oppression in the name of a better future.  The fact that conquests and their reward were acceptable and continue to be celebrated in Western history is a key to the story of how the world came to be the way it is.[2]

So is the task of Christians to “win others to Christ”?  If this is so, then at what cost?  Was it ever in the mind of Jesus that his followers would conquer others?  Was the goal of Jesus to win?  Jared Diamond sees institutional religion as a key ally to the negative practice of Western conquest of tribal peoples.  He (correctly) sees religion throughout history as being a key motivator and justifier for violence against the “heathen.”  Although he is not completely opposed to people of faith (he seems to have some missionary friends), yet he does believe that at least historically speaking government and religion have worked together to “convert” others to their ways of thinking, to their ways of living, and to their ways of believing.  In speaking of the influence that “civilized” societies have had upon tribal populations, Diamond writes:

After the missionaries come teachers and doctors, bureaucrats and soldiers.  The spreads of government and religion have thus been linked to each other throughout recorded history, whether the spread has been peaceful (as eventually with the Fayu) or by force.  In the latter case it is the government that organizes the conquest, and religion that justifies it.  While nomads and tribespeople occasionally defeat organized governments and religions, the trend over the past 13,000 years has been for nomads and tribespeople to lose.[3]

And in his commentary on the historical development of states, Diamond says:

“…part of the reason for states’ triumphs over simpler entities when the two collide is that states usually enjoy the advantage of weaponry and technology, and a large numerical advantage in population.  But there are also two other potential advantages inherent in chiefdoms and states.  First, a centralized decision maker has the advantage of concentrating troops and resources.  Second, the official religions and patriotic fervor of many states make their troops willing to fight suicidally.

The latter willingness is one so strongly programmed into us citizens of modern states, by our schools and churches and governments that we forget what a radical break it marks with previous human history.  Every state has its slogan urging its citizens to be prepared to die if necessary for the state: Britain’s “For King and Country,” Spain’s “Por Dios y España,” and so on.  Similar sentiments motivated 16th-century Aztec warriors: “There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so precious to him [the Aztec national god Huitzilopochtli] who gives life: far off my heart sees it, my heart yearns for it.”

Such sentiments are unthinkable in bands and tribes.  In all the accounts that my New Guinea friends have given me of their former tribal wars, there has not been a single hint of tribal patriotism, of a suicidal charge, or any other military conduct carrying an accepted risk of being killed.  Instead, raids are initiated by ambush or by superior force, so as to minimize at all costs the risk that one might die for one’s village. But that attitude severely limits the military options of tribes, compared with state societies.  Naturally, what makes patriotic and religious fanatics such dangerous opponents is not the deaths of the opponents themselves, but their willingness to accept the deaths of a fraction of their number in order to annihilate or crush their infidel enemy.  Fanaticism in war, of the type that drove recorded Christian and Islamic conquests, was probably unknown on Earth until chiefdoms and especially states emerged within the last 6,000 years.[4]

Conversion or conquest?  This certainly sounds like conquest to me.  So, am I against religion or against Christianity?  Absolutely not!  But I am against violence, especially against any violence done “in the name of the Lord.”  And we Christians cannot deny our violent history.  But not only has there been violence done to the “infidels.”  Christians have also done violence to one another.  The post-reformation Thirty-Years War is a good example of this.  But wars don’t have to only include murder and carnage to be considered violent.  Even in the 21st century, the Church is still known for its ferocity.  Rarely does a day go by that I don’t meet someone who has been hurt by the Church or by well-meaning Christians.  I would venture to say that the largest group of Christians in the world is the one that has left the church for some painful reason – and no denomination is immune from this predicament.  We have all heard the stories or have been part of a story.  When conversion is understood as conquest, there will obviously be a higher rate of attrition among converts.  But is there another way to understand true conversion?

I have been a Christian now for 49 years.  But what does that mean?  How did I “come to faith”?  And how do I bring others to this same faith?  What are my highest priorities as a Christian?  If I am to go into the world and bring the “good news,” what does that look like?  Why are there more Christians on this Earth than any other religion?  How did that come to be?  How is one “converted to Christ”?  What does that look like, and how do I, as a Christian, participate in these “conversions”?

I believe that the work of true conversion is not one that is done by force or by coercion.  True conversion is more dependent on the Holy Spirit than it is on my amazing strategies, my visions for glory, or my own good work.  And what is a person converted from – converted to?  So when is a person “converted”?  Is there a moment in time when a person goes from unconverted to converted, or is it more of a process that happens over time?  These are important questions, ones that (I think) all believers might answer differently.  What I personally know for sure is that I have been through multiple conversions, depending on the season of my life.  The other thing I know about myself is that there have been times when I thought I was going to convert someone to my way of thinking, but that the opposite happened; it was I who was converted to a new way of thinking.  This is a great paradox.  God help us to realize that our greatest concern should not be only worrying about the converting of others to our point of view but that we need to be more concerned about our own conversion to God’s point of view.

What are your thoughts?

[1] Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 1998)

[2] John C. Mohawk, Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 2000) 13-14

[3] Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 1998) 266

[4] Ibid., 281-282

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *