It’s a cruel riddle. Virtually all religions teach tolerance and love. And yet, for centuries men of all religious backgrounds have committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of God. If Sept. 11, 2001, underscored the dangers of extremist views, it also revealed a deep, complex web of historical, political and economic factors that forces us to reexamine not only the world outside our own borders, but the uncharted territories of our own hearts as well, and to address once again an old question: Will we ever stop killing one another in the name of religion?
In search of perspectives on this question, we approached eight faculty members from four faith traditions—Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu.
Joseph Bracken, S.J., Jesuit priest, professor of theology and former director of the Brueggeman Center for Interreligious Dialogue
My only answer would be we’ve got to change our concept of God. If the prevailing concept of God allows us to, commit violence to one another in God’s name, there’s something wrong with our concept of God. The Christian understanding of God is that of a God of love. We find the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Christ was explicitly non-violent. He refused to use violence to save his own life, and many theologians would argue that the most important revelation of the nature of God given to us by Jesus was his suffering on the cross, his self-giving love for others. Rather than exerting violence to overpower people, he was going to persuade them by total self-giving both to the will of his father as he understood it, and to assist his fellow human beings to overcome their passion for domination and control.
If you read the Gospel narrative, you’ve got the very best portrayal of a man of peace. And it is interesting, in the early Christian centuries, Christians did not serve in the armed forces of the Roman Empire. Some of that seems to have been pacifism, or something very close to it. Then when Christianity became an officially recognized religion, all of a sudden the bishops said, “Well, we’ve got to defend ourselves.” That’s not to say that they endorsed every kind of violence, but the just-war theory came out of a kind of linkage of church and state.
Now I should also add that I’m not a pure pacifist in the sense that, at least right now, I don’t think you can just disarm the police, disband the military and expect things to suddenly get better. Right now I think we have to use the ideal of pacifism to control the violence. It’s an admission that you can’t have the best, and you might have to settle just simply for the good, which is a real effort to restrain violence, even in the name of something good and worthwhile.
I also think we should start critiquing our own media and their preoccupation with stories of violence. Prime-time television, movies, even newspapers are certainly glorifying violence, or at least rendering it routine so that it’s no longer an exceptional reality or an outrage. I think that clearly has to be addressed, that we are living in a culture of violence, which in some ways is media-inspired, and which desensitizes us to violence. It has to be the extraordinary act of violence that catches our attention anymore.
Yaffa Eliach, Jewish scholar from Lithuania and 2003 Brueggeman Chair
Yes. I’m a great believer in human beings. God gave us a choice. I said it years ago—that we would never have a terrible event in America if we would teach properly about togetherness and about life. I didn’t know it would be Sept. 11, but I was afraid that something would happen because I felt that we are not properly presenting important material. In my research I’m always looking for the positive elements that existed between Jews an non-Jews, because people always focus only on the negative elements.
For instance, when they teach about Jews in Europe, mostly it’s centered on the confrontations that existed between Jews and non-Jews. And in my book (There Once Was a World) and in my teaching, I show just the opposite. I show how they were also together. And it’s extremely important to see that for hundreds and hundreds of years, people were together. Of course there were problems, but we also must teach about the positive elements, how even there were laws in Judaism, that when Christians were poor in your vicinity, make sure to give them money for a wedding so their daughter can get married, just like it was for the Jewish people. And people don’t know about that; it’s not presented.
I was a small child during the Holocaust, and saw the murder of most of my family and so many other people—even after liberation my mother was murdered with my baby brother. My father had a tremendous affect on me. He was an exceptional person. Even in the most difficult times, he always focused on positive elements. When my mother was killed, my father helped the Russians find the White Poles who killed her so that they could be brought to trial. Then he was arrested by the Russians because he was a Zionist and Jewish. I was going to be 7 years old, and a Russian Cardinal we took me to the jail to say goodbye to my father. And my father said to me, “My child, you must remember the terrible murder that you saw. But my child, you should know that in Judaism, life is the center. You must focus on life, you must learn, and you must love good people.” And in the most difficult times, my father’s statement about life would always come to my mind, that indeed, you must always focus on life. We must focus on togetherness, not only on the confrontations and death.
In 1979 we were in Krakow, and we were in the synagogue. A man stood up and he said. “God is responsible for the suffering of the Holocaust, not people.” I said, “No, God gave us human beings the possibility of choices. That is why this is wonderful that God made us human beings different from anything else—that we have a choice.”
Paul Knitter, professor emeritus of theology and internationally known Catholic author, lecturer and peace advocate
I don’t know if we’ll ever come to a full halt, but I sure as hell hope that there can be less of such killing. I have reason to hope because I think at the heart of every religion is the message that we are called to and capable of higher things, that the state that we are in doesn’t have to stay the way it is. It can be different. But if it’s going to be so, it’s going to require my cooperation.
While religion has been a source of violence and hatred and a source of war, I think it has a greater potential to be a source of unity and compassion and concern for each other. And I’d say that even if you could prove to me—I don’t think you can do this—that the amount of hatred or the amount of killing religions have justified is greater than the amount love, I would still believe that it’s because we haven’t listened to the message of Buddha and Mohammed and Jesus.
And when you say, “Why should we expect that people will listen to them more than they have in the past?” I say, “Because we’re in such a mess.” I mean, we’re threatening the ecosystem. We’re dealing with terrorists now who can maybe carry around nuclear weapons in briefcases. I think maybe the kind mess we’re in might be an occasion to listen a bit more carefully to what these very wise people have told us.
We’ve got recognize that while in the past our religious traditions have invoked and justified violence, we now have to ask whether we can continue, whether that is still God’s will. It calls for a new way of interpreting our scriptures. In other words to say what was said in the Bible at one time may have, in some way which we can’t understand, been justifiable. But we can’t justify it today, and it’s no longer what God wants us to do. It calls for a new way of interpreting the Bible.
I believe that despite our horrible record, we human beings have the capacity to find our true happiness in caring about each other, that we are called to and we are oriented toward love rather than hatred. We’re happier loving other people than hating them. There’s a psychological side too, you don’t have to be religious: When you’re loving people, you’re better off. You sleep better.
Hans Kung, a Catholic professor who has done much for interreligious dialogue, has said “There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions. And there will be no peace among religions without a greater dialogue among religions.” Dialogue: That’s what we need today. That’s my hope. More than ever, we need the religions to come together to work for peace. And we work together to stop the people in our own religious traditions who are violating the message of Mohammed and the message of Jesus and using them for violence.
Farid Esack, Muslim scholar from South Africa and Besl Family Chair in ethics/religion and society
Sadly, no. I’d like to believe that we would get to a point where we’d stop killing each other in the name of religion. And as a Muslim it is certainly my responsibility to work toward such an end. But as an actual human being, as a realistic human being, I don’t think we will ever get to that point.
The problem is that religion is just far too powerful an emotive force to not invoke for one’s deepest angers, whether these angers are personal or whether they are ideological. It’s like this whole thing about “I was an atheist until I started drowning.” When you are at the cutting edge of your deepest anxieties, it is often then that people find religious language very, very powerful. So religious rhetoric is far too powerful for it to not be invoked, and for the lowest depths that you can actually go to, which is the killing of other people. It is far too attractive a force for it to never be used.
The texts also lend themselves to be used as pretext. If it was, as in the case of the Jains, where non-violence is the absolute principle—there’s no possibility of interpreting any Jain scriptures in a violent sense—then it is different. But whether it is the just-war theory or the jihad story or the survival of the Jewish people, the difference is that all of our religions do lend themselves to being used as pretexts for violence. Until it’s too easy, I think for religious people to just walk away and think that, “Oh it’s not Islam; it’s not Christianity; it’s just the way it’s being used.” That’s too easy an option. Our texts are far too messy, far too problematic.
Hem Raj Joshi, a Hindu from Napal and an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and computer science
Why not? But it’ll take time. I don’t think any of the religions preach violence or killing each other. They teach tolerance, regardless of whether people are rich or poor, or whether they’re from the same religion or not. You are born on this earth, not to up bring only yourself, but others also. So whoever is in need, provide some help to your best level. For example, if you are eating and somebody comes, you try to share whatever you have. Nobody knows when the god is going to come in front of you.
If you talk with Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, it doesn’t matter. We all share the same things. We were not born with violence in our mind. When a child is born, he doesn’t come with a religion or anything, you know? He comes as he comes. When I was born, I had no idea what Hinduism is. So it is with you. You didn’t know what Christianity was. Later on, your parents took you to church, and my parents said “Well, let’s go to temple.” That’s how we become this.
For example, if I give you two pounds of wheat flour, you’ll try to make bread. But if you give me two pounds of the same thing, I’ll try to make chapatti. It’s the same thing, right? Your taste is bread; my taste is chapatti. Both are used to calm your hunger.
But it’s my view that people interpret things the way it best suits their interests. And that’s creating the problem. Some people take advantage of that for their own benefit. If you think back, those people who are killed are not leaders. They are very simple people who have no clue what’s happening. But somehow these leaders will put some fuel on them and they will make them very hot, you know? Then the leaders are sleeping in a five-star hotel or some very safe place, and those people are out in the street, and they get killed. Have you any seen or heard of any big leader who got killed in any of these religious riots? No. I haven’t heard. Only the very simple people, only people who have not too much political interest. I think it happens everywhere. If you got killed they say, “Oh you are a martyr, you did a great job.” But for what?
The difficult thing is how to stop it. The idea is reduce the crowd who will follow this stream. If you look at wherever religious wars are going on, there’s often a lot of illiteracy and poverty. More educational and economic opportunities would definitely help. If people see some light at the end of tunnel, then they believe that, “OK, I’m going to go that way.” But if they have dark everywhere, then they say, “Well, head in any direction.”
Elizabeth Groppe, a Christian and assistant professor of theology
I would like to rephrase the question if I might, so that it’s not “Will we ever” but rather “How can we stop killing each other in the name of religion?” I think Martin Luther King was right when he said our choice today is nonviolence or nonexistence. We have to make a concerted effort to work for an end to violence in the name of religion or in any other name, and make the decision that that’s what we are going to do.
Religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism—all have historically proven that they can foster compassion, empathy and ego-transcending, pro-social behaviors. It was this inspiration that was at the heart of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Marc Gopin, a Jewish scholar and a senior associate in the preventive diplomacy department at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, D.C., says that we need to analyze our traditions and identify what it is that makes them violent, then identify how they can be a source of nonviolence and how we can cultivate that capacity.
There are ways of doing that specific to particular traditions. For example, if you look at the historical records that have survived concerning the first 300 years of Christianity, those Christians were adamantly opposed to participation in violence in any form. Their reasons were fidelity to the teaching and example of Christ and a commitment to the Christian conviction that Jesus Christ was in fact the promised Messiah. According to Isaiah, the Messianic era was going to be a time when nations would no longer make war with one another. So if we believe in this Messianic vision, then we have to do something to make that vision happen. We have to ask, “What can Christians do to make that more credible by the way that we ourselves live?”
Gopin also says that one of the functions of every religion is to give us a meaning system that makes sense of the world and our place in it. And when someone challenges your sense of that unified, meaningful whole because they’re not part of your religion, you feel threatened, which in turn can generate violence. It’s been argued that religions need to consciously counter this tendency by making a place for the person who is not part of their tradition. That person then becomes part of your universe of meaning and is not as likely to be a spark for violence.
The other thing that I think is important is to recognize the religious attraction violence has. René Girard, who teaches at Stanford University, has a theory—based on his study of anthropology, literature and the history of human civilization—that religion originated through violence. He says that human society is structured in such a way that there is a desire for things simply because another person has them. Inevitably that’s going to lead to classes, conflict and social dysfunction. And the way that is resolved in primitive cultures is by scapegoating one person, who in some cases is actually literally physically sacrificed.
Girard finds similar dynamics in more modern religions. And he argues, I think rightly, that what we have to do is recognize the fallacy of that and hear the innocence of the victim of our sacrificial action. But beyond that, we must also work constructively to have religious experiences that bind us in the terms of religion in a way that’s not pitting us against another, a way that’s inclusive and doesn’t victimize anyone.
Bob Rethy, a Jew and the chair of the department of philosophy
My simple answer is I reject the premise. People certainly use religion as a pretext for their actions. But there is the kind of subsidiary idea that if they didn’t have religion, they wouldn’t be doing this. And I think that history—not to mention our experience as human beings—is teaching us otherwise. In other words, perhaps people would be more virulently murderous without religion.
I think the 20th century is a wonderful, horrible example. The ideologies of the 20th century were more or less explicitly atheistic, or certainly hostile to the traditional religions, Communism, very explicitly, and Nazism, to a great degree. And I think that those were deeply murderous. I think that the 20h century is perhaps the most quantitatively murderous century. And all of these murders were done not in the name of religion, but to a large degree of secular ideology.
People use religion as a rationale for violence, and one can understand how that happens because the absoluteness of the claim leaves no alternative: You’re either with us or not with us. You’re either one of the saved or the damned, and the damned don’t deserve to live anyway. And I do think if you look at it historically, we would see that a lot of the anti-religious rhetoric comes out of kind of the enlightened hostility to religion. Writers like Voltaire in the 18th century who point to the crimes that are committed in the name of religion—they use that to try to undermine religion. But I think that it’s very easy for religion to say, “The crimes committed in my name are not acts that I, myself, approve. They are simply acts committed in my name that for the most part religions refuse to associate themselves with.”
I think that religion is essential to the process of humanization, and that the question is a true response to the limitations of religion. Religion can only humanize us so far sometimes. So I think those people will use religion as an excuse for violence. However, I don’t, myself, feel that it makes sense to blame religion for violence at all.
There are a couple of other things that I think are kind of interesting from a Jewish perspective. In Judaism, peace stands at the end—the Messianic age is the end of time. So what that means is that peace is an accomplishment. We have to work toward peace. Peace is not a state that we can expect to have within the usual life of labor. And in fact, an example of that is in the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, which is a day of peace, comes at the end of the week. After you’ve worked, you rest. There’s peace after you work.
Peace has to work itself out. To attain to the proper kind of fullness and completeness, things have to come to their proper place. And what that sometimes means is that you have to take things out of their improper place, right? Disorder has to be transformed into an order, and the incompleteness has to be made complete. And that’s sometimes a violent process. There’s the idea that a bad peace is not necessarily better than a good war. That’s because a bad peace has not allowed for the proper kind of completion. I think that’s often a religious view—not only the Jewish religion but religions as a whole—that after we admit our problems, we have to fight through our problems in order to come to our own individual salvation, our own individual perfection or peace with ourselves.
Anas Malik, a Muslim and an assistant professor of political science
I‘d like to think that’s possible. But as a world community and as local communities in many places, I think there’s significant evolution that’s needed before we arrive at the time where we can stop killing people in the name of religion. Enlightened understanding of what religion is and what roles it can and should play in people’s lives is a necessary piece of the picture, a necessary step that’s needed. And so is education.
But there’s a second issue, which is that frequently religion just provides a convenient language or an appropriate idiom that acts as a vehicle for other kinds of grievances. And so what might be political violence often takes a religious cloak because of the religious context that it happened in. That’s where, I think, a greater ethic of critical thinking about what religion is about and what it should be about will help prevent that kind of activity.
I see that happening in great measure on the Internet. There’s been a good deal of soul searching, especially after 9/11—which was a catastrophic event for Muslims—about how to understand the events, how not to deny that they were done by Muslims, and how to evaluate the credibility of religious justifications for violence. And that process of soul searching, I think, has at least has raised in the public consciousness a good deal of that kind of process.
The kind of thing I’m talking about is more the development of a personal and social and community ethic of not only searching out constructive ways of dealing with problems, but also evaluating whether and how something is credible form a religious point of view. I think this has been a problem for Muslims in many contexts for several reasons. One of them is that the state of education in the Muslim world is terrible. It’s just extremely behind where it should be, especially as compared to much of the more developed world. Much of the Muslim world happens to be in the Third World. And the consequence is that people become easy fodder for recruitment.
That’s one aspect. And I think that there’s also the fact that there’s a kind of anarchy of religious law and the sources of what should constitute a legitimate religious argument have become obscured. One of the problems right now is that in many people’s minds it’s not entirely clear who or which arguments they should privilege. This is not just with Muslims—it is a universal issue.
I also think one of the critical areas that needs more attention everywhere is working out mechanisms for resolving, addressing or at least hearing political grievances in some sort of effective manner, both inside countries and in the international community. Because I think it’s the absence of those mechanisms that produce the suppression of what many people see as their legitimate political aspirations. And the consequence of this over time is either silencing or some sort of violent outburst or a strategy of violence. I think that’s a layer of development that could really influence things in terms of whether violent options are pursued.
Finally, I think that generally somebody who’s willing to try to use religion as a justification for violence usually cannot do it on their own. They need recruits and they need followers. That’s why I’m emphasizing this thing about the ability of other people generally to think critically and hold others to account for their thoughts. Because I think it’s the equivalent of—I don’t want to sound like I’m a Beatles fan or anything—but John Lennon said this thing about what if they had a war and nobody came. That’s what I’m talking about.