Religion & Violence
By Natasha David-Walker
Peace is my religion (courtesy Photobucket)
God & Guns
I recently heard a gun rights activist proclaim on television that it was his “God-given right to own a gun in America.” Try as I might, the exact scriptural reference to confirm his entitlement to gun ownership eludes me. For many, the preceding statement sounds bizarre and extreme. However, the gun debate in America has revealed polarizing opinions, oftentimes along the lines of religious perspectives.
The increasingly unfortunate acts of random and systemic violence in America have triggered a national conversation. A myriad of issues related to violence have emerged as a result of the focus on violence, such as mental health, poverty, drugs, the second amendment, and not surprisingly, religion.
The discussion will almost, always turn controversial when religion and violence intersect. Historical accounts of the Crusades and the Inquisition and the legitimization of violence for religious reasons is disturbing because it predicates a “God complex.” Globally and historically, religion has been used to justify unusual and excessive force expressed as violence against women, violence against people of different faiths, and violence against people who simply do not believe.
Most notable in our recent history when religion and violence coalesce, is the concept of jihad. As we learned in our readings, jihad includes more than the commonly discussed and familiar areas of jihad such as acts of terror in the name of Allah, the fatal 9-11 hi-jacking’s, and even the torture of young middle-eastern girls and women. An intellectual jihad encompasses the ability to eloquently and persuasively deliver the tenements of the faith to non-believers. There is jihad of the heart (Firestone, pg. 17, para.1), that is more reflective and internal, that urges followers of Islam to deal with the inner man – similar to the biblical admonition to “circumcise the heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). And there is jihad that covers the various forms of physical warfare, which may be a contributing factor to the more extreme promptings, based on private interpretation of the Koran. “There are therefore many kinds of jihad, and most have nothing to do with warfare” (Firestone, pg. 17, para.1).
While Americans condemn the egregious acts of violence by Islamic militants such as Al Qaeda, we fail to see the beam in our eye while picking the splinter out of the eye of Islam. If we apply the concept of “jihad of the heart” to ALL religious efforts, and seek to observe our religious beliefs from the inside out, perhaps there would be less convincing needed – less effort, less arguing, and less violence due to controversies based on religious beliefs.
But…It’s In The Bible
How do religious institutions reconcile the love, peace and good will expressed in Biblical texts with the accounts of very violent act of war – initiated by “the Word of God?” Consider the prophet Samuel’s lambasting of King Saul when he failed to carry out the annihilation of a people, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (I Samuel 15: 3, KJV).
Terrence Fretheim perfectly frames this seeming duality when he writes, “The Old Testament has a reputation: it is a book filled with violence, including the violence of God …The New Testament especially with its talk about hell, even envisions, an eternal violence, in which God is very much involved” (Fretheim, 2004, pg. 18, para.1).
Many people argue against modern, organized religion based on isolated texts without properly contextualizing the custom of war and the elevation of gods in general in biblical times. Most indigenous peoples worshiped some form of deity and even promoted gods of war as the impetus for plundering and oftentimes brutally annihilating other races of people. War and violence of that sort, was in fact the custom of the times. What is less understood by the non-religious, is the converged mentality of modern religious movements with the war-like “tone” of days of yore. Effectively, the jihad-like tone in religious rhetoric against same-sex marriage, in support of gun ownership without checks and balances, and staunch opposition to immigration rights may feel jihadist. Is this an example of rhetorical jihad or an expression of deeply held beliefs? Does the rhetoric promote oppression and a global superiority of religion regionally and culturally…Christianity in the west and Islam in the east? Joseph Anton speaks…
No Rush To Judgment
In our discussion during week four, our distinguished guest lecturer was journalist Salman Rushdie, the topic: Religion and Violence. The choice of Rushdie for this particular topic was both perfect and paradoxical since he was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 – accused of writing a novel against Islam called, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie is, in his own words an atheist, who, based on his account in Joseph Anton was forced underground fleeing religious persecution. During our discussion he offered his perspective on a variety of subjects, most notable to me – the motivating factor behind Dr. King’s commitment to the civil rights movement and the veiling of women in Islam.
Before he mused on Dr. King, Rushdie offered a waiver since he was in Atlanta but stated that he did not believe the crux of Dr. King’s motivation “spiritual.” In my opinion, it would be difficult to catapult Dr. King from the stage of religion and remove “the spiritual” as his ultimate motivation for essentially putting himself in harms’ way for a social cause. The Civil Rights Movement in America, during the 60’s was a religious movement based on the non-violent teachings espoused by Mahatma Gandhi. Overcoming evil with good is both scriptural and ethical. However, I believe it takes more than a desire for social change to gather the inertia to walk the path of martyrdom – which Dr. King prophetically attested to in his speeches, was his ultimate fate. I categorically reject the mutually exclusive idea of the Civil Rights Movement as social change without a predominantly spiritual basis. I believe the core motivating factor behind Dr. King’s personal convictions was his belief and connection with God, in conjunction with his belief in human rights.
Regarding women and veiling Rushdie referred to veiling as an “instrument of oppression” and a “false consciousness” (Rushdie, 2013, Classroom Discussion 2/18/13). In humor he added, “In Islam women are covered to NOT arouse men as opposed to blind-folding the men to prevent arousal” (Rushdie, 2013, [paraphrase] Classroom Discussion 2/18/13). In juxtaposition, a stranger dressed in traditional Islamic garb told me a joke in passing. A woman was converting to Islam and a Christian commented that she was joining a religion that favored men by having women cover up. The woman replied if she was joining a religion that favored men, the women would be totally naked. The contradiction of belief between those outside of Islam is that the women are not COVERING UP of their own volition, but rather being forced to veil by a patriarchal controlled, religious sect. It seems to those outside of Islam that the religious experience is oppressive and perhaps even condescending to women and their rights. While that may be true in some instances, in other cases the women may be exercising their free-will to veil.
It’s difficult to come to common ground on matters of religion because it is a matter of the heart. But Rushdie had a great point when he projected his idea that the “private practice of religion was perhaps the best practice of religion” (Rushdie, 2013, [paraphrase] Classroom Discussion 2/18/13). I concur, and add that private practice of religion would nullify the need for public displays since “they that worship God should [actually] worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
Works Cited and Related Links
Firestone, R. (1999). The origin of holy war in islam. Jihad. New York. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Fretheim, T. (2004). God and violence in the old testament. Word & World. Vol. 24.1
Obama Signs Anti-violence legislation