Following the killing of Osama Bin-Laden, we are again reminded of the tragic interconnection between religion and violence, not only that the world's most well-known terrorist is dead but that his death in many circles was celebrated. That terrorism is violence is a truism.
We also see that religion is used to nurture terrorism and violence. Terrorism can come dressed in religious language and discourse in many communities and contexts around the world. The intention of this paper is to plead or argue that people committed to a religious tradition with intent stand up against any attempt to justify terrorism and violence with the help of religion. There are so many expectations that people of religion are unequivocal against terrorism and that they and preferably together in a global alliance against terrorism are constructive in fostering an education that religion is never used as a tool for conflict but an instrument of peace-making.
Following the death of Bin-Laden there were in some American Christian circles, a dangerous language of triumphalism. Hearts were filled with pride and the killing was hailed as an enormous victory. Dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose in the USA -- chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" as if it was a celebration of a victory in football, the US rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a piece entitled “How to address the death of a mass murderer?”, where he said: “The Torah describes Moses and Miriam leading the ancient People Israel in a celebratory song after the tyrannical Pharaoh and his Army has been overwhelmed by the waters of the Red Sea. Later, the Rabbis gave a new overtone to the story: “The angels,” they said, “began to dance and sing as well, but God rebuked them: “These also are the work of My hands. We must not rejoice at their deaths!”
Stories like these are needed, when the voices of triumphalism and indignation are ringing, using religious imagery to pit one religion against the other. One is good; the other is evil. One represents God, our God; the other speaks for another god. We have heard it in many places and we hear it increasingly with other words today in many places of Europe, when Muslim immigrants are the focus of attention: “Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. Their God is not our God, the Son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God and we believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.”
There are, thanks God, sensible people who hope that the killing of Osama Bin-Laden would become a turning point in the so called war against terrorism.
A call to soul-searching
I don't know if our time is more violent than other times. Through the advances in communication, travel, global trade and large-scale migrations we are however made aware of conflicts in a way that is new to us. Acts of terror have through media a way of making violence heard and seen in a way that was maybe less common before. Although there certainly is an increase of conflicts since the end of the Cold War, it is the particular situations of civil conflict and unrest, where religious traditions and affiliations are mobilised to lend legitimacy to the claims of conflicting parties that is to be addressed here. Religion, together with ethnicity and nationalism, serves as an identity marker in order to define group membership and draw lines of distinction. Religion may not be the cause of conflict but it has proved to be an intensifier of conflict and in public perception, conflicts are easily perceived as religious conflicts. The events of 11 September exacerbated this situation. The attacks were perceived as expressions of a confrontation between militant Muslim fundamentalism and western (Christian) culture - or as a conflict between Christian and Muslim civilisations. They seemed to validate the thesis of a “clash of civilisations”. The language of “jihad” and “crusade” gained broad currency. Through all of this, religions were suddenly thrust into the centre of global politics.
The most difficult terrorism is the one that is tinged with religious undertones. Here the terrorist makes him/herself the particular emissary of God and one dismisses moral or ethical considerations, because one thinks oneself to be beyond it. Such acts of terrorism capitalising on a reading of our religious traditions destroy not only the intended victims but destroy also slowly religion in our world or rather contribute to defining religion as a tool for exclusion and hate of the other.
Confronted with these developments, many political and economic actors on the global scene have begun to look for help in managing the dangerous dynamic of violence. There are appeals to religious communities and their leaders for initiatives of moderation, moral orientation and reconciliation. Most religions have been implicated in actions of war or the use of violence for religious purposes. But so far, there has been very little self-critical reflection about these features in the history of religions. We now need a commitment to look into the heart of religion and address the role of religion and violence in our religious traditions. The issue of violence in its various manifestations and the question how there could be an interreligious co-operation towards building a culture of peace and reconciliation is more and more important.
When addressing the question of religion and violence, particularly as it comes across in many acts of terror, it is essential that we as people committed to a religious tradition not become defensive or apologetic, only lifting banners or slogans with the ideals of our religions. It is true that Islam is literally the religion of peace. It is true that Om Shanti, shantihi is the emphatic Vedic blessing. It is true that Jesus greeted people with the gift of peace, “Peace be upon you”. It is true that there is an absolute emphasis on compassion and ahimsa in Buddhism. It is true that Judaism has given the world the word and concept shalom. It is true that in many cases, based on their ideals, religions seek to contribute to building peace. However, we know that they are also involved in situations of violent confrontation. There is, in the religious field, a surprising coexistence of love and violence, of affirmation of inclusiveness and practices of regrettable exclusion. Religions are more than often legitimising violence. There are groups within our religious families who seem to need violence to affirm their own beliefs. Christians cannot run away from the effect of religious language such as “Onward Christian soldiers”, and acts such as the Crusades, the Holocaust or apartheid. Hindus cannot run away from the role of religion in the caste system. Muslims cannot run away from their responsibility in relation to those who in the name of Islam encourage suicide bombings and other acts of terror. Jews cannot run away from Jewish self-definitions that God supports the rights of Jews to all of Palestine and a forced transfer of the Palestinian people. We have to ask penetrating question about the role of religion in violence and terrorism. Religions are no innocent bystanders.
I will now for the sake of illustration and maybe as an example for other religious communities focus on the history of Christianity in relation to violence. There are many instances of violence in both the Bible and throughout Christian history. Although the Bible begins with the affirmation that God saw the universe that had been created as “very good”, we discover already in the beginning of the Bible the human predicament in terms of alienation between God and human beings, and between human beings and nature (Gen.3). This chapter is immediately followed by the story of the brutal murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Cain, the murderer, is the one who begins human civilisation under the protection of God.
But violence is also attributed to God: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created - people together with the animals and creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen. 6.5-7). This attribution of violence to God is to continue in much of the rest of the Bible. The devastation brought on Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, including the genocidal acts of wiping out whole tribes is all depicted as acts done by or supported by God.
Within the first few books of the Bible we come across the many dimensions of what is generally covered by the word “violence”:
• Violence as a human response arising from jealousy, fear, or hatred (Cain and Abel)
• Violence as judgement or punishment (The flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah)
• Violence as structured oppression (The Hebrews under the Egyptians)
• Violence as part of a liberation struggle (Events connected with the Exodus)
• Violence in war and conquest (The occupation of Canaan)
• Violence as part of maintaining law and order (punishments related to the breaking of the social laws)
• Violence as part of religious duty or practice (The sacrificial system)
Christian thinking has particularly focused on the concept of “sacrifice”. Christian theology, in the theory of Atonement, claims that Jesus had to die a violent death in order to placate God's anger over the sins of humankind. Jesus “sacrificial death”, “shedding of blood for our sins”, and “paying the price of sin” etc. are common themes in Christian hymnody, piety and theology and leave us with the question of the relationship between this fact of violence and the will of God.
Christ is described as an innocent victim, a scapegoat, who through his vicarious suffering assures the peace of the community: “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Is 53:6). This sacrificial interpretation of the meaning of the violent death of Jesus has continued to shape Christian thinking especially in the form of the medieval doctrine of atonement by Anselm of Canterbury.
Another area where violence plays a major role lies in the way some biblical imagery and theology depict the problem of evil in terms of violent and ongoing “battles” between good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan. Hence, the eschatological vision in the Book of Revelation presents a cosmic battle between the powers of evil and good, in which the powers of evil, after a violent struggle, are conquered, overcome, subdued and eventually abolished by God and God's angels. Power, conquest, and domination take the centre stage in these images.
Violence is also present in Christian images of mission and evangelisation of the world. Military language like “conquering the world for Christ”, “deployment of missionaries”, “mission strategy”, “soldiers of Christ”, and “evangelistic crusades” are still very much in use in some sections of the church. The word crusade was one of the first words used by President Bush to capture the response to come of the US to the attacks of September 11. There is no way around it: parts of the history of the church are written in blood. The burning of heretics, Inquisitions, Crusades, Holocaust, Slavery, and the ruthless violence that accompanied the establishment of Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and Australia are all part of the history of Christianity.
There is, as we all know, another stream within the Bible that resists violence as being against God's will. God is loving, forgiving and compassionate (Ps. 103). God demands righteousness and justice in human affairs. Clear and unambiguous prohibition of killing is part of the Ten Commandments. There are detailed provisions against social and economic violence in the form of relentless advocacy for justice, especially in favour of the poor and the oppressed. All the eschatological visions in the Old Testament deal with the cessation of violence and a state of reconciliation between nations, between God and human beings.
Although Jesus is also presented as saying that he has come “not to bring peace but a sword” (Mtt.10. 34), and reproaches the unrepentant cities in harsh language (Matt.11. 20-24), the bulk of New Testament witness presents Jesus as one who advocated radical non-violence. “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt.26.52).
There is nevertheless an ambiguity in relation to violence, which has influenced Christian discussions on violence. Are there situations in which some measure of violence is justified? Some are very clear that, in accordance with Jesus' own teachings, violence is not justified under any circumstance. Within the mainstream of the Church, “the historic Peace Churches” (mainly the Mennonites and the Quakers) have adopted the pacifist position of rejecting war and violence for any reason. The idea of the Just War has constantly re-emerged and has influenced the discussions and jurisprudence on the conduct of modern wars.
Another area of intense Christian discussion is on the use of violence to resist evil. Is there a “positive” use of violence, for example, by an armed contingent of the United Nations, to prevent massacre of innocent peoples. The tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia, for example, are cited as instances where limited and well-directed violence or armed intervention would have saved the lives of thousands of innocent victims. There are, however, many Christians who believe that any use of violence would only breed more violence, and maintain that we should work harder on developing measures to predict, prevent, and manage conflicts and on finding peaceful ways of resolving conflicts. Many groups have arisen within the Christian fold that put greater emphasis on “Conflict Resolution”, “Peace Making” and “Prevention of Conflicts.”
Is there a legitimate use of violence? How do we look upon liberation struggles? Some opt for non-violent resistance, as advocated by Gandhi and by Martin Luther King Jr., others insist on allowing the oppressed to decide on the nature of the struggle that is appropriate in a given situation. Many liberation struggles were born in acts of terror and the liberation leaders were referred to as terrorists. Nelson Mandela was once called a terrorist by his enemies but is today considered a very much respected world leader also by most of his former adversaries. One can at the same time be called terrorist by some and liberator by others. It lies in a way in the eyes of the beholder.
We share with each other, irrespective of our religious tradition the dilemma of violence in the very heart of our religious traditions. During my time in the World Council of Churches I was involved in a multifaith project called “Thinking Together”. This was a group of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, who had chosen to work together on those issues that are problematic in our religious traditions and especially so in a world of religious plurality. One such issue is the question of religion and violence and the involvement of our religious traditions in situations of violence. I would like to refer to some of the participants in the group, a Buddhist monk, a Hindu scholar, an imam and a Jewish educator, all of them honestly and admirably self-critical in relation to religion and violence. Their statements have direct repercussions for any consideration on the concept and reality of terrorism.
The Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Deegalle Mahinda said: “Both in theory and practice there is in Theravada Buddhism no space for professing violence since the basic tenets of Buddhism are completely against imposing pain on oneself or others. And yet, there are examples in Buddhist scriptures of the sanctioning of violence.” There is the story of “the Sri Lankan king Duããhagãmani, who killed Elãra and was remorseful. A group of eight holy monks came to comfort him. The king Duããhagãmani confessed that he had slaughtered millions. The monks said: “From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. … Unbelievers and men of evil life are not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for you, you will bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha. Cast away care from your heart, O ruler of men! Thus exhorted by them the great king took comfort”. The Sinhala community in Sri Lanka reinterprets this myth. Such nationalist readings demonstrate the pervasive power of the myth in the present conflict in Sri Lanka.”
The Hindu scholar Anant Rambachan said: “The most famous Hindu of all times, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is widely perceived, especially in the West, as embodying the Hindu worldview and ethos. Gandhi made ahimsa (non-violence) the cornerstone of his philosophy and practice and spoke of it as constituting the essence of Hinduism. In the light of Gandhi's significance, many were surprised and bewildered when, on December 6, 1992, thousands of Hindu volunteers broke through police cordons and demolished the Babri mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya in North India. Many were armed with tridents, the traditional iconographic weapon of Shiva and were led by Hindu holy men chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Ram). … More recently, we continue to witness the outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, precipitated by the tragedy at the Godhra railway station when Muslims set ablaze a train with Hindu passengers. … Religious chanting and the invocation of the name of God accompanied many of the acts of violence perpetrated by Hindus upon their Muslim neighbours. … while Gandhi championed the ethic of ahimsa, there are ancient traditions within Hinduism, which sanction violence under certain circumstances, and that ahuimsa and himsa (violence) have coexisted uneasily in Hinduism for centuries.”
South African imam Rashied Omar said. “Terrorist violence is never far from popular understandings of Islam. Even conventional academic perspectives regard the political agenda's of Islamists (or rather “Islamic fundamentalists” as they are pejoratively described in the literature) as having a predilection for violent paths to social change. According to this view, it is the religious dimensions, namely Islam that is the primary source of the contemporary terrorist violence. In direct opposition to this perspective, apologetic Muslims categorically deny that Islam has anything to do with terrorist violence. In their view, all violence in which Muslims are implicated is a debasement and vile distortion of the true and noble teachings of Islam.
As with all received understandings, there are elements of truth in both of these formulations. The first one largely understates the contemporary socio-political and economic conditions under which Islam is implicated in violence, and the second one ignores the fact that virtually all Muslims accept that Islam is not a pacifist tradition and allows for and legitimates the use of violence under certain conditions, the definitions of which may differ from one Muslim scholar to the other. It is here that a large measure of the problem lies. Under what conditions does Islam condone the use of violence? This critical dilemma is not unique to Islam. All religious traditions agonize about the question of what might constitute a “just war” and it becomes particularly acute in situations of deadly conflict.
Just war is always evil, but sometimes you have to fight in order to avoid the kind of persecution that Makkah inflicted on the Muslims (2: 191; 2: 217), or to preserve decent values (4: 75; 22: 40). Jihad denotes any effort in pursuit of a commendable aim. Jihad is a comprehensive concept embracing peaceful persuasion (16:125), passive resistance (13:22; 23:96; 41:34) as well as armed struggle against oppression and injustice (2:193; 4:75; 8:39). Moreover, jihad is not directed at the other faiths. In a statement in which the Arabic is extremely emphatic, the Qur'an insists, "There must be no coercion in matters of faith!"(2: 256). More than this, the protection of freedom of belief and worship for followers of other religions has been made a sacred duty of Muslims. This duty was fixed at the same time when the permission for armed struggle (jihad al-qital) was ordained (22:39-40).”
Deborah Weissman is a Jewish educator. She said: “… all of our traditions must develop or employ a more peaceful hermeneutic for interpreting our classical texts. … I personally believe that the peaceful, more humanistic texts must be given greater weight than the violent, exclusivist or anti-humanistic ones. My reasoning is that in order to be aggressive or racist, one doesn't need divine revelation. Violence and racism unfortunately seem to have been woven into the fabric of human life for millennia.” … I personally think that serious hermeneutic and educational work must be devoted to developing new understandings of the concept of the Chosen People. …we ought to be a chosen people, as example, not as exception. .... One of the problems of having been victims for so long—and I direct these remarks at both Palestinians and Jews—is that it becomes difficult for us to recognize that we are also victimizers, and to assume moral responsibility for our actions. Paradoxically perhaps, it is much more comfortable to think of ourselves as victims. Victimhood gives one a sense of self-righteousness and surely promotes national unity. But it also obscures our culpability for unjust behaviour.”
There is a need for a new thinking in relation to religion and violence to become more aware of the complexity of the concept of violence and its manifold expressions in personal, social and religious life. The thirst for “power,” that goes with violence, has been an abiding temptation to religious traditions, and Christianity for its part has succumbed to the lure of power, both in its theological expression, ecclesial structures and its mission practice. It should, therefore, engage in an honest self-examination to understand how it has imbibed, consciously or unconsciously, structures of domination, power, exclusion, and discrimination in its teachings, practices and structures. I think there is in Christianity today a conscious effort to look more closely at itself in relation to religion and violence.
We cannot eradicate violence but we can focus on unmasking the logic and dynamic of violence. Often violence presents itself in religious language, in mythological terms, associating violence with the powers of the sacred. We have a common task to work through interreligious encounter and in dialogue, towards mutual commitments to withdraw any moral or ethical legitimisation in support of violence as a means in response to conflict or in the pursuit of political, economic, cultural and even less religious ends. The unholy alliance between religion and violence must be broken for the sake of life for all. The struggle against the “spirit, logic and praxis of violence” includes more than the development and application of ways of peaceful non-violent means of resolving conflicts. It is a moral and spiritual struggle in which the religious communities have to take the lead, beginning with the critical assessment of their own involvement in the emergence of a culture of violence. This offers itself as a possibility for interreligious cooperation. I believe that the time has come to call forth an old ecumenical principle and apply it to our multi-religious reality: “That which we can do together, we should not do separately”. This principle would be given new life, when we look upon it as a challenge for a concerted effort by people of different faiths to overcome the spirit and logic of violence, which through the ways of terrorism in many communities around the world today seems to have the upper hand. Religious communities need to today actively to challenge those who hijack religion to bolster their visions of destruction.