Religion, violence forever intertwined

Fissures: For much of recorded history, people of all faiths have been killing each other in the name of their deities.

March 24, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IF THE ATTACKS of Sept. 11 did not start the Armageddon-like religious war Osama bin Laden is said to desire, they did unleash a flurry of rhetoric dividing the world into good vs. evil, focusing on the historic schism between Christianity and Islam.

What seems to be lost in that polarization of the world is the fact that people of all faiths have been slaughtering one another in the name of their deity throughout most of recorded history.

Christians spent a few centuries sending Crusaders to kill Muslims in their shared Holy Land. And they then spent a few centuries fighting each other in the wars of religion between Catholics and the emergent Protestants. Christian beliefs were used to advance colonial conquest and exploitation, the enslavement of Africans, the westward expansion of the United States at the expense of American Indians, and, more recently, apartheid in South Africa.

So, though the popular view of religion is that it blesses peacemakers and generally brings joy and good will to man, the fact is such beliefs have always been intertwined with violent acts.

The argument can be made that with the removal of the Cold War's organizing facade, the ancient religious fissures are more visible. That's not just the various fights between the Islamic world and the Jews in Israel or the Hindus in India or the infidels in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but also among rival Islamic states, often organized around conflicting Sunni or Shi'ite principles.

There are the Sikh separatists in India and the warlike Buddhist cults - including Aum Shrinrykio - in Japan.

In Yugoslavia, the fight was essentially among the old lines dividing the Serbian Orthodox, the Croatian Catholics and the Bosnian Muslims. And, of course, there's Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics keep that old grudge alive.

Even what seemed like a transcendent ecumenical moment - a Mass by Pope John Paul II telecast to 30,000 faithful in Moscow this month - stirred up old animosities. "We view this as the invasion of Russia," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II was quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency as saying after the service.

"I don't think there's anybody out there with clean hands," says Stephen Fowl, chairman of the theology department at Loyola College.

Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the link between religion and violence is not surprising.

"Religion is the only entity outside of the state that can give moral sanction to violence," says Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God; The Global Rise of Religious Violence, published in 2000.

"The absolute language of religion makes absolute claims on believers," he says. "While every religious tradition speaks of ultimate peace, they are all filled with symbols of violence - from the execution device that many Christians wear to the sword of Muslims."

William Morrow, a professor of religious studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, says the acts of those who hijacked the planes Sept. 11 have many precedents in religious traditions.

"There is this suicidal warrior tradition, the dark side of heroism, that can be amply documented historically," says Morrow, who teaches a course on religion and violence.

"In religious societies, there is a kind of conversation going on between two sorts of worlds - the ordinary world of life and death, sickness and health, strength and weakness, then some other spiritual world that is much more positive than that," he says. "The more split they are, the more unrealizable the dialogue, the more heaven and earth seem unreconcilable and farther apart, the more that itself is felt as a kind of violence that somehow has to be overcome.

"That is certainly a fuel for martyrdom. After all, if you identify strongly enough with the other world, and are disaffected enough with this world, you may be prepared to die to bridge that gap."

Juergensmeyer sees religion emerging as an organizing principle in times of crisis, when other organizations are shaky. This was as true in the religious wars of the 17th century when the Holy Roman Empire broke apart as it is today when the stability of the Cold War order disappears and is being replaced with a globalization that many find threatening.

"There has always been a close relationship between religion and politics," he says. "Both are attempts to claim in ultimate and definitive terms some sense of ownership, of loyalty to the source of commitment, God or the king."

At times of instability, leaders exploit the power of religious language for political ends.

"Jihad is being used by Muslims who don't have a clue about its original use," says Edward Peters, a medieval historian at the University of Pennsylvania. "Ninety percent of the time it was used in the Quran it means struggling within oneself against one's own tendencies to break the rules of the Quran."

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