Religion and violence


In her 2014 book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong makes a strong case against the temptation to conclude that religion is directly responsible for violence. Armstrong points out that until the Modern era, there never was a clear line drawn between religion and politics or religion and society. Violence was always ambiguous. It involved several aspects of the collective social identity in which strange and strained alliances combined.

Armstrong is right to understand religion as one element in the complex issue of human violence. But in light of the tragic events in Peshawar, Pakistan, where 145 people were murdered, 132 being children, and in France where 12 people were murdered at the office of Charlie Hebdo and five others murdered the following day, all in the name of Islam, it is impossible to avoid asking if religion, rather than being caught up in violence, is not actually a cause of it?

The question emerges because religion, like politics, is a human creation. It is part of our social and cultural history, emerging from our hopes and aspirations as much as from our fears and desperations. Religion does not fall from the sky into the mix of politics, but is born with politics in the hearts of human beings. It is the twin of our world cultures and not an addition to them.

When the question of religion and violence is raised, a more pointed question is really at the heart of the matter: why do human beings use violence to address grievance? Why is the human imagination born with violence as part of its makeup? Why is there always amidst the great wisdom of religion worldwide also, always, the great apocalyptic yearnings for destruction?

Christianity traditionally answers this question with a turn to sin, but I wish to pursue the question with a turn to Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche thought of human beings as the animal that needs to overcome. This means that humans are animals that must destroy themselves (that is, shatter their limitations) in order to experience fullness in life. This might be a psychological insight, but it is certainly a biblical one: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20). For Paul, living in Christ includes the shattering or overcoming of the old (gentile) self. Nietzsche and Paul seem to agree about the significance of overcoming for human beings.

What happens in violence is that the act of overcoming shifts into reverse. Overcoming is a dangerous act and it does not include an instruction manual. It can be sustained by creating an enemy as the project of self-realization, and in this the “enemy” is to be controlled, silenced, and most tragically eliminated. Religion expresses the spirit of overcoming because it is about the breaking apart of the ego as well as the unification of the human spirit with and in mystery. But this very human creativity can move backward. It can be about overcoming the self by way of radical authoritarianism in which the self is smothered with unheralded fixations on control.

Freedom of speech expresses a collective valuing of overcoming, of being allowed to move to the edges of human experience. Freedom of speech is consequently the inverse of control and the vibrancy of democracy. As such, it is also the vibrancy of religion. The greatest tragedy as well as the threat that lies in religion and violence is the fact that religion can lose itself to violence. It is regrettable that such tragedy should be a reminder of the solidarity needed to ensure religion holds its vibrancy and its value in freedom.

***David Galston is Brock University’s Ecumenical Chaplain.

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