Religion and Violence
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 9, 2008

Violence is a natural part of life. Religion has evolved over the ages to explain life, thus religion has often been called upon to justify – or at least explain – violence. The book, Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida, by Hent DeVries, has this loaded question posed: “Although it is clear that religion can play an important role in the cause or at least the intensification of violence, could religion and religious language serve a useful purpose in understanding violence and the violent tendencies in both individual humans and human social groups?” Modern religious people will of course argue for the ways in which religion helps us to understand and even overcome violence. Yet there is also a strong critique from outside formal religion that points to crusades and jihads, human sacrifice and genitalia mutilation, and the anguished plea of the oppressed for God to dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks along the mournful banks of the River Babylon (Psalm 137).

The degree of violence done in the name of religion is staggering and shameful. And even though I would argue that the majority of violence done under the canopy of ‘religion’ is not done by individuals faithfully living by the precepts of their faith, (as in, the 19 Muslim hijackers who crashed planes into the pentagon and the world trade center have been disowned again and again by moderate Muslims who say such actions are not in keeping with the true Islamic faith) … even though I would argue along with others that ‘religion’ is often perverted by those who would do violence, it is still quite telling that religion remains so easily co-opted by forces bent on destruction.

Violence is the aggressive use of force resulting in suffering or pain. Immediate examples that come to mind may be war, murder, and other cruelties which we inflict upon one another. Other examples might come from nature, such as stormy weather or the way a carnivore would attack its prey. Early in human evolution, religion was the tool we used to explain and understand the changing seasons, birth and death, our place in the world, why there is violence, and why it might be allowed for us to commit violence against the earth and its inhabitants that we might live. Early on, religion helped clarify the role of violence in our lives. According to Karen Armstrong’s recent book, A Short History of Myth, it is generally agreed that during the Paleolithic Era human beings viewed the world as deeply imbued with the holy: there was not a split between sacred and secular – everything was sacred, every action was a reflection of the archetypal divine actions. In this same manner, there was not ‘good and evil’ so much as ‘natural and unnatural.’ In this earliest context then, violence which caused suffering and pain either to human beings or to other animals or even to the land would be judged as bad not based on the amount of suffering or what caused the pain but on whether or not it was unnatural or against the stories.

This perspective begins with the understanding that life has suffering, that violence is a part of nature: one animal kills and eats another, storms sweep through the land and destroy crops and homes. And as a mirror to that, a tribe may rise up in power and overwhelm another tribe. These events are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are simply a part of what is. At this early point in the evolution of humanity, religion helped to explain the violence and to a degree to justify it: to provide a reason or meaning for the violence in life.

As humanity evolved and grew, so too did our understanding of life and our place in the universe. So too did our understanding of and our capacity for violence grow. And eventually, our capacity to object to violence grew with our ability to imagine another way. The sociological study of religion shows a general movement from the capricious God of thunderbolts through an abundant God (or more often Goddess) of harvest to the God of love and judgment found in the Axial Age. German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the Axial Age to describe the period from 800 BC to 200 BC. During this time, according to Jaspers, similarly revolutionary thinking appeared in China with Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Siddhartha Gautama, in India with the authors of the Upanishads, in Greece with Plato and Socrates, and the Middle East with the Jewish prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Karen Armstrong, again from the perspective of the evolution of mythic understanding, says the Axial Age marked the time when philosophers and religious figures brought us a sense that it is not enough to know the hallowed stories and go through the sacred rituals, we must also be nice to one another. “I hate, I despise your festivals” God says to the Jewish Prophet Amos, “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

At this stage in the evolution of humanity, as in earlier stages, religion served to (among other things) explain and justify violence. It grows more complicated: violence is still a part of life and the universe, but in the stories God is not asking for violent sacrifices from humanity to prove fealty. In China, the Middle East, India, and Greece, violence takes on less of a divine face and more of a human face.

Add to this ethical/theological mix the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and all he offers on the topics of love and violence. The radical introduction of love is certainly remarkable. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, and in the face of violence turn the other cheek. Walter Wink, in his essay “Can Love Save the World?” highlights the religious response to violence as found in the Gospels. Lifting up that passage about turning the other cheek, Wink fills out the context of the passage so that a deeper understanding – not only of the violence, but also of the power of love – can illumine our present day response to life.

Too often the suggestion to ‘turn the other cheek’ is seen as a weak resignation to violence. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. It can be misconstrued as Jesus advising us to say “Thank you sir, may I have another.” “Let me lay down so you may more easily walk all over me.”

“As it stands,” Wink writes, “this saying seems to counsel supine surrender. If you are a woman and you are struck by your spouse on one cheek, turn the other; let him pulverize you. If you are sued for a piece of clothing, give all your clothes voluntarily, as an act of pious renunciation. And if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, be a chump: carry it two. And the crowning blow: don’t resist evil at all.” (Religion, Terror and Violence, Rennie and Tite eds., pp 115-116)

This, Wink explains, is a perversion of Jesus’ intent. Jesus who was constantly resisting evil surely would not counsel us to not ‘resist’ evil. A deeper understanding of the context is needed. There are three examples in the Jesus’ exhortation to resist evil. First he says “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Well, we might ask, why the right cheek? What if someone strikes you on the left cheek? It probably does matter! Walter Wink suggests that it does. If someone strikes you on the right cheek they will have done so either with their left hand: which back in that time period was almost unheard of. “The left hand was for unclean tasks, and even to gesture with it brought shame on the one gesturing.” (Ibid, p116) Thus a backhanded blow is being described. To strike someone on the right cheek was to put that person in their place, a master to a servant, parent to child, Roman to Jew. It is the blow delivered to an inferior. To turn the other cheek is to deny another backhanded blow, leaving the attacker to do what? Slap the slave? No, that was not a manly thing to do. The rigidity of gender roles were as firm as those demanded by social status. Strike with a right hook with the fist? No, one did not fight with fists unless one was fighting an equal.

This, is the point Jesus was leading his followers to see. You can strike me on the right cheek because I am socially inferior to you, but by turning the other cheek I am saying if you strike me again you must strike me as your equal. The Master can certainly have the slave then flogged for the insolence, but the statement has been made: I am your equal. We are both children of God. This is not submission, it is resistance. It is fighting the violence force with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called soul-force. It reminds me of the scene from the movie Gandhi when the Indians continue to step forward row after row in defiance of some British Government rule. Time and again, the row of men are beaten to the ground and dragged back by their friends, but then the next row of Indian men step forward. I remember it as a chilling and frightening scene in the movie. It was not submission, it was resistance. Yes, you can hit me, but on my terms as your equal. This puts the oppressor in a shameful position.

The other examples Jesus offers in the passage are similarly nuanced proposals for subversive resistance. To turn over your cloak as well as your coat, back then, would have left you naked because your coat and cloak are more accurately rendered: your outer-garment and your undergarment! And recall that (as shown in the story of Noah’s three sons) nakedness was shameful to those who saw it more than it was to the one who was naked. And to carry a Roman Soldier’s pack for a mile if asked was a rule that a peasant had to follow by Roman law, but to carry it a second mile was against the rules and the soldier would risk punishment for accepting the peasant’s ‘kind’ offer. Walter Wink, who outlines this in his chapter of Religion, Terror, and Violence, is Professor emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary and has studied deeply into the social context of 1st century Jewish life.

In a way, what Jesus is suggesting is something like a mix between Guerrilla Theatre and Social Aikido: Use the oppressor’s own power against them by not simply accepting their unjust practices but by over-accepting them and pulling them off balance. Shame them as tyrants and the violence will no longer maintain control, rather it will escalate the resistance. In this understanding – granted not the standard level of religious understanding, but it is there all the same – in this understanding, religion provides tools not only for how to be nice to others but also how to overcome violence with a deeper power. In this understanding, suffering and pain caused by violence is not a fact of life to be managed, rather it is a perversion of how things ought to be – a perversion that can be overcome.

There is a third way. As we continue to evolve, as religion continues to build stories to explain suffering and to tell us how we fit in the universe, we have a part to play in how this unfolds. The argument that we can either fight or run away is shallow: there is a third way. Active non-violent resistance says there is another way. Being right does not mean we must use violence to control others. This applies, of course not just to religion and violence, but to politics and religion and violence mixed together. The “Just War” theory is based on the fight or flee dichotomy, the idea that non-violence means being run over and only violence can save us. But violence can not save us. But love still can. Let us not work to build up tactics and strategies to overcome suffering and pain in our lives, let us not try to anticipate violence and trouble that we may meet it with greater strength and force, let us not put our energy to creating defenses and protections against potential violence and trouble. Instead let us dig deep and breathe with compassion so that when suffering comes your way or your neighbor’s way or to this community as a whole or to this nation, we may have the strength of spirit to receive the suffering and respond with a generous love.

And such a response will not look like what Jesus talked about or what Gandhi acted out. We live in a country that is not oppressed; we in this congregation are not part of an oppressed class. Oh, there are individuals among us who can claim to be there, and Unitarian Universalism is discriminated against in certain circles, I won’t deny that. But Jesus’ examples, Gandhi’s examples, are tools for oppressed people to find equality; these will not be the pattern we need for the coming decades. Our religion and all the world’s religions need to find a way to be among the dominant leaders without being oppressors pretending to be oppressed. We need to evolve beyond David and Goliath style stories. We need new stories of leading and being connected and being non-violent. We are perhaps on the cusp of a few steps into a new era – a new mythic understanding of ourselves and our relationship to violence. It must be an understanding that calls us to see our connections with each other and our world. We must step up to that third way and proclaim that violence will not save us. But love still can.

In a world without end,
May it be so