Daily Archives: September 28, 2009

Part 2 – What is religious violence?

This is part 2 of my blog series based on the lecture of Dr. Martin Marty.  His lecture was titled, “Religion and Violence and the global searches for peace.”  He gave this lecture at Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana.  Part 1 was called, “Why talk about it?”

This post is titled “What is religious violence?” This sounds like an obvious question, so the answer seems similarly obvious.  Religious violence is God-commanded and God-commended violence.  It happens when one person feels divinely ordained to inflict physical harm another person.  There are certainly types of violence that are not physical, but for the case of Marty’s lecture (and hence this blog) we will remain in the physical realm.

So here are some things that it is not.  Religious violence is not:

  • limited to any one faith, culture or country.
  • new.
  • something that only evil people do.
  • justification for the elimination of religion (some would argue this point).

Despite this relatively obvious-sounding answer, many have pretty a narrow view of what is religious violence.  For those that watch cable news in the United States, the term religious violence conjures images of suicide bombers and militant islamists.

Yet a closer look at the history of the United States reveals more religious violence then most would be comfortable admitting.  There was  early colonialism, slavery, Civil War, imperialism, urban riots (often directed at new religious groups), and of course, “Manifest Destiny”  That is the idea that God ordained the United States to expand its borders to the Pacific Ocean.   It was real big back in the 19th century.  It was the impetus for the genocide of thousands of native peoples.  It was also largely behind the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War.

An important step in limiting religious violence is admitting our own role in it.  It is easy to point fingers to our headlines and call people evil.  It is more difficult to do a little introspection and confession.

You may be thinking at this point, “All of those things you listed happened a long time ago.”  And you would be right.  And that is why so many sociologists felt that religious violence was on its way out.  There was a feeling that religious violence was becoming more and more isolated.  It was being relegated to a few regional skirmishes that would simply sputter out.

Wars that ripped Europe apart over religious lines were a part of the middle ages, not the modern world.  Nationalism had replaced religious fervor as the justifiable reason to kill someone.  Enlightenment thinkers in the United States and Europe saw religious power as the root of many societal ills.  The separation of church and state was of vital importance to the founders of this country so to avoid the traps that had plagued Europe for centuries. The Enlightenment gave birth to liberal theology,  and in the United States the  social gospel emerged.  This movement built hospitals and schools.  It made prisons more humane, and reformed labor laws.  Religion became a domestic animal, used to make our lives a little better.

And this was the religious bubble that existed in America for most of the 20th century.  Reinhold Niebuhr called America a “gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity.”

While Europe was continuing to move toward secular nationalism and imperialism, America remained in a state of ignorant bliss about what was going on around her.  Yes, we intervened in a few wars, but only did so grudgingly, and called the first one “The war to end all wars,” and called the second one “The Good War.”

There were some leaks  in the bubble along the way.  Korea, Vietnam, and Watergate eroded our Pollyanna worldview.  There were rumblings at home, and some thought the 60’s would see the birth of a revolution, but even it faded as the hippies started to grow up and get haircuts.

Then came 1979.


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