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.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Part 2 – What is religious violence?

  1. I believe your definition of “religious violence” is flawed. Many of your examples did not have religion has a core force in their creation.

  2. So is the definition flawed, or my choice of examples?

  3. Your definition is solid enough to my mind, but your examples seemed flawed. Many of them did not stem from religious belief, but rather found ways within the tenets of religion to excuse them.

    Example – American slavery:

    There was no religious impetus to slavery. It was a purely secular, economic endeavor. However, Christian religious views and restrictions may have caused people to look for reasons to class the slaves as less than human so as to avoid feelings of sinning and guilt.

  4. I agree that slavery was not at first a religious institution. It was born out of commercial and economic interests. However, there is little doubt that religion and the Bible was used to support it.

    I think an important emphasis in this definition is that that those “doing” the violence felt they were ordained by God. At its historical roots, slavery might not have been thought of as a religious exercise, but it did not take long for preachers to interpret it as such. Many early slave owners felt that it was their Christian duty to own slaves.

    Whether or not they were correct in their thoughts about God’s will is irrelevant. They felt that it was God’s will to own slaves.

    I suppose you could argue that they knew they were sinning, but were able to rationalize it. That is certainly a part of our human condition – the great ability to rationalize, blame and avoid the sin in which we live.

  5. There’s where we’re running into our disagreement. We have different views on why religion was involved in many of your examples and whether the perpetrators felt “ordained” to do them or “allowed” to do them. You seem to fall into the “ordained” camp, whereas I fall into the “allowed” camp.

    I don’t feel, based upon what research I’ve been able to do on these subjects, that any large number of people – there are always extremists – felt that they were required to do these thing by their God. I feel that they twisted the facts until they could convince themselves that they were allowed to do them.

    But hey, this is all just my opinion. 🙂

  6. You make a valid argument, and I appreciate your response. A quick read through your blog makes me think we would probably run into more disagreements then this one, but I appreciate thoughtful dialog.

  7. LOL Yeah, we probably would. A Jesuit-trained Pagan and Methodist is a combination bound to arrive at opposing viewpoints.

  8. Thomas

    “What is religious violence?” Graphically religious violence is passenger planes being crashed into the Twin Towers… explosives hidden in baby carriages… young men and women wearing explosive belts/vest as they board buses… hands being cut off as punishment… journalist being beheaded… women being executed in a football field. Practically, religious violence is a tool of cultural destruction wheeled by those who so prize power and control that they count the sacrifice of others a small price to pay that they might maintain and even extend that power and control which they so prize. Ultimately religious violence is the wheezing gasp of a warrior culture clinging to memories of an extinct empire, overwhelmed by the staggering triumph of the West, confounded by a modern world that refuses to allow obsolete misogynistic tribalism to force it to submit itself to the equivalent a cultural burqa.

  9. Actually, I think religious violence is a lot broader than posted here. Anything that makes me think I am more ‘special’ and therefore more entitled to the God given gifts and benefits of this world than another person, creates religious violence. I may not be perpetrating it in the same way as a suicide bomber, but I am assenting to it if I do not take a stand against it.

    What makes a person a suicide bomber anyway? Think about the conditions in which these people live: heading to third world conditions and religiously, economically and politically oppressed people who watch the rest of us lead lovely lives off the back of their poor wages and living conditions.

    We may not be part of the historical reason for these situations, but we will constitute the historical reason for them to continue, unless we are prepared to look at it differently and do something.

    If all people are created in the image of God, then perhaps it behoves us to start a new religious revolution that treats each person equally in light of that. I suggest that anything less may be considered religious violence.

  10. I would modify the definition just slightly and say religious violence is violence committed in the name of the sacred. Not all religions are theistic or have a belief system that places a god at the center. The Buddhist philosophy that underpinned the feudal Japanese samurai code or Vietnamese monks immolating themselves would be cases in point.

  11. Stephen Thomas Tauna

    Religious violence is not cause by social, political or ecomic injustices as most westerners falsely held, but rather it is the product and reflection of the idologies of their founder(s) that count. To day christians are being oppressed from the West by secularists and athiests, the East and in Africa by Islam and from the Asia by free thinkers. Was it poverty that made Mohammed the Messenger of Allah and the prophet of Islam a Jihadist or was it gerat earthly wealth that made Jesus the Son of God and the Prince of Peace to forgive his enemies? Should the Persecuted christians carry out suicide bombs in the Middle East, Asia, the West and in Africa because they are denied employment, citizineships, economic and political rights? and should they become terrorists against the Western media and their scholars who out of fear for Islam link the church to to religious violence even when they are being attacted and killed daily round the world? Could you give more light on this.

    Rev Stephen Thomas Tauna
    Nigeria.

  12. Henry

    The Fat Pastor: But could you please respond to the points raised by Rev Stephen Tauna of Nigeria? I think replying him considering his perspective is worthwhile. Thank you for your effort coming up with a piece that calls for more debate.

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