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Violence and Religion in Pluralistic Societies

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Lecture in the context of an ecumenical consultation

Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
October 4, 2002

Konrad Raiser


Why do we need to reflect about religion and violence?

The Harare assembly of the WCC has proclaimed the period 2001-2010 as an "Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence". The issue of violence in its various manifestations and the question how churches in cooperation with other religious communities can contribute to the building of a culture of peace and reconciliation will therefore be in the forefront of ecumenical discussion. The focus on violence is related to the rapid increase of conflicts in the decade since the end of the Cold War. In addition to "traditional" inter-state conflicts and the many new civil conflicts, we witness a generalized spread of acts of violence within society: violence against women, refugees, foreigners, racial minorities, disabled persons, violence by and among youth, ethnic clashes, etc.

Particularly in situations of civil conflict and unrest, religious traditions and affiliations are mobilized to lend legitimacy to the claims of conflicting parties. Examples are available from Indonesia, Sudan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, India and the former Yugoslavia. Religion, together with ethnicity and nationalism, serves as an identity marker in order to define group membership and draw lines of distinction. In public perception such conflicts can easily be perceived as religious conflicts.

The events of 11 September 2001 have exacerbated the situation. The attacks are broadly perceived as expressions of a confrontation between militant Muslim fundamentalism and western (Christian) culture — or more broadly as a conflict between Christian and Muslim civilization. They seem to validate the thesis of a "clash of civilizations". The language of "Jihad" and "crusade" has gained broad currency. Through all of this, religions are suddenly thrust into the centre of global politics.

Confronted with these developments, many political and economic actors on the global scene have begun to look for help in managing the dangerous dynamic of violence which seems to have been unleashed. There are increasing appeals to religious communities and their leaders for public initiatives of moderation, moral orientation and reconciliation. In response, a series of high-level interreligious encounters have been organized since 11 September, e.g. in Brussels, Assisi, Alexandria, etc., issuing declarations which affirm a strong commitment to peace and interreligious understanding. None of these declarations, however, has dared to reflect about the links between religion and violence. Most religions, and particularly those considered as "world religions" with a history of missionary expansion, have been implicated in actions of war or the use of violence for religious purposes. So far there has been very little self-critical reflection about these features in the history of religions. This is partly due to the strong tendency, in particular during the latter half of the 20th century, to assign religion to the private sphere and thus weaken any intentional effort to reflect about the ambiguous role and the influence of religions on public life. The present context of globalization has initiated wide-ranging changes in the religious field which call for a new approach also in interreligious dialogue. All religions have to come to terms with the reality of religious plurality.


Violence in the perspective of religion


As I now concentrate on the specific challenge offered by the theme, i.e. a reflection about the ambiguous relationship of religion and violence, it will become apparent that in my approach I have received essential inspiration from René Girard, the French philosopher and anthropologist. I consider his contribution to the discussion to be of vital significance even though it would need to be complemented by other perspectives, like those of the social and political science.

All religions have at their core a message of life, of peace and justice, of harmony and right relationships in community. However, for this very reason religions have to face up to the pervasive presence of violence in human life and its destructive power. Violence, from a religious perspective, is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome. There can therefore be no authentic affirmation of peace within any religious tradition without facing up to the challenge of violence in human community life.

Any religious perspective on violence inevitably reflects basic assumptions and convictions about the human condition. Aggression - and therefore the potential of becoming violent — obviously is part of the human condition. Animals, including predators, apparently have an instinctive inhibition against killing members of their own kind. This is not the case with regard to human beings. Violent behaviour is a possibility in human life which can be activated at any time. But the human condition not only includes the potential that rivalry in social relationships can lead to violent attacks or even elimination of the rival; it also manifests the capacity for sympathy and mutuality. Religions are not only concerned with moral and ethical guidance of human behaviour and the tension between these two poles, but also with the need to interpret the origin of this violent potential in the human condition and to formulate moral, ritual and legal rules to limit the resort to violence.

Primal religions respond to the question of the origin as well as the limitation of violence by way of myths which bind together the human and divine dimensions of reality. Myths are a reflection of fundamental human experience and represent the inner core of cultures, including religion, in their response to violence. Understanding and interpreting the language of such foundational myths therefore is essential for clarifying the relationship of religion and violence.

The French philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has undertaken the most penetrating analysis of these mythical interpretations of the origins of violence. I refer to his two publications: Violence and the Sacred (1979) and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1987). Girard sees the roots of the potential of violence in the mimetic relationship between humans who imitate each other, responding to actions, initiatives and wishes of the other by mirroring their behaviour. This basic rivalry which aims at reducing or eliminating the difference between me and the other is potentially conflictual and can increase to the point of one attacking, expelling, eliminating and killing the other. Ancient myths abound in scenes of such rivalry between brothers or members of a family or group with a violent outcome. Revenge for unwelcome actions of the other can take the most extreme form of mimetic violence. René Girard interprets religious myths as ways to come to terms with this potential of mimetic violence which would destroy the life of a given community if it cannot be contained. This is the origin of religious prohibitions of the use of violence within the same group or family.

The most significant "solution" to the violent potential of the mimetic crisis is the "scapegoat mechanism". In this case the whole group unites by projecting the violent potential on to a chosen victim. The sacrifice of the victim restores and guarantees the peace of the community. The original mythical murder of the victim, according to Girard, is then repeated through ritual sacrifice in order to reproduce continuously the saving effects of the original violent act. Violence thus is being sacralized because of its redemptive capacity. The potential of aggressive violence is being transferred upon the victim who is considered guilty, but by the same token becomes the origin of reconciliation. The sacred thus has an inherent ambivalence: it absorbs the violent potential and thus is dangerous; but at the same time it is the source of peace and salvation.

René Girard sees in this sacrificial sacralization of violence the fundamental device how cultures and religions have responded to the need of containing violence. This "solution", however, works only as long as the myths and the sacrificial symbolism remain active. The process of de-sacralization of the world has begun to weaken the symbolic power of myths thus bringing to the fore the fact that the traditional structures of societies, cultures and religions are based on an act of integrating violence. Where the scapegoat mechanism has lost its sacred legitimacy, it can no longer guarantee peace.

From a different point of departure Walter Wink, in his analysis of the powers in social and political life, comes to a similar conclusion (see Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, New York 1998). He speaks of the "myth of redemptive violence" which he sees prefigured in the Babylonian creation story (the "Enuma Elish") which depicts the struggle between order and chaos. Creation, according to this myth, emerges from an act of violence among the gods, i.e. the murder of Tiamat by Marduk. Creation is constantly in danger of slipping back into chaos, and order can only be maintained through violence. Walter Wink believes that this mythical legitimation and sacralization of violence is present in most ancient cultures and has not lost its appeal even in our de-sacralized world today. "The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. … Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor a perfectable world; it is a theatre of perpetual conflict in which the price goes to the strong. Peace through war; security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society" (The Powers that Be, 48).

These analyses refer to religion and violence in a generic sense. They point to the fact that religion has played a central role since the beginning of human history in the effort to come to terms with the potential of violence in human life. By establishing a close link between religious myths and the corresponding rituals, on the one hand, and the pervasive presence of violence in human life, by integrating violence into the sacred, religions aim at containing the destructive influence of violence in order to establish peace and a viable order. Because order and life are constantly threatened by violence, violence is being absorbed into the sacred which is both threatening and life-giving. It is this ambiguity of religion with regard to violence which calls for critical reflection within all religious traditions.


Religious legitimation of violence


The perspective on violence and religion offered by Walter Wink has received unexpected confirmation by the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the reaction under the banner of the "war on terrorism". Both sides in this struggle tend to use religious language and symbolism to legitimize the use of violence or military force. What we observe is a re-mythologization of a political struggle for power; the struggle is being transferred on to a symbolic level, i.e. interpreted as the confrontation between good and evil, between the forces of order and the forces of destruction. While religion is not the primary cause of violent confrontation, religious symbolism and religious sentiments are being invoked and mobilized to legitimize and sanction the use of destructive force and violence. It is this confrontation between militant Islamism and what is considered to be "Christian civilization" which brings the ambiguous relationship between violence and religion dramatically into perspective.

Yet, not only in the context of this global confrontation, but also in many more limited civil conflicts religion has become a major factor in the dynamic of violence which begins to threaten the viability of pluralist societies. Religious loyalties are being invoked by ethnic, cultural or religious minorities to legitimize their resort to violent means in the struggle for recognition. While religious authorities are quick to declare that these are not religious conflicts and to affirm their commitment to peace and tolerance, they are ill prepared effectively to contain the dynamic that has been unleashed through this association of religion with violence. In particular the invocation of the religious symbolism of sacrifice and martyrdom serves to legitimize the most irrational and brutal violence and destruction which seem to have become ends in themselves. The dramatic performance of suicide attacks calls for a symbolic framework of interpretation even where there is no explicit religious legitimation.

The American political scientist Mark Juergensmeyer has attempted in several publications over this past decade to elucidate this new phenomenon of the religious legitimation of violence (cf. in particular his book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, 1993). Central to his interpretation is the observation that the secular understanding of the state which is based on rational legitimation by due process and the rule of law is increasingly being perceived as a threat in cultures and societies in which order, law and morality have traditionally been sanctioned by religion. While the secular nation state has emerged from the trauma of religious wars in 17th century Europe and has been built on the non-religious legitimation of public authority, most cultures outside the "Christian" West have not appropriated this categorical differentiation between state and religion, between the public and the private realm. The secular state represents an understanding of order that is based on the loyalty of citizens to an authority holding the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and thus eventually over life and death. This stands in contrast to cultures where religion offers the ultimate framework of order, including the authority in extreme cases to sanction the use of violence for the purpose of defending or maintaining order.

As a consequence of colonization, the western model of the secular nation state has been introduced into other parts of the world, where the legitimation of power and authority was traditionally based on religion. Juergensmeyer interprets the emergence of a militant and revolutionary religious nationalism as a response to the failure of the model of the secular nation state to meet the expectations associated with the efforts of nation building in the post-colonial societies. The further weakening of the authority and effective power of the new nation states as a consequence of the process of globalization provides an additional incentive to re-awaken loyalties to the religious foundations of authority and the moral and legal order of society, especially among the well-educated who are disillusioned about the prospects of secular modernity.

What is at stake in these confrontations is the question of the legitimation of authority and power and especially the ultimate power over life and death, i.e. the authority to decide when violence is morally legitimate and when not. All religions have claimed this authority to sanction the moral order and thus to contain violence, including its legitimation in extreme cases where the fundamental order of life is threatened. This is the function of the symbolic violence of sacrifice. The secular state with its rationalization of authority is a fundamental challenge to all religions. When, however, the power of the modern state and the authority of religion are linked, there emerges an increased potential of violence.

Juergensmeyer interprets the emerging global confrontation between various forms of religious nationalism and the secular understanding of the state in the "Christian" West as the struggle between different "ideologies of order" or between different systems of legitimation of authority. In its extreme form, this confrontation can be interpreted as the struggle between good and evil, as a manifestation of the cosmic war to which Walter Wink referred. Then the use of the most extreme forms of violence can be legitimized by invoking the religious symbols of the "Holy War" or the "Jihad", referring to the continuous spiritual struggle to defend order against the forces of chaos and destruction. All religions provide examples of the legitimation of violence in such situations in line with Walter Wink’s concept of the "myth of redemptive violence". 


A Christian biblical perspective


There is no question that the religious ambiguity regarding violence is present in the Christian tradition as well. The Bible which in large parts is common to Christians and Jews is full of stories of violence and of violent images even with reference to God. At the very least the Bible presents a very realistic picture of the potential of violence in human life.

However, an analysis of the foundational myths about primeval history in the early chapters of the Bible shows a decisive difference to the examples presented by Girard and Wink. In fact, violence is absent from God’s creation which is considered to be good. The potential of violence enters at the moment when the first human beings acquire the knowledge of good and evil, i.e. the capacity to judge and to discern. The first occurrence of violence in the murder of Abel by Cain shows a remarkable characteristic: Cain cannot accept the failure of his sacrifice and kills his brother Abel. The following dialogue between Cain and God de-mythologizes violence: Cain is made responsible for his act, and at the same time God protects him from revenge. As such he and his descendants are presented as the pioneers of human culture, but this first act of divine containment of the potential of violence fails and violence increases to the point that God attempts through the flood to eradicate violence once and for all. But God recognizes that violence cannot be overcome by means of violence. God’s covenant with Noah expresses God’s will to maintain life even in the face of enduring violence. God’s alternative to violence is the protection of human life through the gift of the law which centers around the prohibition of human beings killing each other. The protection of human life is entrusted to the observance of God’s law which remains the primary means of reducing and limiting the occurrence of violence.

In his analysis of the decalogue Frank Crüsemann has shown that the fifth commandment "You shall not kill (or murder)" (Ex 20:13) forms the core of this basic framework of divine guidance for the protection of human life (see Frank Crüsemann, Damit "Kain nicht Kain wird" — die Wurzeln der Gewalt und ihre Überwindung in biblischer Sicht, in: epd-Dokumentation 6/2002, 34ff). All the other commandments regarding interpersonal relations in the family, just labour relationships, and stealing what others need for their living, and regarding truthful public speaking are ordered in pairs like the peels of an onion around this core. Human beings are free to distinguish between good and evil; they can decide against the rivalry of coveting the other’s life, property or being tempted by other gods; they are called by God to control their potential of violence for the sake of life.

While the active limitation of violence is the dominant theme of the biblical ethos, the ambiguity appears in passages which present God as the origin of war and violence, and especially in the passages about the wars of conquest connected with Israel’s entry into the promised land. These wars which are presented as executing a divine command, especially with regard to placing the ban on the conquered community, have often been characterized as "holy wars", thus seemingly giving a religious legitimation to war with highly questionable consequences in later history of wars fought with religious sanctioning. What is mostly being overlooked, however, is the fact that these wars are taken out of human control: war is not considered as a legitimate means of human politics. The fighting of war is under the exclusive control of God; it is God’s ultimate means to save and protect the people who are urged to entrust themselves to God’s power who will struggle for them. This becomes the basis of the prophetic criticism of the power politics of the kings of Israel and of the expectation of a final end to war and violence when people will no longer fight against each other but forge their instruments of war into tools for cultivation (Is 2/Micah 4).

The other biblical context in which violent language is being used in direct reference to God are the many psalms of lamentation which call on God to destroy an oppressive enemy. These psalms are to be read first of all as a manifestation of the experience of violence, of being exploited, marginalized and treated unjustly. However, based on the faith conviction that revenging the victims of injustice and restoring the weak to their rightful place is in the hands of God, these psalms present their anger and feelings of aggression to God instead of repressing them or acting them out against the enemy. They entrust retribution and retaliation to God as the final judge who will vindicate the victims of violence. This conviction that God takes the side of those who suffer under and become the victims of violence can be regarded as the common thread throughout the biblical tradition.

Very often, Christian interpreters place the response to violence which is found in the realism of the Hebrew Bible in contrast to the renunciation of violence by Jesus, especially in the sermon on the Mount. Thus a tension or even contradiction is being introduced into the biblical tradition. However, Jesus was as realistic about the logic of violence as the tradition of the Hebrew Bible which nurtured his own faith. He knew that those "who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52). Violence cannot be overcome by violence; for any violent resistance against violence is subject to the same logic and only continues the cycle of violence. Therefore this cycle, the very dynamic of violence, must be interrupted at its source, i.e. regarding the other as a rival and potential enemy. The renunciation of violence which Jesus teaches in the sermon on the Mount is not an advice of acquiescence and passive submission, but an encouragement to refuse to respond to violence on its own terms and the effort to transform a situation of confrontation and enmity into a relationship of communication and mutuality. This alternative praxis which actively challenges the logic of violence is rooted in the conviction that God will ultimately overcome the evil of violence and anticipates God’s rule of love and compassion.

The greatest challenge for the Christian interpretation of the relationship between religion and violence has been the violent death of Jesus and its significance. Was his death on the cross a necessary part of his mission or was it rather a sign of ultimate failure? Does the violence of his death have a place in God’s plan or was it rather the evidence of his having been abandoned? How to understand that God would allow the one who had completely entrusted his life and mission into God’s hands to become a victim of violence?

The confession of the church that God raised Jesus from the dead and thus vindicated him to be acclaimed as the Christ who is present in the life of the church shifts the eyes of faith away from his death, but it still leaves the question of the relation of this fact of violence and the will of God.

Very early the Christian community has tried to understand the death of Jesus in the light of the prophetic image of the suffering servant of God and especially the passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Here we have a classical representation of the vicarious suffering of an innocent victim who, as the scapegoat, assures the peace of the community: "Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (Is 53:6). Like the suffering of the servant, the violent death of Jesus was interpreted as a vicarious sacrifice to liberate humanity from the powers of sin and death.

This sacrificial interpretation of the meaning of the violent death of Jesus has continued to shape Christian thinking especially in the form of the medieval doctrine of atonement by Anselm of Canterbury. According to this understanding, God’s righteous wrath over human sinfulness demanded satisfaction which could only be achieved through the vicarious self-sacrifice of his innocent son. Here violence is intimately linked with the image of God bringing us back to the ambiguity of the sacred as pointed out before.

However, if we approach the question from the biblical image of God who seeks to contain violence, taking the side of and protecting the victims of violence, and if we consider Jesus’ own refusal to respond to violence with violent means, but rather to establish an alternative praxis of overcoming enmity and violence by love and forgiveness, we could understand his vicarious suffering and death as God’s way to unmask the logic of violence and its sacrificial legitimation and thus to break the cycle of violence and death. The violence which was meant to destroy and eliminate Jesus has lost its mythical sacred power through his very death and resurrection. Thus the link between religion and violence, the possibility of religious legitimation of violence, is abolished. A similar interpretation is reached by René Girard in the second of his books referred to above.

Reception and critical assessment

The experience of these past decades and especially since 1989/90, but also the intensive ecumenical discussions about war and peace have initiated a critical assessment of the Christian tradition regarding religion and violence. For the longest period, however, and until the devastations of the Second World War, the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Christian churches have followed the dominant trend which Walter Wink has characterized as being under the influence of the "myth of redemptive violence". While the early Christian community followed the example of the alternative praxis initiated by Jesus and the apostles and saw in the non-violent witness of the martyrs the seedbed of the church, things changed when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. The use of war and violence for the purpose of maintaining and expanding the unity of the church and the empire became an accepted feature. The details are known and do not need to be rehearsed again: the persecuted church of the first centuries became itself an agent of persecution, first against Jews in the Byzantine Empire, then in the form of the militant missionary expansion into northern Europe, leading to the compulsory baptism of whole peoples under the threat of the sword. These were followed by the crusades to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim rule and found their continuation in the Inquisition and the Reconquista in Spain, and finally the violent incursion of the Conquista into Latin America and the culmination of this dark side of the Christian symbiosis of religion and violence with the wars of religion in the period of the Reformation and post-Reformation in Europe.

The traces of this unholy alliance of religion and violence are still with us in the crusading language of the "war on terrorism", in the justification of the use of war and violence for the purposes of maintaining order and justice ("just war"), in the dualistic view of the human condition and of the world which operates with a clear distinction between good and evil, friend and enemy, often supported by arguments from apocalyptic language about the eschatological struggle between the rule of God and the powers of darkness.

Meanwhile, Christian consciousness and the discussion in the churches have become more careful and critical over against the influence of this tradition. Thus feminist critique has made us aware that behind this mentality lie hidden assumptions regarding human nature and the exercise of power which are supported by a patriarchal image of God. It has further drawn attention to the fact that the traditional subordination of women in church and society, including its potentially violent consequences, has its parallels in the attitude of human domination over nature and its violent exploitation for human interests. Both have their roots in and are being reinforced by what Walter Wink calls the "myth of redemptive violence" which continues to be operative, at least in popular Christian thinking.

The ecumenical discussion on war and peace as well as on violence and non-violence has put in motion another process of critical assessment. The wide-ranging debate on nuclear arms has led to a revision of the classical attitude to war in the sense that wars fought with weapons of mass destruction contradict the Spirit of Christ and that Christians should refuse to participate in such wars. More recently the JPIC process has sharpened the critical challenge through the commitment to promote the peace of Christ, to adopt active and life-promoting non-violence as the response to conflict resolution and to work towards overcoming the institution of war, i.e. to de-legitimize war and the use of force as accepted means of politics in inter-state relations. For the first time the pacifist witness of the historic peace churches has been taken seriously in ecumenical discussion.

The debates around the Gulf War in 1991 and more recently around the issue of the "protection of endangered populations in situations of armed conflict" or the response to the challenge of international "terrorism" indicate that the self-critical assessment and re-orientation in the Christian churches has not yet been completed. The decision of the Harare assembly to proclaim the period 2001-2010 as an "Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence" constitutes a formal commitment of the WCC to further this continuing debate.

The task ahead of us both in internal Christian critical reflection and in interreligious encounter and dialogue is to unmask the logic and dynamic of violence and its dehumanizing and destructive consequences. In the tradition of most cultures and religions the ugly face of violence was covered in mythological terms by associating violence with the powers of the sacred which was experienced as both threatening and redemptive. The rules and laws which were meant to control and limit the potential of violence in the life of human community drew their authority from sacred sources. We have seen that the biblical tradition shared by Jews and Christians began to dissolve this mythological alliance of religion and violence.

Today we are experiencing an unimaginable increase of the destructive potential of violence, on the one hand, which is accompanied by a radical de-sacralization and thus brings to the fore the ugly face and the brutal logic of violence leading to a "culture of violence". On the other hand, the obvious lack of legitimacy surrounding the use of violence leads to pressure on the religious communities and their leaders to provide again a cover of moral and religious legitimacy if only for the limited period of a situation of violent confrontation or conflict. This instrumentalization of religion has become a scandal and must be denounced as such. Instead religious communities and their leaders should, through interreligious encounter and dialogue, work towards solemn mutual commitments to withdraw any moral or ethical legitimation from the use of violent means in response to conflict or in the pursuit of political, economic, cultural and even less religious ends. The unholy alliance between religion and violence must be broken for the sake of life for all.

The consequence must be a critical realism about the dynamics of violence in contemporary life and its roots in a view of human nature as being under the domination of the struggle for survival in which only the strongest and fittest will be able to maintain themselves. This alleged realistic view is a denial both of human freedom and of the human capacity for sympathy and solidarity, for forming communities of mutuality and cooperation. In fact human identity is formed primarily in positive and supportive relationships of reciprocity rather than in antagonistic or competitive relationships of struggle. Human beings have a fundamental need for belonging and for recognition. The formation of group identity over against a common enemy is a transitory phase in the search for a more inclusive and mature form of identity.

All religions are trustees of the wisdom of nurturing and maintaining community and of shaping right and mutually sustainable relationships. Violence in all its forms, whether interpersonal, social or structural, constitutes a break and a denial of community. It reflects the inability or the refusal to live with differences, to acknowledge the otherness of the other. It arises from the urge to shape the other according to one’s own image, to dominate or in the extreme case to exclude or eliminate the other as a threat to one’s own identity.

It is precisely the encounter with the holy, with God as the transcendent other, which is the source of the basic trust in oneself, in other persons and in the world, and thus the basis of community in the sense of engaging in trusted relationships with those who are and remain different. Violence is not innate in human nature. Humans are capable of transforming the destructive energy of violence into a constructive force nurturing life. The struggle against the "spirit, logic and praxis of violence" includes more than the development and application of ways of peaceful non-violent means of resolving conflicts. It is a moral and spiritual struggle in which the religious communities have to take the lead, beginning with the critical assessment of their own involvement in the emergence of a culture of violence.