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While Prayer is Peaceful, Violence is Often in Name of God

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published Sunday, June 11, 2006 in the MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, MA.]

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” – Jesus Christ, as quoted in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Those who reject our signs, we shall soon cast into the fire.” – The Koran, Islam’s holy book.

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom … entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods … thou shalt surely kill him.” – Deuteronomy, from the Torah

Violence in the name of religion is often portrayed as the purview of psychopaths who twist the divine word of God to suit their own destructive purposes.

Christians today denounce atrocities committed by their religious forebears during the Inquisition and Crusades. President Bush calls Islam a “religion of peace,” despite the murder of American innocents on 9/11 in the name of Allah.

But is religious violence a problem of people, or a problem of scripture?

Throughout known history, murderers have found inspiration for their deeds in the words of God, as relayed to humans in books like the Torah, Koran and the Christian Bible. Yet most religious people are peaceful, and many are spurred by religion to commit great acts of compassion.

The scripture of the world’s major religions provide justification for both good and evil, according to Hector Avalos, author of the 2005 book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

“You have violence in every one of these scriptures, whether it’s what you call the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Koran. The endorsement of violence is there,” said Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University.

Mainstream followers of religion point out that holy texts also endorse peace and love, and claim perpetrators of religious violence are not following the true path of God.

“The problem is that picking the violent passages as the true representation of a religion is just as much a theological judgment as picking the peaceful ones,” Avalos said. “There’s really very little difference in the justification for picking one passage over another.”

Many clerics, however, say there are sound theological reasons to reject violence in favor of peace.

In chapter 13 of Deuteronomy, a book that is part of both the Christian and Jewish Bibles, there is a passage in which God seems to instruct believers to murder nonbelievers, even if they happen to be immediate family members.

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods … thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God.”

But this passage cannot be seen as an instruction to kill, because the Bible is further illuminated by oral tradition which prevents Jews from taking the law into their own hands, according to orthodox Rabbi Levi Fogelman of the Chabad Center in Natick.

“The written Bible in the Jewish tradition is like Cliffs Notes. It is like Cliffs Notes and it can only be understood through the oral tradition that was transmitted (at Mount Sinai) and ultimately written down to become the Talmud,” Fogelman said.

Murder and kidnapping are punishable by death in Jewish law, but only after trial in front of a 23-judge court, which can convict someone if there are witnesses and if the alleged criminal was warned immediately before committing the crime, Fogelman said.

Such a court no longer exists. “Those laws of capital punishment don’t apply nowadays. There is no Jewish court for capital offenses since the destruction of the temple 2,000 years ago,” Fogelman said. “According to Jewish law, no Jewish court is permitted to deal with capital punishment in today’s times.”

Slavery, which is accepted in the Torah, is also no longer allowed under Jewish law because of the absence of this court, Fogelman said.

‘Christ commands it’

Jesus Christ, a Jewish rabbi who is considered the Son of God by Christians, is praised to this day for spreading a message of peace. Yet some have invoked Christ’s name to justify violence.

In a 1095 speech that launched the First Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims, Pope Urban II asked Christians to “destroy that vile race.”

“Christ commands it,” Urban II proclaimed.

Christ himself told followers he did not come to Earth to pursue peaceful aims.

In Matthew, Chapter 10, Christ says: “Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I came to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it.”

Bruce Daggett, an associate pastor at Westgate Church in Weston, believes the Bible is the literal word of God. But God’s words must often be interpreted figuratively, Daggett said.

“When you say ‘literal word of God,’ you have to understand there are certain figures of speech, there are certain hyperbole,” Daggett said.

Daggett reads the Matthew passage to mean not that violence is the purpose of Jesus’s arrival but the result, because people who reject Christ’s teachings attack him. The sword Christ said he will bring is figurative, Daggett said.

“We’re not reading those passages in the congregation and saying ‘take up arms!'” Daggett said. “There’s nothing in Jesus’s words in any way, there’s no commission in Christ to say, ‘take up arms and force people to become believers.’ It’s the exact opposite.”

In Revelation, Chapter 2, Jesus condemns Jezebel for committing adultery and not repenting for her fornication. To punish her, Christ says, “I will kill her children with death.”

Instead of seeing this as an endorsement of murdering children, Daggett says Jesus is picturing an end time when there will be judgment against Jezebel, and that her “children” are not her literal offspring but those who follow her path.

Incompatible beliefs

In his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris argues that intolerance is intrinsic to religion because of the exclusive claims of infallibility made in each holy text. The incompatible beliefs expressed by our many gods lead us inexorably to kill one another, Harris says.

“Once a person believes–really believes–that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one,” Harris wrote.

Harris argues that despite the enormous role religion plays in public and private life, mainstream society considers the criticism of a person’s faith to be taboo.

When Muslim suicide bombers blow themselves up and kill innocents, commentators ignore religious motives and instead attribute the murders solely to political and economic goals, Harris writes.

The author, an atheist who has studied philosophy, religion and the neural basis of belief, writes extensively on the horrors of the Inquisition, and criticizes Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza for thwarting peace by claiming a Biblical right to Palestinian land.

But he reserves his harshest criticism for Islam, which he says is inspiring more violence than any other creed in today’s world. He quotes a New York Times story about violence between Hindus and Muslims in India in 2002 that was triggered by religious differences:

“Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched. Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then … set on fire. A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of [a] sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city.”

Moderate Muslims and American politicians are quick to say there is no direct link between Islam and terrorism, Harris writes, but the Koran specifically instructs Muslims to wage war on infidels.

The following quotes from the Koran illustrate this point:

“Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous.” – Koran 9:123

“Those who reject our signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: For Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.” – Koran 4:56

“Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them.” – Koran 9:5

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group in Washington, D.C., declined to discuss specific passages from the Koran but said descriptions of violence in the book are merely “references to struggles,” not instructions to kill.

“The Muslim community gets hit with these alleged violent verses in the Koran and this means Muslims are ordered to be violent from the beginning to the end. It’s ridiculous,” Hooper said. “You can pick apart any religious text with ill will and try to distort it to mean something it doesn’t mean for the followers of that text.”

But Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym for a man born in India who discarded Islam and wrote the book, Why I am Not a Muslim, rejected the notion that terrorism and Islam are not connected in a statement he issued after the 9/11 attacks.

“To pretend that Islam has nothing to do with Terrorist Tuesday is to willfully ignore the obvious and to forever misinterpret events,” Warraq wrote. “Without Islam the long-term strategy and individual acts of violence by Usama Bin Laden and his followers make little sense.”

Underpinnings of war

Avalos believes all violence is caused by a scarcity of resources. Religion, according to his theory, creates scarce resources in several ways: by assigning Biblical importance to otherwise unremarkable land, awarding benefits only to people who believe in a certain God, and promising salvation only to those who follow a certain creed.

In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jews and Palestinians fight over land that is granted value almost entirely by religious belief, Avalos said. Osama bin Laden complains that the United States defiles sacred land by placing bases in Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s “Law of Return,” which allows Jews but not Palestinians to claim citizenship there, relies on religious division to deny a resource to an entire people, he said.

“The Law of Return is sort of a group privilege conferred on you that Palestinians don’t have. That is a scarcity that is going to cause conflict. You can see that religions create scarcity that is just as powerful as oil or money,” Avalos said.

Different interpretations

Thousands of years after man first began worshiping gods, religion continues to have a profound effect on society and the personal lives of its adherents. The interpretation of religious scripture for the purposes of both good and evil will continue to shape the world for many years to come.

One thing we can be sure of is that a single passage in the Bible or Koran can have many different interpretations. Each translation can be considered an interpretation itself, said Rabbi David Thomas of Congregation Beth El, a reform synagogue in Sudbury.

For each passage of violence in the Bible there are passages of “great compassion,” Thomas said. But he believes it is important not to ignore the politically incorrect parts of scripture.

“We all tend to read around some of the more challenging and difficult passages,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important to strive not to do that.”

Without the proper context, Rabbi Fogelman said it is possible readers of the Torah might take its words as instructions to commit violence.

“If they don’t have the background of the way the Bible works, yes, I could see people doing that,” Fogelman said. “Anything could be taken out of context.”

Thomas believes the Bible is a human work, not the literal word of God. He rejects the book’s prohibition of homosexuality, and says Deuteronomy’s call for killing nonbelievers is “a very problematic passage.”

The chapter’s controversial nature, Thomas said, can be seen in a first century translation that changes the text so it instructs Jews to “report” nonbelievers, instead of killing them.

“It seems,” Thomas said, “we’ve been uncomfortable with this text for a good 2,000 years.”

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