Because the New York Times’ most prominent Christmas story on that day’s eve is about furious family battles over the pressing question of white lights or colored on the Christmas tree, I am moved to write about religion and violence.
My conflict resolver’s stream of consciousness moves from family strife to violence for reasons both global and personal. Like many conflict resolvers, I am a wounded healer, raised in a family where violence alternated in alarming rapidity with the denial and suppression of conflict. This created in the children of that family a desire for peace coupled with a suspicious nature prone to strike before asking questions.
It is we ~ those raised in the cauldron of violence ~ who seek peace and proclaim it while at the same time attempting to corral a pugnacious first response to threat.
That’s the personal. I mention it not simply because I lack a religious confessor to urge me toward true acts of contrition, but also because the personal is inextricably interlinked with the political, particularly when it comes to religion.
Religious Peace and Violence
How and why do we translate our personal weakness for the cutting remark or barroom brawl into religious and political dogma? The “how” is often simply reflexive. The author of The Brain Rules tells us that these are the questions we ask when we see a stranger.
Can I eat it?
Will it eat me?
Can I mate with it?
Will it mate with me?
The “how” is also the “why” with the added apprehension that religious beliefs are based on faith and too often require the faithful to convert the unconverted by means intellectually persuasive or violently coercive.
Thus the human condition.
The Peace Part
Someone schooled in Buddhism once told me that “the world being dual, the best we can do is lean toward the light.”
Many people schooled in Christianity have told me in and out of religious congregations that the profound fallibility that burdens us is precisely what makes us human. It is only our willingness to accept forgiveness that takes us into the neighborhood of God. Incapable of perfection, we are saved by grace. Once saved, we are moved to express that which God has expressed in us and we become agents of forgiveness and reconciliation. We will never, however, stop “sinning.” The grace given is compassion for our fallibility, not the perfection of our “fallen” nature.
My Jewish friends refer me to Tikkun Olam – the principle of the world as both spiritually and materially broken ~ and in need of repair. They also tell me about the 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God.
My evolutionist friends tell me that we share with the forebears from whom we separated fifty million years ago a compelling emotional response to injustice. We also share with these distant relatives the same cognitive biases that make us respond irrationally to giving and getting. These responses ~ 50 million years in the making ~ are sufficiently deep in us that awareness is probably the best we can do without spiritual help.
My Muslim friends acknowledge the violence in their sacred text which is not significantly different from that in the sacred Jewish and Christian tomes. These teachings, all in the Abrahamic tradition, can be read leaning toward the light or toward the darkness. Muslim organizations for peace are prevalent and powerful.
As a nearly fully secularized humanist raised with the values of mainstream mid-twentieth century Protestantism and dipped in evangelical Christianity in high school, I commit my spirit to the grace of a god I am too limited to understand, too skeptical to believe in without great struggle, and too grateful for the gift-horse of pardon to kick in the teeth.
A list of my favorite books on religion and/or violence/peace are my Christmas present to my readers.
The Ambivalence of the Sacred by Scott Appleby, a great use for the Amazon gift cards you’re getting for your Kindle this holiday season.
Bargaining with the Devil ~ When to Negotiate, When to Fight by Robert Mnookin.