Religion: Catalyst for Violence or Peace?

Terry Lovat and Robert Crotty were finally professed members of the Passionist Congregation, and movers and shakers in the 1970’s. Both have since left the congregation but continued to pursue academic and teaching careers. Recently they co-authored a book entitled: ‘Reconciling Islam, Christianity and Judaism.’

Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat gave an address to the Broken Bay Institute – Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (BBI-ACBC) 11th eConference held on the 23rd of June, 2015 based on the argument of his book. What follows is the sum of his presentation. I took the written form of his presentation and shortened it a little and improved some of theTerry-Lovat-profile sentence structures for better flow. Given this was simply the written form of his lecture, I hope I have managed to capture the fluidity of his spoken version of the presentation, which I believe has much food for reflection in this time when religious fundamentalism, particularly in it’s Islamic form, grabs news headlines.

“I think it is fair to say that not everybody who claims to believe in an all-loving God acts in the way that they claim they believe. Followers of religion have a reputation for being the most harmful and hateful people in terms of violence and harm done on the planet. As the current Pope said, we have to join the dots. Violence is the issue. Against whom and towards what are secondary. Violence is the abuse; violence is the aberration that we address today.

Again, when religion is involved in this violence, some argue naturally that the solution would perhaps be to do away with the religion. As Richard Dawkins puts it, perhaps inelegantly, “show me something religion has contributed and I even might believe.” It is a widespread sentiment and it puts all religious believers on notice. The general populace and the media critique religious belief. Amidst such critique, the preponderance of religious violence around the world, serves to sharpen minds and pens against religion in general.

Certainly, the Abrahamic faiths are not exempt. A case could be made that they are the worst offenders of all, and have been for 1000 years at least, and may well be at one of their lowest points today in terms of the global strife and heartache wrought by their relationships in and between each other. 

When the sacred texts and traditions seem to be drawn on by perpetrators of violence, and used to justify dastardly deeds, then it seems their reputation as scourges rather than beneficent to humanity is sealed.

What can we say to this when the words that justify such behaviour are direct quotes from their scriptures, there for all to see? It seems that those of us who claim to believe in the all-loving Abrahamic God are under more pressure than ever to justify our beliefs, including in terms of the same sacred texts and scholarly traditions that seem to be too easily used to justify violent behaviour.

We are under pains to loudly reject all unjust violence done in the name of the God of Abraham and ensure that no one can ever authentically justify this behaviour. We need to religion-of-peacehave readily on our lips the words from Psalm 34: “Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” From the Gospel of John: “Peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” Or Surah 21 of the Koran: “We have not sent you except to be a provider of mercy and peace to all humankind.”

The problem is that scriptural texts, like for instance the words in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 10: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the world. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword,” are words that have been used to justify Christians taking up arms against each other and against non-Christians. But these words are not as they seem and can only be understood in the wider context of the overall beneficent purpose of the sacred text and the tradition that sits behind it. In other words, it is incumbent amongst the leaders of the Abrahamic faiths to be somewhat literate about their own sacred texts and traditions, as well as each other’s, so that they cannot be used to justify devilish behaviour.

In the current world situation and concern, it is the Koran that is the focal point of criticism. But the Koran provides warnings against mistaking Satan for God, as we find in any of the texts.

In Surah 17 we read, “From Allah, tell my servants they should speak in a kindly manner even after those who do not share their beliefs. Verily, Satan is always ready to stir up discord between men for verily Satan is man’s foe. Hence we have not sent you with power to determine the faith of others.”

That is a clear Koranic mandate for religious tolerance and multi-faith acceptance. We see that believers can unwittingly do the work of Satan, for Satan can so easily pose as God. I am not talking here about a reptilian creature with a pointed tail and pitchfork, but rather the disposition towards evil that we carry within us.

But we see a more specific warning about the most likely circumstances in which Satan will deceive people into thinking they are doing God’s work when they are actually doing Satan’s. The circumstances are those in which one is forcing one’s belief onto others – when one is so convinced that only I or we are the true believers, the authentic people of Islam-violenceGod, the only chosen ones, the only ones who can be saved, that we feel justified in judging, persecuting and even killing those who threaten this belief by holding to another one.

This history of violence between the Abrahamic faiths is like family squabbles, which tend to be the worst of all — the brother or sister who thinks only they are the right inheritor of family goods. Isn’t it a statistic that family fighting over property and estates is what keeps lawyers in business more than any other single thing?

In our book ‘Reconciling Islam, Christianity and Judaism’, my co-author Robert Crotty and I refer to the disposition in each of the Abrahamic faiths of what we call the exclusivist trigger. A trigger that when pulled by one of the faiths makes peace impossible and violence almost inevitable. This could be a particularly exclusivist view among some Jews of what being the chosen people means and implies; among Christians that there is no salvation outside the church; or among some Muslims, that their claims to being the fulfillment of Abrahamic promise obliterates the claims of the other siblings. Each has the potential to be as damaging as the other, seeing Jews, Christians or Muslims doing the work of Satan. This really is siblings at war, which can be the worst wars of all.

What is the solution? It continues to evade us 1000 years on and sees many of the world’s most parlous spots, those most threatening to global peace, somehow associated with the Abrahamic dispute. An element of the solution is pragmatism, which works like common convivencia-1-638.jpg?cb=1363102897sense. Another is theological. I would like to speak to both and use the examples of mediaeval Convivencia [SEE Wikipedia: La Convivencia — The Coexistence], which I will explain as I go along, as illustrations in each case.

We must address situations of mixed populations where the population of one of the faiths endures conditions of deprivation. Where this is present, the trigger is easily pulled as a desperation measure to right a wrong, to bring about a basic human justice.

It becomes a tool by which whole populations of alienated people can be militarized around an apparently just cause. The religious and theological overlay on the cause, preached by a charismatic cleric from a holy book, becomes a very coercive theatre for a vulnerable audience. The promise of better things if the population follow the dictates, seemingly justified, by the text are conjoined to give effect to a combined social and religious solution. Namely, justice in this world and salvation in the next. A tantalizing and emotion-charged duo.

When we explore the mediaeval historical event known as Convivencia, long periods that saw Muslims, Christians and Jews living successfully together in Spain, we find that an essential feature was relative equity in the social and justice fabric of the region. Everyone regardless of religious affiliation had reasonable access to the goods of society, ensuring a necessary measure of social cohesion and stability. A settled population, living reasonably well and fairly, is an essential basis for any kind of religious harmony. And minimizes the potential for the exclusivist trigger, even if pulled by the occasional fanatic.

In their day, Palermo, Toledo and Cordoba, offer different examples of how Convivencia worked the best part of 800 years. In each case the Muslim population was dominant, either administratively or by influence. Cordoba was controlled by a succession of caliphates during this period. The government philosophy was to lead from the front and engage the population in a common task of material and cultural development, including the provision of education, welfare and health care for all. As a result, Cordoba became the largest and most civilized metropolis, far ahead of anything in northern Europe at the time.

The Muslim majority respected and supported the Jewish and Christian minorities and the Jewish and Christian populations worked cooperatively with their Muslim neighbours. Was it all sweetness and light? Was there never greed, exclusivism? Granted human nature, hardly. But this was a time many hundreds of years before the European ReligionEnlightenment would begin taking seriously the notion of human rights, social justice and fairness. This is the pragmatic aspect of Convivencia, ensuring a stable social setting — something that still evades us today.

Once stable polity is in place, it is possible to work through education and community effort to instill a level of shared values that become a social glue to hold the population together. Among these values are explicitly religious ones. Combined with social stability, some level of shared values is the cherry on the cake of staving off fanaticism. Because fanaticism is fuelled by religion, sharing religious values is a potent social glue. We see this in Convivencia, where the Abrahamic values were part of the social fabric that maintained stability.

It was built around a Muslim conception of a common heritage. Jews and Christians were considered peoples of the book, important minorities. Muslims recognise the importance of the other two religions in their cultural development. They realised that they shared the same God along with many of the major stories that conveyed this God to the world.

It is important to realize that Islam is the only theology that incorporates the other two religions. Convivencia was not just a result of the fairly magnanimous Muslim leadership, although it is worth recalling it given the stereotypes and prejudice that abound today about Islam. It also relied on the Christian and Jewish populations accepting the multicultural and multi-faith reality of their situation.

Each of the religions had to resist the urge to pull the exclusivist trigger and accept the legitimate claims of the other two. The Abrahamic God was truly the God of the world. Not a partial god but a universal god. You might say their call was, let God be God. For God’s sake, let God be God!

One is reminded of one of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s lines, that God should never be seen as an object of religion, but as lord of the world. Least of all, can the lord of the world become the lord of a particular religion — the God who becomes a kind of CEO and patron of one of the forms of religion? This is surely the God made in human image. A tiny god — tiny of mind, tiny of purpose, constructed to bring solace to the insecure, to those who cannot cope with living in a world characterised by difference — difference of species, culture and belief. When the tiny god of the insecure becomes the instrument for human cruelty and devastation of other species on the planet, then this tiny god is either the feeblest and most useless form of human construction, or it really has become a devil.

We could excuse previous generations for worshiping such gods, but for us there is no excuse. We live in a truly global world. The size and complexity of the world we live in must surely challenge the notion of tiny, partial gods. Gods who are not really God.

It is less than 30 years since the excommunication of Galileo was overturned, excommunicated in the 17th Century for the theory that that the sun was the centre of the universe. Just a few years later, Isaac Newton warned that Galileo was not only right in that respect, but he may have understated the truth and maybe even the sun was not the centre. Even then he could see that traditional images of the world and God would be challenged by the science that was to come.

We now know that Galileo’s world, our own solar system, is just one in our galaxy and there are 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way galaxy and astrophysicists are still counting. We now know that there are billions of galaxies outside the Milky Way Galaxy, Earthriseand it may be infinite. In this mind-blowing era of scientific facts, assuming we are talking about the God of the universe and therefore the one who created and loves all of it, the idea of a God who cares only about this planet floating at the edge of this galaxy cannot be sustained. As Carl Sagan put it… ‘A God who only cares about a certain number of people on this planet, a certain type of people’… It is time to think that might be Satan and not God.

So it is time to say, put away your satanic claims of exclusivity. Let God be God. Let’s take note of the prophet, “Beware — whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will, I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” Can anything be clearer?

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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