Sunday, September 11, 2016

Religion and Violence

I remember what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot. I was waiting in the gym at Lindenwood Elementary School to return to 3rd grade. It was a rainy day and so we couldn't play in the school yard after returning from lunch at home. And that's when my friend Kenny Cross, sitting next to me on the bench, told me the president was shot. I didn't believe him. Until later that afternoon when the teacher interrupted our rehearsal of the Thanksgiving play to confirm what my friend said. All the girls cried. I was Turkey #3 and I was a kid, so I was irritated that our rehearsal came to a screeching halt.

I remember where I was 6 years later when the first man walked on the moon. I had to switch from channel 11 where they were showing Arsenic and Old Lace to one of the three major networks in order to watch what I knew was tremendously historic. But I was still a kid so I was still irritated.

I remember where I was when President Reagan was shot. I was in orientation at St. Louis University Hospital. We had just watched an instructional video and when the tape was stopped, the TV went back to the broadcast channel it was on and we were smack dab in the middle of the coverage. It had just happened. I was shocked.

I remember where I was the Challenger space shuttle exploded upon liftoff. I was writing and rewriting a news report for my radio class.

I remember where I was when the Columbia space shuttle exploded upon re-entry. I was helping with the Bahia Honda beach clean up St. Francis used to do.

You probably remember where you were and what you were doing on most, if not all of those days. And I bet you all remember what you were doing exactly 15 years ago today...when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by commercial airliners and a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field when the passengers revolted against the hijackers.

It's sad that most of those dates we remember for terrible reasons. One was a scientific and technical triumph for humanity. Two of them were technical failures. Two of them were caused by lone gunmen. Only one was caused by religious fanatics. But that last has become a day of infamy for the 21st century.

And now it seems like every few months there is a new outrage caused by religious extremists. It's caused a huge split in the attitude of people not only toward a particular religion but towards religion in general. Is there something about religion that makes people do violent things?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that religion is about ultimate values and when people feel that their ultimate values are under attack they fight back. But those ultimate values don't have to be religious. They can be ethnic. They can be political. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were both officially atheistic systems. And under Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, they killed 60 million people. On, they occupy the number 2 and number 7 slots of the list of (Possibly) the Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other. 60 million is just 6 million shy of the death toll of World War Two, which is number one on the list. In fact of the events listed only one can be said to have been started over purely religious reasons: the Thirty Years War, with an estimated death toll of 7.5 million. Actually, it was a series of wars kicked off when the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose his Roman Catholicism on all his subjects and triggered a Protestant revolt. But by the end, most of the major powers in Europe joined in and the main conflict became the Hapsburg succession, which is why Roman Catholic France joined the Protestant side and why the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Orthodox Russia gave support as well. It concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, whose principles led to the recognition of national self-determination and co-existing sovereign states, the idea that such states should not interfere in the internal affairs of one another and that aggression between states should be held in check by a balance of power, all of which influenced international law. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

On the religion front, people were given the right to worship as they pleased no matter where they lived. Period. As far as I know, no changes were made in the lines of any creeds, just political boundary lines. So what started as a war over religion ended up being about politics, as do almost all religious wars.

So can religion be a cause of violence? Yes. Take the Crusades with an estimated death toll of 3 million. Or the witch hunts, with an estimate of 60,000 deaths. Or the Spanish Inquisition, which clocks in at a surprisingly small 32,000, only 8,800 under Torquemada. Horrible. And indefensible. And yet nowhere near the numbers that the USSR and Communist China killed in just 1 century.

Is religion the only cause of violence? Obviously not. Ah, but is it the main cause? No again. In fact according to the Encyclopedia of War, only 7% of all wars are religious in nature. So the other 93% must be about matters--land, resources, politics, glory.

Oh, and by the way, the original suicide bombers were the Tamil Tigers, Marxists who wanted India out of Sri Lanka. So today's religious extremists can thank another atheist group for that technique.

The second part of my answer to whether religion can make people violent was “and no.” The key word in the question is “make.” In other words, can you take an otherwise non-violent person and make him violent simply by exposing him to religion? The answer is “No.” NPR featured an interview with a former ISIS member, a middle class German kid, now imprisoned, who went to Syria. He said that all throughout his training they kept approaching him about becoming a suicide bomber. He kept saying “No” and they would go away and ask him again in another week or two. When a video he was in turned into a beheading, he left. We think “How could he not know what he was getting into?” But that wasn't why he went. He thought he was helping his fellow Muslims. He didn't sign up to kill them, which is mostly what ISIS does. There is a reason why Al-Queda and ISIS like to recruit in prison. They want people who already have little regard for others and for laws. And, if they are in Europe, they want criminals because they can get access to guns. In America, that's not important, because they think our gun laws are—their words, not mine—“dumb.” They want Americans for their passports. Contrary to popular opinion, our current immigration laws and asylum laws make it difficult for them to come in. So they recruit those born in America to operate in America.

They also don't look for the poor so much as for idealistic youth looking for a group to belong to and a cause to support. It helps if you are a minority in your country and are treated badly, but if you are not, they will fan the flames of hatred by showing you examples of Muslims in other parts of the world being treated badly by the West. The blog of one lone wolf recruit shows that it was his empathy for fellow Muslims suffering that led to his self-radicalization. Authorities picked him up before he could do any harm. One wonders if he would have ended up like the German recruit and become revolted by ISIS killing other Muslims. Because ISIS is to Islam what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity, if the Westboro Baptist Church wasn't satisfied with just waiting for God to throw 99% of all other Christians into hell but felt they had to help him out...a lot.

So religion cannot make a person violent. Violent people make people violent. They do so by either being violent to you (this is the reason that the children of domestic abuse tend to become domestic abusers) or they make you violent by convincing you that violence is the only way to get what you want, whether it's money or fame or power or revenge or a sex slave or a caliphate.

If you have more than 1 child, you know that people can fight over literally anything! How many wars are little more that jacked up versions of “He's on my side of the car?” In the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, a random Coke bottle causes fights among previously peaceful bush folk because it is both unique and useful and therefore an object of desire. The causes of human violence arise from the human heart: from desires like lust and greed, from envy of others' privilege, from rage over injustice or others' laziness and from fears--fears of those different from us or fears of going without our basic needs being met. The Syrian Civil War was due in part to a shortage of bread, as was the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The more important question is “Why doesn't religion make violence go away?” Let me ask another question: “Why don't condoms make HIV and AIDS go away?” Or this: “Why are measles coming back when we have a vaccine?” There's one answer to all three questions: No thing works if you don't use it. Vaccines don't work if you think they only apply to other people and other children. A condom won't work if you leave it in your wallet or purse like it's a magic charm. Religion doesn't work if you compartmentalize it from other parts of your life.

AA and the other 12 Step programs have helped a lot of people get and stay free from alcohol and other addictions. But their mere existence alone won't do that. People have to join the program, attend the meetings, and do the steps. A doctor can't cure those who don't come to him. He can do very little for those who come but then won't comply with the regimen of diet, exercise and medicine he prescribes. And it's hardly fair to blame him if people throw out the diet and exercise and simply take the prescription he wrote them and then abuse it. But people seem to have no problem blaming religion for the people who discard key parts of it and misuse other parts. And they think that if religion doesn't magically transform a world that isn't interested in reorganizing itself along the lines of its moral principles, it doesn't really work.

People also forget that it only takes  a few people to cause mayhem for the majority. 72% of Muslims worldwide and 81% of Muslims in America said attacks against civilians were never justified, in a 2013 Pew Research Poll. That's what the average Muslim feels about terrorism. ISIS is an outlier.

As for Christians, Jesus explicitly told us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to put up the sword—this last command given to Peter who was trying to stop Jesus' arrest! Those are words from the son of God himself on the use of violence for his cause. Need I say more?

But what is amazing is that on this day in our gospel reading assigned by our lectionary is Jesus' solution to terrorism!

One of the many parts of the recent episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (“What Makes a Terrorist?”) that intrigued me was that the way terrorists recruit is through networks. They have them in prisons but they also work through friends, family and social networking sites. And like I said they look for the impressionable. It really helps if the person feels alienated from his country or culture. Because people who are happy with themselves or the way things are don't want to change the status quo. So they look for outcasts.

In Luke 15:1-10, Jesus is criticised for welcoming sinners and even eating with them. He responds, not by telling them that a doctor's place is with the sick not the healthy, as he does in Matthew 9:12, but instead tells 3 parables. The third one, the so-called Prodigal Son, is the one we usually concentrate on. Our lectionary ends just before Jesus gets to that one. And I'm glad because the point of that one is slightly different than these two. Instead we get a picture of how a shepherd, realizing he has lost one sheep out of a hundred will go looking for it, and how a woman who loses one coin out of 10, which represents a day's wages, will sweep the house till she finds it. And Jesus tells us how everyone in God's presence rejoices over just one person returning to the fold. In other words, Jesus is saying “leave no one behind.”

You want to win someone over? Then be welcoming. You want to bring someone to church? Then calling him a sinner is probably not the best strategy. You want someone to agree with you? Then calling him an idiot won't help. You want someone not to blow up people in your country? Then making them feel unwelcome in your country is counterproductive. In that same Through the Wormhole episode, one social scientist shows how including people in a group, through something as simple as using language like “we” and “our” and “us," will get most of them to eventually say they will sacrifice themselves to save the group! So when we look at a Muslim and say, “You are not one of us” but ISIS says to him, “You are one of us,” to whom will that person gravitate?

But come on! Jesus' parable about searching for the lost sheep and bringing him back is a way to fight terrorism? Being welcoming to radicals will change them? What are you thinking? 

I'm thinking of something I learned from the NPR podcast Invisibilia. In the episode “Flip the Script” Hanna Rosen tells how in 2012 the Danish town of Aarhus started noticing a lot of Muslim youths had gone missing. Actually, the Muslim community noticed it and went to the police. Two officers, Allan Aarslev and Thorlief Link, caught the calls from hysterical parents. They eventually realized that these Muslim kids were going to Syria to be radicalized. At a time when most of Europe was dealing with this by lowering the boom on Muslims, these cops flipped the script. Or took a page from the gospel, perhaps unwittingly.

Aarslev and Link let their Muslim community know that if any of their kids returned to Denmark from Syria, they would be welcomed. They should call the officers and they would receive help going back to school, getting an apartment, meeting a mentor or a psychiatrist and whatever else they need to become integrated again as a Danish citizen.

And it worked! 34 kids left. Some were killed or captured. But of the 18 kids who left Aarhus and returned, they all got calls from Aarslev or Link and ended up in their office and took advantage of the program. As have 330 other potential radicals. So far there have been no terrorist attacks in Aarhus, Denmark. And the number of young people leaving for Syria just 1 in 2015.

Social scientists call this noncomplementary behavior. Complementary behavior is treating others the way they treat you. You are nice to them if they are nice to you. You treat them badly if they treat you badly. Jesus is the champion of noncomplementary behavior. If they berate you, bless them. If they persecute you, pray for them. If they wrong you, forgive them...even if they are nailing you to the cross at the time!

I remember how I felt on 9/11. You do, too. And I know why more people don't feel like doing what Jesus said. But that's no excuse. If he is truly our Lord and God, if we say we are his followers, we know what we've got to do. And if that scares us, that's why he said we need to have faith in him. If we feel we are signing our death warrant, well, he did say we need to take up our cross. We need to trust him, the living embodiment of the God who is love, and go where he has trod. If we don't do what he says, it's our fault if it doesn't work, not his. It all comes down to living in the Spirit of Christ, trusting in his grace. It works if you use it. 

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