Religion and Violence

In Part Four of our interview with Miroslav Volf, he discusses the complicated relationship between religion and violence.



Faith, community and identity


In Part Four of our interview with Miroslav Volf, he discusses the complicated relationship between religion and violence.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale. Volf is the author of a 150 editorials and 11 books including Exclusion and Embrace as well as The End of Memory – Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. At Yale he teaches a class with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on ‘Faith and Globalization.’ Volf has been described as “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

A victim of intense and sustained interrogation by the government of then communist Yugoslavia, Volf’s work focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation and remembering wrongs sustained in the past. He maintains that the Christian vision of the world entails the possibility of overcoming the past for both the victim and the perpetrator of wrongs.

In this five-part interview conducted at Yale, Volf explains his ideas on forgiveness, memory and identity. He also talks about religion and violence and why he thinks, contra Dawkins and Hitchens, more religion (of a particular kind) not less can lead the way to a peaceful future.


SIMON SMART: Isn’t it true that religion, including Christianity, is at the heart of much of the conflict that afflicts the world today and has done so for centuries?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yes, Christianity has been, over its long history, frequently associated with violence; more broadly, religions have been associated with violence. And it’s a good question for us – especially those of us who are Christians – to reflect on why that is the case. If you talk to any one of us, we would say, as many other representatives of religions say, that our faith is at the heart a peaceful faith. And yet, it somehow has been implicated in violence.

My own sense is that it has often done so when it has had too close of an alliance with the powers that be. So that religion – Christian faith, let me talk about Christian faith – has the potential for good, but it has then also this potential for ill, it can be simply instrumentalised to achieve goals that are extraneous to the faith itself. Then it serves as merely a kind of a blessing, as a performance enhancing drug. Troops go into battle and the priest comes there to bless, to make sure that they are as safe as possible and to crown their efforts with success. He isn’t asking whether those efforts are worth succeeding or not! And that’s the question that we always have to keep in the forefront, so that the faith sets the goals, not just blesses the means.

SIMON SMART: Now despite all this going on, you argue for more religion, not less, but it’s a particular kind of religion and that’s where your distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ religion comes in.

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yes, in response to the association between religion and violence, the response ought not to be (as it has been ever since the beginnings of the Englightenment) the marginalisation of religion: “Religion is always negative, it has contributed to violence, therefore let’s push it aside. It’s irrational, it’s self-righteous, it encourages absolutist kinds of claims” – you can go down the line, the list of all these reasons.

But for one, on pragmatic grounds, you won’t neutralise religion. Religions are the most vibrant worldviews in the contemporary world. So, on pragmatic grounds it doesn’t work. Second, I think, certainly Christian faith but also other religions, they have deep resources within them to foster a culture of peace, and if we don’t use those resources, I’m not sure that we’ll have other nearly equivalent sources in order to create that culture of peace. And therefore, we need to develop and think through the situation, about the kinds of religious convictions and allegiances which will serve to build bridges rather than to deepen conflicts.

SIMON SMART: You say that Christianity at its heart has the resources for sustaining a culture of peace. In what way is that true?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Well, I would say that for Christianity, not only does it have resources, but at its very heart it is about peace, it is about proper ways of understanding human flourishing. Why is Jesus Christ so central? Well, for one, he is at the very heart of the Christian faith, there is no Christianity without Christ. And second, and maybe in our discussion more significant, I think Jesus Christ is a uniquely appealing figure. He’s an extraordinary figure. And the more I study the life of Christ, the more I reflect about it – not so much the more you know the details and bits and pieces, but more you think about the nature of that life in its own setting and you contrast it and compare it with the way in which life is led, and what life in general is – you see how extraordinary a figure he is, a window into a deeply human way of living.

And I know of very few critics of religion and Christianity who have not been attracted to Jesus. They may have had their own tailored versions of Jesus, but nonetheless, they were still profoundly attracted to him. Nietzsche is a very good example. In one of his last works, The Antichrist, he has this kind of psychology of redemption – in a sense it’s an ode to Jesus. There’s a certain ambivalence there, but nonetheless also deep attraction.

SIMON SMART: So even for those who perhaps have rejected the authenticity of it, the story of what he represents is nonetheless very appealing?

MIROSLAV VOLF: It’s very appealing. Often there’s this phrase: “Jesus yes, church no”. What has become of the movement that Jesus initiated seems deeply problematic to many people, because it’s an institution, because it has its own problems within history. But if you look back to Jesus, the initiator of that, he’s a deeply appealing figure and remains so.

SIMON SMART: I can also imagine some people saying: “God seems more than capable of violence, and perhaps that might sanction human violence.” How do you respond to that?

MIROSLAV VOLF: It’s an interesting question, to think about the relationship between God and violence. Some people suggest that even God’s act of creating is a violent act. I think that’s not terribly persuasive to me because the relationship between God and creatures is such that God sets the whole of creation and individual creatures within that into existence. So the act of creation is a constitution of identity and not a violation of pre-existing identity, and therefore can’t be, in a sense, an act of violence.

But mostly people I suppose think about, in the Hebrew Bible, the story of Canaanites and their destruction, or they might think of the end of the New Testament and how God comes with judgment against peoples. My sense is that judgment, fundamentally, has to be made, unless there’s a transformation of the self and relationships. And often, judgment is the way in which the self is transformed. You cannot imagine a world of love inhabited by all sorts of critters that are not practising love. Name your favourite tyrant and place him in a world of love – you immediately see, if you’ve got dirty feet, you’ve got to stay out, you’ve got to clean those feet before you can come in.

So I see, especially the so-called violence at the end of the Bible, as in a sense a judgment against those who will not be reformed by love, and therefore cannot be possibly conceived as inhabitants of a world of love. Anything less seems to me a kind of mushy sentiment, and when you think through it, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And often it happens in kind of suburban areas where people forget that the peace of suburbia rests on the police presence, and they can feel free to be really kind and indiscriminately loving toward everyone.