Not all religious violence is created equal

Last week I was invited to take part in a discussion on religious violence on ABC radio. Once again the […]

Last week I was invited to take part in a discussion on religious violence on ABC radio. Once again the trigger for this was the escalation in the shocking events in Iraq and Syria that are being perpetrated in the name of Islam.

While I believe the discussion was generally a helpful one, I noticed an unhelpful idea that has been regularly smuggled in to the public debate:  that all faiths are in the same boat when it comes to religious violence. The idea seems to be that, since history regularly witnesses violence being done by people offering theological justifications in support of that violence, all these justifications are morally equivalent – maybe violent behaviour is inherent to religion, maybe it perverts it; but whichever account is true, it applies equally to all religions. This idea is usually unquestioned by commentators whether liberals, skeptics or believers.  The problem with this is that the generalisation doesn’t work. 

Some generalisations are fair enough. It seems correct to observe that humans – including of course Muslims, who are often dehumanised in this debate – overwhelmingly prefer to avoid violence and go about living a peaceful life. At the same time it is undeniable that humans have a predilection for violence, especially when they feel scared or threatened and that they do often attempt to justify their use of violence along theological/ideological grounds. This makes sense since our actions are usually driven by our beliefs.

However, these observations can’t be used to suggest that the use of violence is equally sanctioned in each world faith. Theological models of engagement with society and politics are quite radically different and this is easy to see (without resorting to the murky world of interpretation of holy texts) in the nature of their various founders’ attempts to transform society. Guatama Buddha pursued monastic disengagement and non-violence. Jesus modelled the transformative power of “weak” relational dynamics like forgiveness, self-sacrifice and servant leadership, and he explicitly forbade any attempts by his followers to use coercive violence to achieve religious ends. (Evidently, many of his subsequent followers have failed egregiously to live up to this model; the question here is whether their violent actions have been carried out in harmony with, or else in defiance of, the core of their faith.) Muhammad, however, fully embraced a prophetic and political leadership that sought to establish divine law as normative for all society. This model has been termed a “nomocracy” and includes the proper exercise of legal or military force in order to achieve its vision of a just and prosperous society.   Clearly these models display very different ethics in the use of force.

ISIS and some or all of its methods may or may not be properly Islamic; that’s for Muslims to debate. But we should recognize that as a specifically Muslim debate. Please don’t be tempted to lump Christianity in with the same moral struggles – God knows we have enough baggage of our own to be dealing with. 

Dr Richard Shumack is a part-time Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He is also on faculty at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology. His recently published book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, can be purchased here.

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