When Cruelty Becomes Religious Virtue


A well-known Israeli politician, Ayelet Shaked, has labeled all Palestinians as terrorists and recommended that mothers of Palestinians, since they give birth to “little snakes,” should be slaughtered. “They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists,” Shaked said, adding, “They are all our enemies and their blood should be on our hands. This also applies to the mothers of the dead terrorists.”

In the United States, a coalition of more than fifty religious leaders, led by mostly conservative Catholic, evangelical and Jewish activists, is calling on President Obama to sharply escalate military action against Islamic extremists in Iraq. They say “nothing short of the destruction” of the Islamic State can protect Christians and religious minorities now being subjected to “a campaign of genocide.” A key leader in the coalition is Robert P. George, a well-known Catholic conservative and political activist.

George drafted the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto signed by Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders that “promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”

Tragically, advocates of aggressive religious wars can still be found today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What these fanatic religious aggressors cannot legitimately claim, however, is that their positions are authentic expressions of their faiths. Every major religious tradition contains ethical principles that are incompatible with total war.

Religious xenophobia, nevertheless, is alive everywhere these days. Flying across the Atlantic, from Brussels to Chicago, a few months ago, a Muslim woman, wrapped up for prayer and praying, was sitting quietly in an aisle seat, a row in front of me. (All of a Muslim woman’s body must be covered during prayer, except for her face and hands.) A middle-aged businessman sitting next to me, nudged me and rather sarcastically whispered “Just look at her….Isn’t that disgusting.” I chuckled a bit and said “well what do you think about the lady two seats behind you?” (Behind him was a small and elderly Roman Catholic nun, saying her rosary, but equally wrapped up with only her forehead, eyes, nose, mouth and chin visible.) “She doesn’t bother me,” he said, “because she’s normal and good.”

For more than thirty years I have been studying the impact of religion and religions on political and cultural values. Religions can generate a lot of heat and hatred. (I learned a year ago that, if one wants a pleasant time while vacationing on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia, one does not ask or speak about the Serbs.) Religious people, in the name of their religion, can regress and virtue can become cruel inhumanity. The issue, however, is more fundamental than fanatical religion. It is about a human failure at being human.

Seeing the “other” as a threat to personal or group identity, security, or power. The other becomes the enemy. Life becomes a battle between “them” and “us,” and we have been watching it play out this month in Gaza, Iraq, Ferguson, Missouri….and at the Vatican, where the “them” is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

One can condemn, bomb, shoot, rape, or kill the “them” but such human violence always has a boomerang effect that slaughters “us” as well.

Apparent short-term solutions…with long-term destructive reverberations.

There is no quick solution; but, like combating Ebola, we have to research, think, and act. We have to start the process of seeing and accepting “them” as really part of “us.” The process is one of education and developing a sense of cultural and religious humility in our acceptance of the other’s right to be part of “us.”

Last year I spent an afternoon speaking to and with a group of sixty Imams in Brussels. The theme was freedom of religious expression. The event started very awkwardly, because I (unfortunately) had been introduced as an American Catholic theologian who had something to tell them. I walked to the microphone and could see a lot of angry eyes staring at me. So I cautiously started: “Actually I come today not as an American and not as a Catholic but as, like you, a son of the Abrahamic tradition which Islam honors as well as Christianity and Judaism. We are indeed brothers in a great religious tradition….”

The afternoon concluded on a positive note and I have been invited to return for another “discussion.” I insisted that Muslims have every right to live in peace and practice their faith and do not deserve negative and degrading rhetoric or actions. I insisted as well that Christians and Jews have every right to live in peace and practice their faith and do not deserve negative and degrading rhetoric or actions. I promised as well that in my parish I would hold a series of adult and youth information sessions about Mohammed and Muslim traditions. I asked them to do the same; and I met afterwards with four young women who are Muslim “catechists.” A small start….

When I told one of my friends what I was going to write about this week end, he said he was surprised that I was becoming a “soft old do-gooder-dreamer.” I chuckled and said I was indeed getting old but neither soft nor a “do-gooder”….just trying to do what I think Jesus of Nazareth would do in our situation: reaching out rather than striking out.

That is not easy. It is hard to do. The alternative of course is mutual destruction….

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