* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why the Concept of Scriptural Inerrancy Is a Matter of Faith and Not Evidence

There are those who believe that the Bible is true, and there are those who believe that the Bible is not true. Among these groups, there are a number of refinements that can be made. Sometimes beliefs form out of an opinion regarding one specific aspect of scriptural content. Some may think that the miracle stories are far-fetched, or that the creation story is not to be taken literally, but they think the historical and geographic record is more or less based on fact. Incidentally, this is the camp where I usually place myself. Some who claim that the Bible is true mean more or less the same thing, except that they probably believe in the divinity of Jesus and the validity of the resurrection. In fact, many times when people say that the Bible is true or not true, they are really expressing their belief about one very specific event in the Bible: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Many Christians understand that this is a matter of faith. One cannot prove much about even the existence of Jesus, since there is so little trustworthy information about him outside of the scripture. If something is a matter of faith, then by definition it must be believed without concrete proof, and many people of faith understand this. It causes some problems when believers insist that other people believe the same things they do, at which point having convincing evidence makes a bit more of a difference.

Thus the “truth” of the Bible enters a prominent place in the discussion. Some people determined that if the Bible was accepted as absolutely true, then there should be no question about the existence, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, nor should there be any doubt about the need for salvation and the gift of grace. Likewise, if any part of the Bible is seen as fantastical or outright falsehood, then the value of the passion story is potentially jeopardized. It is as if faith needs at least some supporting facts for some people. Thus, every time an archaeologist makes a discovery that coincides with a Biblical account of geography, some of these proponents of scriptural inerrancy claim, “See, the Bible is true! Every last bit of it.”

There are some problems with the concept of scriptural inerrancy, and the biggest problem is the absolutism of the idea. If one part of a story is factually accurate, one cannot assume that the entire tale is factually accurate. Suppose I told you that there is a Recognized Bank building on the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street, and on the 12th floor of that bank building, there is a law office. In that law office, there works a secretary who is a vampire, and she keeps blood packets in the break room. With just my story to go on, you might think, “There’s no such thing as vampires, this story can’t possibly be true.” But, when you drive past the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street and see the big Recognized Bank building, do you then suddenly believe the whole thing? Do you accept that there is a vampire working in a law office on the 12th floor of that building, just because you have verified one aspect of my story?

You wouldn’t have to accept it as true, of course. You could look into the matter. You could go to the 12th floor and see if there was a law office there. You could examine the secretary. You could investigate the break room. If any part of my story is false, it doesn’t erase the fact that the building is exactly where I claimed it to be. It is completely plausible that one fact in my story checks out and another detail turns out to be false. So proving one fact that was recorded in the Bible only proves that one specific fact. It does nothing to prove any other scriptural claim.

“Ah,” some might say, “but we have verified the trustworthiness of the writer. If he is right about one fact, why should we doubt the rest of what he wrote?” (Yes, I think some people may have slept right through the vampire secretary example.) Which scriptural writer are we to trust, exactly? The biblical canon was composed over a number of generations by a number of different people, and the decision about what to include or leave out of the Bible was made hundreds of years later by a completely different group of men (at the Council of Trent in the 16th century). There is no one writer for us to trust, even if it made sense to think that a person’s story is more trustworthy because they placed it in San Diego rather than Gotham City. Sure, San Diego exists, but that doesn’t mean that every story placed in San Diego is true.

Aside from the historical accuracy argument, there are really no other logical principles on which scriptural inerrancy is based. Some would say that the Bible claims to be true, and therefore it must be, because God cannot lie. This entirely self-referential argument cannot be accepted as evidence to anyone seeking any kind of proof. One cannot verify the accuracy of a written document simply by virtue of an author’s claim. In fact, every so often, a new book catches everyone’s attention because of the revealing “insider” details it contains, and everyone is equally disappointed to learn that the author made up most of the story. Anyone who needs the Bible to be infallible or inerrant in order for their faith to be bolstered would surely understand the problem of a self-referential justification.

Claiming the Bible to be absolutely and completely true based on church history and tradition isn’t any better. This is really just a self-referential argument by proxy. It would be like your friend telling you about the vampire secretary and claiming that it was true because he heard from a trustworthy source. You may trust your friend, and your friend may trust the story’s source, but if there is no way to check a source other than blind trust, then we are talking about faith, not provability.

The only claim that makes any sense with regard to Biblical inerrancy is one that does not attempt to convince anyone else. There is nothing wrong with a believer who claims, “I believe that the Bible is completely true.” If personal experience and reason have led an individual to a statement of faith—belief in something which cannot be proven—that is a matter of personal choice. No one else need accept that belief in order for it to have value, and no archeological discovery can strengthen or weaken a determined belief. Only the individual can determine the criteria by which to accept or reject the validity of spiritual writings, and those criteria don’t need to have the same meaning for anyone else.

Ultimately, a belief in scriptural inerrancy is entirely a matter of faith. If one actually looks closely enough at scriptures, one is confronted with some inconsistencies. While this may not bother someone looking for the spiritual truth underlying the words, when someone needs for the text to be completely accurate, it presents a problem. On the matter of spiritual truth, one must also deal with how to interpret what is written. One must be discerning to know when people claim to speak biblical truth that they are not actually conveying a personal interpretation. There is no “one truth” of the Bible, no absolutely correct way to interpret what is written on its pages. If it were so, then Christians would be united under one banner instead of bickering back and forth among and within various denominations and factions.

My perspective in writing this sequence of scriptural interpretations is not to prove or disprove anything, although I will state clearly that I do not believe that the Bible is entirely accurate or trustworthy. I approach it with a skeptical lens, to be sure, and at the same time I want to see what is spiritually valid and appropriate for our time. The Bible provides a spiritual jumping off point, because it is familiar to me and to so many other people. What I write is what I see as truth, in the hopes that I will inspire other people to think for themselves and discover or claim a deeper truth for their lives, even if their truth is different from mine.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Natural Disasters and Wickedness: Viewing the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as the Wrath of God

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah suggests some very interesting and disturbing ideas about natural disasters, or really any sort of disaster in life. For the mind that wants to see the universe as ordered under the control of some higher authority, stories like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah help to make sense of events that seem chaotic, with a footnote that cleverly insults certain groups of people. Briefly: God (for whatever reason) mentions to Abraham that he’s going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because the people there are wicked beyond redemption. Abraham pleads with him and says, “You can’t kill innocent people! Spare the cities if there are at least 10 righteous men.” God promises to look into the matter, and swears that he’ll spare the cities if even a handful of people are worth saving. As it turns out, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is the only one worth saving, so God just warns Lot to get out of town with his family. In a striking reflection of Orpheus and Eurydice, Lot’s wife looks back at the city as they are fleeing and is transformed into a pillar of salt. Then, Lot’s two daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, becoming pregnant with children that would found two nations that were enemies of the very Israelites telling the story.

There are a lot of things one could latch onto in a story like this.  To our culture, it may seem odd for a "righteous" man to offer his virgin daughters to a crowd of would-be rapists.  It may also seem like a pretty low blow to make up an incestuous story about a group’s origins just to have another reason to hate or insult them, but human beings haven’t outgrown that tactic yet. There will be plenty of opportunities to explore relationships and how we see other people, though. The lesson of not focusing on or longing for the past seems fairly obvious in the story of Lot’s wife. This may be worth coming back to at a later time. For now, let’s concentrate on the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the cities.

In recent years, there have been some pretty destructive natural disasters. Just since the turn of the 21st century, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis have had devastating effects on cities, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and have disrupted the lives of millions of people. It seems natural to ask, “Why?” Some people even claim to know why these events have occurred, and they capitalize on the emotional and psychological devastation in the wake of destructive events for a personal agenda. Many people who claim to know why natural disasters occur hearken back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some claim (with varying degrees of subtlety) that the wickedness of people is the reason for the destruction. There have been exhortations to turn from sinfulness, lest we continue to encourage God’s wrath. The natural disasters we see in our lifetime are even likened to warnings of a divine parent’s growing impatience with disobedient children. In other words, we still struggle to understand why these chaotic events take place, and we instinctively turn to our understanding of the world to fit natural disasters into our existing premises. If the premise is flawed, however, any understanding of the world based upon it is going to create more problems than it solves.

First, let’s have a little perspective about natural disasters. Recent events have been devastating, but to any student of history, they are likely not surprising. Throughout recorded history, there have been floods and earthquakes and storms that have wreaked devastation. Looking back across time, there has not really been a remarkable increase in catastrophic events, even though we may hear about things and see footage much more easily than ever before.

Incidentally, this goes for disease as well, although some have suggested that certain diseases exist as divine warnings against immorality. Tuberculosis, measles, small pox, and the bubonic plague claimed more lives than any disease connected with immorality in today’s society. The Spanish Flu claimed over 50,000,000 deaths in just two years between 1918 and 1920. Malaria continues to kill over 750,000 people each year, primarily the poorest people in the poorest African countries. While people may not be willing to equate poverty with immorality, dealing with that poverty and disease has not really become a worldwide concern. So, it obviously would take a lot for a disease to catch our attention enough to incite a widespread change in lifestyle.

But to some, this does not diminish the impression that someone more powerful is punishing humanity, or some sector of the population. This mindset extends to all sorts of unwanted events from car accidents to disease to lightning strikes. If something bad has happened, some people want there to be a reason, and the easiest reason of all is to believe that the person or people did something wrong to bring hardship upon themselves. Sometimes, hardship may certainly be the result of personal decisions, but in the case of natural disasters, this rationale simply cannot apply. Why is there suffering? Why would there not be?

Archaeologists don’t have any clear evidence to shed light on the story itself. Although the story was certainly written after the fact, and the specific names of Sodom and Gomorrah were not recorded in other sources, there could easily have been sites in the region destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic activity, or even a meteor. Whether or not the story is completely factual in the historical details, we can relate to such events, because we still see cities destroyed by earthquakes, floods, mudslides, avalanches, and storms. These things are part of our ecosystem. They are natural events which occur because of natural reasons. Sometimes people get caught in the destruction, but the natural events are not specifically targeting anyone. We don’t always understand why something has happened, but that doesn’t mean a rational and natural explanation doesn’t exist. There is no reason to assume that some person or community is being punished when natural disaster strikes. They are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To suggest otherwise should concern those who believe in an intelligent divine being who causes things to happen in the world. If we are truly able to change our behavior and thus avert further catastrophe, this is a kind of magic. Our actions should not be able to alter the decisions of an omniscient and omnipotent entity, since that would actually mean that the external divine being is at the mercy of believers instead of the other way around. It also ignores the fact that there are people who live wholesome lives, who even believe the things they are “supposed” to believe, who are struck down by natural disasters or disease.

Alternatively, it makes just as little sense to claim that people are simply wicked at the core of their being, and thus are deserving of whatever punishment a divine being may choose to dish out. Aside from being a very hopeless perspective that fails to acknowledge the deep beauty and value of humankind, it also doesn’t allow grounds for much to change. People cannot honestly be expected to change their immoral ways if they are intrinsically wicked, thus we would always be deserving of punishment from natural disasters at the whim of the almighty. Some would point out that this is the whole purpose of grace, which is a fine perspective, except that the application of grace would seem to contradict the concept of punishment through natural disaster. What purpose is there in extending grace and then deciding to send a tsunami or an earthquake anyway?

A simpler perspective is to assume that the natural world is neither tame nor intelligent. Natural disasters will happen, and sometimes people and communities will be within a dangerous proximity. There’s no reason to see those people as wicked or worthless, and honestly I don’t believe many people do. We have an opportunity in those moments to reassert our connection to one another, to do something to acknowledge the beauty and value of all people. It is not a divine warning message (or as powerful a fear-inducing morality lesson), but it does open an opportunity for our awareness to shift toward our ability to care for one another, an opportunity to be reminded of the things that are most important to us.

While whatever happened to those ancient cities was certainly tragic, there is no reason to attribute any more wickedness to them than any other concentration of people, and there is no reason to assume that they deserved to be destroyed. It may be simpler to see people who suffer from unexplainable catastrophe as lesser people, people deserving of what happened, wicked people. We don’t have to care as much about what happens to people like that, and we certainly don’t feel obligated to do much to help them. Perhaps it isn’t that much more difficult in times of such devastation to allow ourselves to be awakened to our commonalities as human beings, to recognize the preciousness of life and the beauty and power of human connection, and to act in accord.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

God Told You to Cut Off What Part of My Anatomy Exactly?: Circumcision and the Need to Belong in Genesis 17

Nearly everyone has done something at some point in time to be a part of a special group of people.  A person might shop at particular stores, wear a particular style of clothing, take up particular hobbies, listen to particular music, or hang out in particular places because of a desire to be identified as part of a subculture.  People join fraternities or sororities in college, or they may join a fraternal organization later on in life, because on some level they want a place to belong.  There is, I believe, a deep-seated need to seek out and discover one's place in the grand scheme of things, and there are many benefits that come from being a part of a larger group.  Gang culture wouldn't be so compelling otherwise.

One factor that sometimes accompanies belonging to a group is the clear distinction that one does not belong to a different group.  One only needs to belong to one fraternity, and there is a certain amount of pride that accompanies wearing those particular Greek letters.  Likewise, if one is a Crip, then one cannot also be a Blood.  One might avoid wearing red altogether, not just because blue clothing signifies where one belongs, but also because it clearly identifies who the "better" people are.

So competition kicks in on some level when we are finding our group.  There is some "survival" value to this competition.  If one identifies with people who work in a particular industry, one may be more or less likely to have consistent employment.  Belonging to a "better" group could lead to opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available.  At the most basic level, actual survival may even be on the line.  This was at least the case thousands of years ago, although most people didn't have much of a choice about the tribe to which they belonged.

Many groups have initiation rites that members must undergo.  This "proves" the candidate's level of commitment to the group on a certain level, but more importantly it solidifies a personal sense of belonging with a powerful experience.  Christians may be baptized into the church fellowship, Freemasons may undergo a series of initiations into different levels of the group's hierarchy, and a white nationalist may shave his head and get a swastika tattoo.  So, some of the initiation procedures into a group leave a mark by which other people can identify a person, but many times the rites leave a much deeper mark on the psyche of the individual, allowing them to claim with some certainty, "I am ___________."

In Genesis 17, God supposedly tells Abraham that the mark by which his people will be known involves the removal of foreskin.  Circumcision has meant different things to different cultures.  In ancient Egypt, it was simply a rite of passage into adulthood, granting a young man the ability to learn mysteries that were not accessible to children.  The initiated would then learn stories, rites, and prayers intrinsic to the religion of the culture at the time.  For the Jewish people in biblical times, circumcision was a demonstration of obedience to God, which ultimately meant obedience to religious and community leaders.

In fact, the uncircumcised were literally cut off from the spiritual practices of the community.  In no uncertain terms, they knew they were not a part of the in-crowd.  Of course, this practice of enforcing identity with the group went beyond any hazing on a college campus.  Circumcision was seen as a matter of purity.  To be uncircumcised was to be impure.  Not just excluded from a group of people, but excluded from favor with the divine.  In other words, it was a very effective tool for control.

By now, many people have heard stories or seen movies about how difficult it is to extract oneself from a group.  Whether it's the mob or a street gang or a cult, leaving is not easy.  Even if one is allowed to break off ties easily, there is a void that some may find unbearable.  A person who has broken off from a group no longer has a place of belonging, no longer fits anywhere, no longer has the same easy of identity.  And the more intense the rites of inclusions, the deeper the void may feel.

It is not at all uncommon to want to belong somewhere, to want a place where one is accepted as part of the group.  That feels safe.  It satisfies a deep-seated need.  I don't know of many groups, however, that do not in some way look down upon others who do not belong, whether they be people who belong somewhere else or people who don't seem to belong anywhere.  It becomes one more Us vs. Them.  "We belong to the chosen people." Therefore everyone else is obviously not chosen, or essentially worthless.  So, identifying with one group automatically tells us which other groups we can ignore, abuse, or generally devalue.

The trick might be to recognize one's place in the world based on one's capability and passion rather than what kind of initiation one is willing to undergo.  Not that everyone has a choice about what is done to their body, especially as a young child, but we do all have choices later on in life about the kinds of associations we make.  We ultimately get to choose where we belong.  Recognizing oneself as a unique human being who still shares an incredible wealth of characteristics with the totality of the human race can put things in a much healthier perspective than the idea of being part of a chosen few.  People wind up doing things that would otherwise be unthinkable, all because of their affiliation with a particular group.  Things like committing violence against other people when there could be countless other ways of handling an issue.

The bottom line is that wanting to belong is natural, but rites and marks that set one group apart also identify the outsiders.  And "outsiders" is a strange word to use for the people with whom we share this planet.  It's time that we stop looking for ways to belong by blindly following what other people tell us is right.  We have a place in reality, every last one of us, and that place is determined by what we are willing and able to create, not by what we are willing to endure.  No group is better than any other group.  We are people.  We are all people.  Foreskins or not. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Soap Opera Characters, Bibilicial Figures, and You and Me: Self-Centered People Who Sometimes Forget that Actions Have Consequences (Thoughts on Genesis 16)

Chapter 16 of Genesis is like a scene from a soap opera.  Abraham and Sarai believed that God had promised them children.  But they were old and didn't see that as a physical possibility.  So Sarai suggested Abraham sleep with Hagar, Sarai's Egyptian maidservant.  Which he does, of course.  Hagar gets pregnant and Sarai gets angry.  Come to think of it, this could be an entire season of a soap opera.  The point is, actions have consequences, and when we act out of fear, the consequences are not usually going to be things we like.

Our actions reflect our understanding of and commitment to the truth and beauty and creativity within us, as well as our acceptance of the reality of our circumstances. It can sometimes seem like a more difficult choice to acknowledge these things, where a self-serving or violent response might be easier, or at least might more directly yield what we want from a given situation. Wisdom reveals that there are consequences to our actions, however. If we betray someone, why would we not expect them to betray us in return? If we attack someone, verbally or physically, why would we not expect retaliation?  Or in the instance recounted in Genesis 16, doesn't it makes sense for someone to run away from mistreatment?

When we choose what seems like the easier path in the moment, reacting without thinking our actions through, we actually make our journey more difficult. At the very least, we open ourselves up to be ruled by fear: fear that we won’t get what we want, fear that we won’t be able to keep it, or fear that someone will seek to harm us because of what we have done.   It's hard to imagine the married women I know saying to their husbands, "Hey, why don't you just sleep with my young servant girl."  But times were obviously different when this story was originally told.  What hasn't changed is the idea that if God has made a promise, it doesn't matter how I go about pursuing it.  Mistreatment and dehumanization of other people is seen as sanctioned behavior if a line can be traced back to a perceived divine promise.  Honestly, it winds up looking like an excuse for poor behavior by self-centered people.

I have heard people claim something akin to the idea that God has a plan and that imperfect people are used as a part of that plan.  So there is no real reason to strive to improve oneself because God can use people just as they are, mistakes and all.  There's no real way to argue with that.  The Bible is as full of people who do stupid things as the cast of any soap opera, but that doesn't mean other people are supposed to emulate them.  It's a nice sentiment that God is watching over people, even the mistreated and abused, but wouldn't it be an incredible world if people who claimed to found their lives on faith actually exhibited faith?  Everyone, at some point in their lives, can identify with one of the three people in this little domestic drama, but that doesn't mean we should make the same decisions.  To suggest that the end result is the only thing that matters opens up an ethically dangerous can of worms.
Although it requires a little more thought on our part, choosing to respect the actual truth and beauty and creativity at the heart of every person yields much greater dividends in our lives. In a way, it may be a self-focused reason to do what is right, but we ultimately can’t avoid seeking to do what we think is best for us.  Largely, it's in the way that we go about pursuing that self-interest.  When we have respect for ourselves, for other people, and for the reality of our circumstances, we can create the best results for everyone involved, including ourselves. We wind up creating more strife for ourselves and others when we react out of fear and anger.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11, Ten Years Later: The Hypocrisy of Demonizing Islam Is Still Alive and Well in America

It has been a decade since terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The events of that day transformed life, not just for Americans, but for the entire world. This weekend, many people are honoring those who lost their lives, either as innocent victims or as courageous first responders. I deeply respect that heartfelt mourning, and I am profoundly grateful that no one in my closest circle of friends and family was at either scene of violence on that day.

Even beyond those sincere statements, I find it prudent to preface what I am about to write with the assertion that I do not condone the actions of terrorists, regardless of their religious or national affiliation. I’m not a Christian, and I’m not a Muslim. However, I do sympathize with Muslims who unnecessarily bear the brunt of persecution because of their faith, and I am both angered and saddened at the willful misrepresentation by which some American Christian spokespeople have attempted to villainize nearly a third of the world’s population.

I earnestly believed Americans had moved past the wholesale demonizing of Islam, but just this week I have heard Americans who claim to be devout Christians asserting that Islam is a violent faith which encourages the destruction of innocent (Christian) lives. I have heard people fostering the perspective that Americans/Christians are hated for their beliefs by Muslims in general. Perhaps it is not the willful propagation of misinformation. Perhaps these people (who have some measure of influence, by the way) are truly ignorant. My skeptical side would suggest that they know exactly what they are saying.

The strange thing is that some of these people are happy to use a single verse from the Quran to justify their judgment of Islam. If it says in one place that it is a religious obligation to kill infidels, then that closes the book on the subject so to speak. They never seem to remember that the Judeo-Christian Bible says pretty much the same thing. In fact, several times in the book of Deuteronomy, God is quoted as commanding that people be put to death if they don’t agree with the strictures of Israelite culture. After leaving Egypt and wandering around in the desert for a couple of generations, God commanded the Israelites to burn cities of people of other cultures and kill innocent women and children.

I’m not suggesting that this is in any way right, or that people should judge 21st-century Christians based on what people did thousands of years ago. I’m simply saying that there are some pretty violent actions condoned in the holy text of Jews and Christians, and we do not typically think of Judaism and Christianity as intentionally violent faiths. I suppose if the Christians who believe that Islam is a violent faith also acknowledged that Christianity is a violent faith (when the same standards are applied), it wouldn’t seem so deceitful. As it is, their accusations come across as manipulative and underhanded.

It makes sense, though. For hundreds of years, Christians have read and been told that they would be persecuted for their beliefs. When someone treats them poorly, it’s natural for some of them to think: That’s just religious persecution. It not only strengthens their resolve, but it also exonerates them from examining their own actions. To claim that an entire group of people hates you because of your beliefs may seem fantastical, but I’m sure it makes a certain sense in the minds of some Christians. It also makes sense that people unwilling to examine how their actions impact how they are treated as individuals would also be unwilling to consider how an entire group’s actions impact how they are treated by other groups.

I don’t believe that the terrorists were in any way justified in their actions. I also don’t believe that the whole of Islam hates America because of a belief system that not even everyone in this country espouses. It makes more sense that a small group of people were reacting to the actions of the American government and military, actions that had a direct impact on their lives. I don’t even want to get into whether the actions of the American government and military were right or wrong. I just want to be a voice of clarity about what actually happened ten years ago and what continues to happen today.

Innocent people lost their lives at the hands of violent men committing atrocious acts. The men were affiliated with an extremist group who identify with a particular religious tradition. These people and people like them are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is representative of mainstream Christianity. It’s easy to get people riled up when it comes to hating an entire group of people. I don’t know why we’re wired like that, but we’re very practiced at generalizing and stereotyping. It isn’t honest, though. It isn’t the truth that sets anyone free. It is a deception which keeps people in chains of anger and resentment. And it isn’t appropriate behavior for people who claim to follow a new command to love one another.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Is Violence a Religious Freedom or Obligation? (or When Did "Might Makes Right" Become an Accepted Theological Claim?)

As I look at Genesis 14-15, what stands out is the matter-of-fact cultural belief that a divine being approves of and encourages violence under certain circumstances.  While many pundits decry the violence of our modern-day society, it strikes me that our current level of violence is really nothing new to the human race.  Although Plato disputed the claim long ago in The Republic, the concept that 'might makes right' still walks hand-in-hand with concepts like 'turn the other cheek' and 'love thy neighbor' in Christian circles.  It may be time to take a critical look at the way violence is condoned (and even exalted) in religious texts before we critique the violence in our current society.

“History is written by the victor,” is also a familiar proverb.  Thomas Jefferson put it this way, “A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable.”  Even adult siblings who grew up in the same house often have differing memories of the events of their childhood.  Unfortunately, most stories purported to be historical come with agendas.  When one hears such a tale, it is best to dig down just a bit to determine what the agenda may be.  It’s possible that the point of a story is to illustrate a valuable lesson about life and how to treat other people, in which case it could have great merit.  Other agendas are less altruistic, attempting to denigrate a people, prove legitimacy to a claim on some property, or simply indicate why we deserve favors and others do not.

For centuries, people have made war with each other.  There may have even been good and wholesome intentions behind participation in war at some points in history.  In the end, though, the side that “wins” gets to decide why they won, and it always seems to go beyond superior military might.  Victors have a propensity for claiming a religious right to have won, stating that the favoritism of a god must be behind their success.  Now, it’s one thing for an ancient Greek to make a statement like, “Ares smiled upon us this day,” as a euphemism to indicate that they won a battle.  In modern society, any hint of symbolic reference has disappeared when a claim is made that, “God is on our side.”  This can lead to all sorts of trouble, since belief in divine approval for one’s actions can override all interest in open-minded discourse or even moral or ethical ramifications.  If God is on our side, then we can do no wrong.

How many sides can a divine being support, though?  And why would a divine being who honored life support any side in actions that are essentially based on the premise that the lives and comfort of one group of people is more valuable than the lives and comfort of another group of people?  Rather than pin things on any sort of god, it might be more honest to take responsibility for our own violence and for the hardship that it causes.  “We bombed your country because God told us to,” just doesn’t hold water.

Whether it is street violence, domestic violence, “ethnic cleansing,” or out and out war between two countries, the choice to be violent rests with each person.  There may be cases in which violence is necessary for personal safety, but in an age that considers itself somewhat enlightened, it seems like an immature and lazy option for groups of people to choose.  Honoring the truth and the beauty and the value of every human being is a much more challenging option, but we are up to the challenge.  Likewise, it is important for us to weigh the agenda behind the stories that we hear and the stories that we tell, to determine whether they contribute toward honoring humanity or whether they contribute toward a culture of violence.