* 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

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.

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