President Obama, responding to the beheading of American journalist, James Foley, by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), said, “ISIL speaks for no religion…and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents….ISIL is not Islamic” (August 20, 2014). I don’t believe President Obama realizes the tangled thicket he’s entered with those words.
We don’t like to think of our faith traditions as places that harbor theologies or ideologies that promote death and destruction. We’d rather think along the lines of what Huston Smith (b. 1919), a philosopher and religious scholar, asserts: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” So words that reflect “religions at their best”–love, justice, mercy, compassion, peace, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, and charity are what come to the minds of most people when thinking about how faith traditions should manifest themselves in the world.
This proclivity to think of religion as weighted on the side of “best” is most noticeable when faith traditions express themselves dualistically–good/bad, right/wrong, sacred/profane, pure/impure, etc. Those things labeled “bad” most often get ascribed to an anti-god or Satan. Monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have a more dualistic bent than do Goddess traditions, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
In addition, when we understand our sacred writings to be “revealed,” meaning information has been given to humanity by a divine source–information that could not be known other than through revelation–we become more prone to dualistic thinking. The “Revealer of Truth” (God) brings light to a wayward humanity. God (a symbol that often gets reified) easily fills the role of being and defining all that is “good” although “good” is a relative term. Kill a journalist? Bomb an abortion clinic? Start a war? Feed the hungry? Educate children? Eradicate Ebola? Humans have engaged in all these activities in the name of God. Each activity has been defined as “good.”
When prophets in the Torah, Old Testament, and Qur’an annihilate “unbelievers” (those in the out group) in God’s name, what does that tell us about their understanding of God? Mayhem and murder abound in sacred texts. Are we to pattern our lives on Scripture? Some of it? All of it? Should we kill those in the out group? Some would say so. Scripture shows us a wide range of human experience in relationship to the sacred. It isn’t always life-affirming. Yet, most people (including President Obama) believe that “no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”
We so easily toss around beautiful words such as mercy, love, justice, and compassion–words we ascribe to a reified God (often to “our” God alone)–but we are never in agreement as to how to “live out” what those words mean when applied in concrete situations. Let’s look at “justice.” It was considered “just” for Americans (pre-Civil War) to own slaves. Preachers gave Scriptural “proof,” insisting that slavery, as an institution, was ordained by God and since God also gave instruction (or revelation) on how slaves should behave and be treated, slavery was thought of as a “just” institution. Human thinking about slavery gradually changed. Today, most people are appalled at the idea of owning other humans. Why? It’s not “just.” But didn’t God reveal “truth”–slavery as a “just” institution? Did God change? Certainly our thinking about how to “live out” the concept of justice changed as culture moved forward. When we move away from former understandings that have been embedded in religious tradition, we often make new assertions as to what God meant in the first place. Are we God?
What is ISIL thinking–creating mayhem and murdering in the name of God? I cannot speak for the organization, but I can speculate. I think destructive behavior happens most often when people think dualistically. God, to many, embodies all that is “right” and “good.” When things are not “right” (and to dualistic thinkers, categories of “right” and “wrong” are quite clear), it’s up to those who are on “God’s side” (their particular understanding of their religion/politics) to make things “right.” Violence easily becomes a necessary act in order to correct what is “wrong” and establish justice. Kill a doctor who performs abortions? Yes, look at all those embryonic “lives” that will be saved. Behead a journalist? Yes, look at all the “lies” that will not be published.
Killing in the name of God is not a new phenomenon. We easily accept actions “in the name of God” that propel people to care for the sick (Mother Teresa) and educate people (Malala Yousafzai, who recently was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize), yet we recoil, often refusing to believe that people/groups kill in the name of God; people like Andrea Yates and ISIL. (Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, thinking that if they died before “the age of accountability,” heaven was assured.)
Nancy Vedder-Shults’ FAR blog reminded us of the Hindu goddess Kali who “exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying…Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life….Kali personifies the unity of life and death.” Does it make a difference to us when death occurs as a result of the “natural cycle of life” (including natural disasters) as opposed to “cold-blooded” murder? Yes, it seems so. We hold human beings responsible for murder–at least, what we define to be murder–sometimes, depending….
These days, I often think about what we do here and now in the name of God that our progeny may respond to with disbelief. Killing sentient beings for food? Breeding dogs/cats for certain characteristics while other dogs/cats get “put down” in animal shelters? Keeping people artificially alive at the end of their “natural” lives at great cost to society as well as personal dignity? Leeching the earth?
I have a negative visceral response to violence–war, eating animals, capital punishment, deforestation, spanking children, and “fallout” from structured inequality. Yet, I live and even thrive because of violence. Hosts of grubs and insects, for example, were destroyed (as well as vegetation) when my house was built–a project undertaken intentionally–allowing me to live in that space formerly occupied by living things.
How shall we then live?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.