We’re no longer shocked, albeit still horrified and sickened, by the images of violence that come at us daily from all around the globe. I’ve come to expect it. Beheadings. Burning people in cages. Shootings–“execution-style.” Bombings of all kinds–including drones and suicide. Perpetrators of such violent acts often claim God to be the motivator for their violent deeds.
Responses to that claim vary. Some people assure themselves that they were right all along–the God that motivates one to kill and destroy is indeed a God that demands such from “his” followers. “I knew all along their God to be a God of hate and violence–that’s why they do the things they do.” Other people insist that “God would never require a person to engage in destructive acts–not the ‘true’ God anyways.” Sometimes a proselytizing effort gets under way to inform people about this “true” God.
What’s God got to do with it? Nothing, yet everything. God is a construct. We humans ascribe attributes to the symbol (or concept) of God and, in turn, behave in ways we believe to be in line with those projected attributes we’ve placed onto what we have constructed. So, if we ascribe violence to God, we will behave violently in the name of God. If we ascribe love to God, we will behave lovingly in the name of God. How else can it be that people read Scripture and come to quite different (and often opposite) conclusions of what it is that God requires? (I’m speaking mainly here of those faith traditions that claim knowledge, not attainable in any other way, has been revealed.)
What better example than the institution of slavery? Since the Bible recognizes and regulates the practice of slavery, giving specific instruction to both slaveholders (Leviticus 25: 44 – 46) and slaves (Ephesians 6: 5), some people understand the practice to have been ordained by God and, therefore, right and just. (The assumption here is based on a belief that God speaks authoritatively.) Yet the abolitionist movement in America read the same Scripture as those who thought slavery just, and then declared the institution unjust (Galatians 5: 1), making a case that eventually won the day. How could people conclude from the same Scripture divergent “truths?
Even if we agree that there are multiple ways to read and interpret Scripture, it’s ultimately unsatisfactory (for me). Whose “reading” or interpretation holds sway? Depends on who is reading and interpreting in a particular era, time, and place. Oft times, interpreters claim “God’s authority,” projecting their own understanding onto a symbol/concept, giving it divine weight. Humans are incredibly complex beings. We are violent and loving. We are uncaring as well as compassionate. We amass material goods for ourselves, but we are also capable of generosity towards others. We kill, but also bring people to life with words of kindness. Who we are inevitably becomes interwoven with how Scripture is understood.
I struggle with those horrific images of suffering, pain, torture, destruction, violence, and death done in the name of God. I’m outraged and saddened. Isn’t there plenty of suffering already taking place on this planet without injecting God into the mix?
I have a friend who doesn’t whole-heartedly claim to be Buddhist, nevertheless, he does say, “Buddhism is close enough,” to accommodate a number of his perspective(s). He tells me to “embrace it all” when I recite a litany that lays bare the horrors that all of us–humans, the animals, and the earth itself–experience and endure daily. I don’t know exactly what he means. He explains little. Does “embracing it all” mean acquiescing to some kind of acceptance of “seeing things as they are?” How can I see violent behavior–violence being part of “things as they are”–and not rail at those whose goal seems to be domination by inflicting suffering?
Buddhism asserts that everything is impermanent–everything changes. Attaching oneself to impermanent “realities” or constructs is a recipe for frustration (suffering). Buddhism claims to show us a way out of suffering. Am I attaching myself to an impossible “reality” when I envision a world without violence?
According to Gerald Grow, “Buddhism envisions a reality beyond meaning and meaninglessness, beyond knowing, beyond self, beyond duality, beyond suffering–a dance of all things, in which we can become enlightened, interconnected, and compassionate dancers.” Could “embracing it all” mean taking part (dancing) with everything that makes up the stuff of life–including violence? How does one dance with Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old, American humanitarian aide worker who lost her life after being captured and imprisoned by ISIL for over a year? How does one dance with her captors, ISIL? After all, “[t]he dancers and the dance are one. And one with us.”
Is it possible that when we focus exclusively on eradicating what we perceive to be outrageous and unjust (violence in God’s or any other name), we miss the mark? Just how effective has the “war on terror” been?
Grow continues, “Many people have looked deeply into the human condition and come back cynical, ironic, bitter, or insane. Buddhists would say that such people did not look deeply enough into suffering to detect their own contribution to it, and hence the direction out.” Does “embracing it all” have something to do with not judging those who commit acts of mayhem and violence? Given the right circumstances, are all of us not capable of committing heinous acts?
Again I quote Grow, “As some Zen practitioners put it, everything is interconnected; therefore, if one thing is real, everything is real. So attend wholly to the one thing before you….” Taking care of one’s own business right here, right now?
My brother-in-law watches hours of Fox News daily. “They tell me the truth,” he says. Although outwardly he is not a violent person, he loves to watch violent movies–machine gun fire rat-tat-tatting away. “It’s the only way you can get rid of the bad guys,” he says. My sister (his wife) suggests that he focus on growing his garden as a way to create a just world. “It all begins here,” she says, pointing to herself. (She’s not Buddhist, but maybe “close enough?”)
“The Buddhist attempt to end war [violence],” Grow says, “begins with cultivating inner peace [focusing on what is before you?], developing an unwavering ability to see things as they are [dancing in unison with all that is?], and treating all beings with compassion and respect [we are all interconnected?].”
What does that vision and dance look like when played out in “real time?” Does God have anything to do with any of it?
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.