What’s God Got To Do With It? by Esther Nelson


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.

Categories: Buddhism, General, God-talk, In the News, Spiritual Journey, Violence, Women for Peace

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16 replies

  1. Esther, great post, especially on a morning when we now have to deal with an Israeli leader being elected on a platform of no dual state solution. Is this because he and those who voted for him were following his tradition in relation to Biblical promises of land or because they were ignoring other passages that said to treat the stranger kindly because once you were a stranger in the land of Egypt?

    On the Buddhist part of your post, I think Grow is right that the world’s problems will never be solved by those who do not have inner peace, a clear vision of the capacities for good and evil in all of us, and compassion for all beings. On the hand, I also find your friend’s notion of embracing it all (presumably he means without judgment) to be an idea I cannot embrace. Beheadings are, but so is my right to judge that they are wrong, just as I also judge our country’s Middle East wars to be wrong, and racist informed police violence to be wrong, and ordinary violence against women to be wrong.

    Bless your questions and questioning.


    • Thank you, Carol. I’m not sure myself what “embracing it all” means. I know my friend does not condone war and beheadings. I do see that concept of “embracing” in “Eastern” literature and in spite of the discussion and unwrapping that some of the writers do, I’m still not clear on how to usefully apply that concept in the here and now. Always have more questions than answers ;-)


  2. Zen Buddhism is a path I love and follow in my heart. Zen is a combination of Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. My favorite Zen teacher is Dogen Zenji, a mystic in medieval Japan, who wrote a large collection of essays called the “Shobogenzo,” and which I have studied in depth for many years, and where he includes the teachings of various historical women Zen masters. However an all-powerful, heavenly God concept does not enter into the teachings and therefore Zen is considered atheist.

    In Zen, nature is the teacher, and learning from nature is the same as studying the scripture (dharma). Beloved creatures can also act as enlightened spiritual guides or “bodhisattvas.” Thus Dogen says:

    “You should entreat trees and rocks to preach the dharma, and you should ask rice fields and gardens for the truth. Ask pillars for the dharma and learn from hedges and walls. Long ago the great god Indra honored a wild fox as his own master and sought the dharma from him, calling him ‘Great Bodhisattva.'”

    In Zen, “never leaving the monastery” means never leaving the present moment.


    • My friend who says Buddhism is “close enough to accommodate his perspective(s)” does envelop himself in nature, looking there for wisdom. Thank you for your comment. I’ve felt a “tugging” (if you will) from Buddhism (especially Zen) for some time now.


    • Sarah, Thanks for this comment. Philosophical Taoism speaks deeply to me. I’ve often said that Taoism is the Eastern form of Wicca, which I practice. Buddhism often speaks to me when it’s dealing with psycho-spiritual experiences. I know Zen less well, but think I would have to translate “nature” as “the Goddess,” since my practice involves such “God images” and is definitely not atheist. (Of course the Goddess for me is the antithesis of an all-powerful, heavenly patriarch! She’s the universe itself.)


  3. Wonderful read. I think ’embracing it all’ could also be an encouragement to look deeply at the suffering that underlies these atrocious acts- a suffering to which we can all intimately relate. For one to commit such horrendous acts of terror to fellow humans and world around us, there must be a tremendous degree of anguish deep inside. However much we disagree with the sickening actions that we now see almost daily, perhaps they often stem from very basic human dissatisfaction and desires for security and justice, no matter how distorted people can understand the means to satisfy these needs. And those simple desires and sufferings are perhaps the common ground to which we can relate with other human beings, however seemingly distant and hostile. Something we can ’embrace’.


    • Great perspective, Cole. Lynda sent me a poem by Hafiz after she read this post.

      “Every child has known God,
      Not the God of names,
      Not the God of don’ts,
      Not the God who ever does Anything weird
      But the God who knows only four words
      And keeps repeating them, saying:
      “Come Dance with Me,
      Come dance.”

      Dancing with “the suffering that underlies thee atrocious acts” is as you note, “a suffering to which we can all intimately relate.” Surely that’s part (anyway) of what it means to “embrace it all.” Thanks for commenting.


  4. I think there is a difference between acceptance (= seeing things as they are) and being resigned to how things are. I can accept that people do violent things and have their reasons to justify it, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it nor do I have to give up trying to implement my vision of a more just, humane, and kinder world.


    • Thanks nmr, for your comment. After doing some reading in “Eastern” religious perspectives, I don’t get the sense that “embracing it all” means to be “resigned to how things are.” I think you are absolutely right, though–a clear perspective does not mean resignation.


  5. There is enough here to pose questions for a life-time, Esther! And the questions have been around probably since the first brain woke up to thought: love/hate, compassion/violence, etc.

    My present theory is that too many people shift responsibility for their actions over to “god”, or the “devil”, … or the “other people”. If I want a non-violent, compassionate, world of peace and love, I have to start with myself because I’m the only one I can change. And I don’t do so well even with that! I learn a lot from my dog who, when he mis-behaves has the grace to roll his big brown eyes at me and “say”: “Whoops! Sorry.” And when I mis-behave he is forgiving, because our failures can teach us compassion.


  6. Great post, Esther. I like the way you talk about God as a construct and how people relate to it. It’s good to remember the psycho-sociological side of our discussion here.

    “Embracing it all” became clearer to me when I was taking a class in qigong. Our instructor, Trisha Yu, would end each class with a short gestural ritual that concluded with words something like: “At this moment people are being born, dying, laughing, crying, etc. And we partake of it all at the Source.” For me “embracing it all” doesn’t mean that we stop embracing ourselves. It just means that we expand beyond that small self to a larger Self. And for me, that goes beyond human beings to encompass the natural world. In this expansive process, we don’t give up our ethical precepts so much as expand them and deepen them. For us women, who have been socialized to be other-oriented, this process is easier (I think) than it is for men.


    • Thanks, Nancy. I like your statement, “In this expansive process, we don’t give up our ethical precepts so much as expand them and deepen them.” What that looks like “where the rubber meets the road” will vary, I suppose, depending on who we are.


  7. i believe that the God i serve would never want to see me suffering,i insist on that.


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