The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Reflections By Dan Clendenin

Essay for 3 February 2003

Religious Terror

Week of Monday, February 3, 2003

One of the most disheartening and perplexing admissions that a sincere person of any faith must make is that despite all the good it has done, religion has caused enormous evil in our world. Here are six examples with representative perpetrators and victims:

  • Nigerian Muslims killed over 200 Christians when an article in a Lagos newspaper said that the Prophet Mohammed would have approved of the Miss World contest being held there and might have chosen to marry one of the contestants (December 2002).
  • Aztecs sacrificed 20,000 people in four days at the consecration of a temple in Mexico in 1487.1
  • Baruch Goldstein, an American doctor, entered a mosque in Israel and opened fire with an automatic weapon. He killed 29 Muslims who were at prayer (February 25, 1994). Today some extremists consider him a hero and over 10,000 people have visited his grave which they consider a shrine. A marble plaque above his grave reads, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the nation of Israel.”2
  • Asahara Shoko and the Aum Shinrikyo, a fringe Buddhist sect, killed 12 people and injured 5,000 in the Tokyo subway sarin attack (March 20, 1995).
  • Christians killed thousands in the Crusades and Inquisitions, defended slavery, were at least complicit in the Holocaust that killed six million Jews, and have murdered abortion doctors and gays.
  • In a jungle in Guyana, 914 followers of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple committed mass suicide (November 18, 1978).
As we can see, whether ancient or modern, violence in the name of religion knows no boundaries and plays no favorites. Widow burning, caste systems, female genital mutilation, witch hunts, ritual abuse, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, apartheid—the list is depressingly long.3

It is important to make at least four distinctions. First, we should judge religions by their most authentic examples rather than by their worst corruptions. Islam, for example, flourished from Spain to India and led the world in almost every area of human culture until the sixteenth century and later. Or again, Gandhi represents Hindus better than their fanatics in Kashmir. Second, we should beware of glaring generalizations. Many overstate the connection between religion and violence, as when Charles Kimball writes that “more evil [has been] perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”4 When I was in Croatia, I could find very few people who understood the war in former Yugoslavia as a religious war; most everyone I spoke to saw it as a land grab by Milosevic (who no doubt exploited religious passions as a political tool). Similarly, some like Rosemary Ruether make the sweeping generalization that Christianity has perpetrated more evil than other religions. Third, at the other extreme, some people deny or ignore the connection between religion and violence. Osama bin Laden punctured the bliss of such an illusion. Finally, there is a difference between evil committed by people who happen to be religious, and evil promoted in the name of religion. However heinous, the Catholic clergy charged with sexual abuses did not justify their actions with religion. Sometimes the connection between religion and violence is tenuous, sometimes it is explicit. It is almost always complex and bound up with other causes (social, historical, economic, cultural, political, etc), but at the end of the day we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is fomented with a specifically religious rationale, motivation, or justification.

Why and how people commit violence and evil in the name of religion might seem inexplicable. At a minimum we should not remain silent when we see religious violence but rather name it for what it is. We can all learn and reflect upon some of the signs that religion has become evil and evil religious:

  • Fanatical claims of absolute truth. I do not mean here the belief in absolute truths, which I think is tenable. Rather, I mean the doubt-free and uncritical confidence that one has understood such absolute truth claims absolutely.
  • Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or views that undermine moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Identifying and ushering in the “end times” in the name of your religion.
  • Justifying religious ends by any means.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy, demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, to claiming that God is on your side alone. Do you believe that a “God Bless Iraq” bumper sticker is as valid as the “God Bless America” version?
  • Pressure tactics of coercion, deception, and false advertisement.
  • Alienation, isolation and withdrawal from family, friends and society, whether psychologically or literally (eg, David Koresh's Branch Davidians).
  • Exploitation and all forms of unreasonable demands upon one's time, money, resources, family, friendships, sexuality, etc.
Often one or more of these danger signs combine or overlap.5

The Old Testament is full of violence, much of it divinely sanctioned, at least according to the writers. In the New Testament, I can think of only two examples when the followers of Jesus wanted to use violent means for His cause—when James and John wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritans, and in the Garden of Gethsemane when his disciples tried to prevent His arrest. In both instances Jesus rebuked those who tried to show their allegiance to him through violent means. Rather, He told us to love even our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us, because in the end, according to Jesus, the ultimate measure of my love for God is my love for my neighbor.

  1. See Daniel B. Clendenin, Many Gods, Many Lords (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), p. 50.
  2. Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 2002), p. 130.
  3. See Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), which includes separate chapters on violence by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists.
  4. Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil , p. 1. I think this distinction might go to Soviet atheism and Mao's Cultural Revolution, responsible for at least 100 million deaths in this century.
  5. Some but not all of these are taken from Kimball, who focuses on the first five.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2003 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.

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Last modified: Thu Jan 16 16:18:44 Pacific Standard Time 2003
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