July 2015

Does religion cause violence?

I suspect we don’t think about the question of religious violence enough in Australia, and when we do, I worry that our gaze is fixed on other people and other religions rather than ourselves, writes Natalie Lindner L’Huillier.

BY Natalie Lindner L’Huillier

Does religion cause violence? It’s a blunt, often loaded question that can evoke polarising perspectives. A cursory glance across a newspaper or a romp through almost any period of history suggests the connections between religion and violence are not new, nor easily untangled.

Arguments for and against religion as a ‘cause’ of violence easily default into oversimplification, avoiding the complexities of history and of the human condition. Tamils and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Muslims and Jews in Israel and Palestine, Christians and Muslims in Syria: the tragedy and human suffering is overwhelming. It’s true that the relationship between religion and violence is an uncomfortable subject. And, to my mind, that’s why it’s essential we think about it.

When I hear someone identify religion as a cause of violence in conversation or in the media, I’m immediately hesitant and a little nervous. Where is this heading, I wonder? What agendas are at play?

As a person of faith, I am a participant in ‘religion’; I have skin in the game, it’s true. But if I sit honestly with my response a little longer, it’s not just the external debates that run the risk of sliding into unexamined biases. Despite my desire to be informed, to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14), I realise that ultimately this question leads me face-to-face with my own capacity for violence.

There is a certain incomprehensibility about the horrendous crimes carried out in the name of religion and the holy ways of those same traditions. I remember traveling in Poland and standing on the snowy, solemn ground at Auschwitz, looking up at that chilling sign “work will make you free”. How is it that Christianity became co-opted in the systematic murder of millions of people on the basis of their faith and ethnicity? How did the people running those concentration camps deny their own humanity and that of the Jewish people in such absolute ways?

In the words of US theologian Robert McAfee Brown, “Not all Christians were perpetrators, but all the perpetrators were Christians”. It is true that we are beneficiaries of several decades of attentiveness to the requirements of just relationships between Jews and Christians, post Shoa. Great advances have been made.

Yet, it is my sense that as Christians continue attending to “the only great ecumenical question” – our relationship with Judaism – our grappling must run deeper still. We remain challenged by thinkers like John D’Arcy May who ask us to consider the degree to which we have inherited a Christianity that may have “repressed its original Jewish identity, only to project its remorse at having done so back onto the Jews”. In our beginnings, have we violent tendencies that, unresolved, continue to echo in the sinister tones of racism and dehumanisation? Think of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and even our struggle to move beyond the insidious legacy of terra nullius.

In fact, on the whole, I suspect we don’t think about the question of religious violence enough in Australia. And when we do, I worry that our gaze is fixed on other people and other religions rather than ourselves.

Perhaps it’s the complexity of the issues involved, or that we somehow perceive religious violence as external to us? (Note that I didn’t name Australia in the first paragraph’s list, though I could have.) Perhaps it’s that we are still coming to terms with our violent history of colonisation, or that many of us still live in religiously homogenous ways, despite our growing multiculturalism? Or maybe it’s simply that we live full and busy lives in an information-dense environment and competition for our attention is fierce.

Whatever the reason, in recent months, domestic and international acts of violence – served with thick lashings of religious language, dress and symbolism – mean that whether named or unnamed, our social discourse is navigating the terrain of religion and violence.

Biting commentaries, such as Waleed Aly’s, highlight a type of poverty that is present in some dominant ways of thinking in Australia – “legitimising our most thoughtless instincts and debasing even the most sober criticism”. It’s a poverty that all too easily sees others as violent, while dismissing the violence we ourselves participate in when judgement slides into the murky waters of unexamined bias and discrimination.

Yes, religions, including my own, and religious people, including me, can be a fundamental influence in terrible violence, and extraordinary good. This acknowledgement is not to ignore the capacity of religion to nurture holiness, or to carry truth and wisdom, but on the contrary, it is to strengthen our capacity, as believers, to live compassionately and build peace.

Like many others, I’m encouraged by the work of interfaith movements, be they well-known networks, such as the Charter for Compassion, or the lesser known grassroots networks, such as Believing Women for a Culture of Peace. I am grateful also for reminders from folks like Good Samaritan Sister Mary McDonald to find like-minded others and “push”. It seems obvious to say, but our journey beyond violence can only be in relationship with others. So often it has been the wise insights offered by dialogue partners that have allowed me to understand myself and my own tradition better.

By the same token, and again, from a position informed by faith, my capacity for dialogue which is attentive, compassionate and transformative, is only possible when grounded in the largeness of God’s love.

For me, it is the image and language of God as Trinity that supports and sustains our movements forward in peace. Despite the complexities, brokenness and violence in our world, it is love that leads the way – love, not only for the others with whom we seek to dialogue, but also for ourselves and our traditions. It’s a love that is patient, moving inch by inch, often slowly and tentatively as we feel our way forward through the darkness. The challenge and gift of God’s radical love is one that allows us to feel secure enough that we can face our shadows.

Only as we face those parts of ourselves – individually and collectively – that are violent to ourselves, our families, our communities, and those who we perceive as different or other, can we hope to honour the religious truth that we proclaim.

Natalie Lindner L’Huillier

Natalie Lindner L’Huillier is a Brisbane-based theologian whose areas of special interest are ecumenism, dialogue and the intersection of ecclesiology and ethics. She is a PhD candidate at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, and teaches sessionally at Australian Catholic University.

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