BY EUGENE KORN
After he assassinated Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Yigal Amir admitted that “If not for religion, it would have been very difficult for me to murder.”
It continues right up until today. Last month a Palestinian home in Douma was firebombed, killing 18 month old Ali Dawabsha in her sleep and her 32 year old father. All indications point to young religious zealots as their murderers. One doesn’t have to be religious to be violent, but it certainly helps.
The pace of religious violence has quickened in recent years. Religious evil seems everywhere today—particularly in the Middle East: Iranian mullahs—the self-appointed authorities of Shia Islam—proclaim “Death to America and “Death to Israel.” They finance Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism and Bashir Assad’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians. In the name of restoring the Caliphate throughout the Middle East, ISIS murders Yazidis and beheads, crucifies, enslaves and evicts Christians from Iraq. Convinced that God commands the destruction of idolatry in the Holy Land, Jewish religious radicals firebomb a church in Tiberias. Raised to believe that homosexuals are rebels against God who commit abominations, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabs six people at the Jerusalem gay parade; one of victims, beautiful sixteen year-old Shira Banki, succumbed to her wounds soon after. And all across the Middle East, Sunnis and Shia are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of each other in the zealous effort to purify Islamic belief.
All this death is caused by people claiming religious inspiration, authority and theological justification—maybe not our idea of religion or concept of God, but certainly it is theirs. The violence is animated by their conviction that God demands believers to change the world, murderously if necessary, in order to force it into harmony with the divine rule and design. And who can prove theologically that the extremists are wrong or that the moderates are correct in their understanding of religion? This savagery is often inspired by the teachings of imams, rabbis and other religious authorities. And we need to be mindful that these religious extremists usually cite the same texts that we hold sacred: the Bible and the Koran.
The biblical prophets talked about faith inspiring people to beat their swords into plowshares, yet today religious actors are beating our plowshares into swords and reducing societies to butchery and brutality. Although Muslim fanatics and Jewish radicals seem to resort more to violence than other believers, religious violence is not limited to particular religions—it has also stained Christian, Hindu and even normally pacifist Buddhist communities.
When oceans of blood run in our streets, we cannot deny the close connection between religion and violence, between faith and fanaticism. Nor can we dismiss this horrific phenomenon through semantic slights of hand by labeling it “politics,” or by trivializing it as exceptions committed by isolated loners, deranged zealots or “wild weeds.” Contemporary religious violence is too frequent, too systematic to be reduced to an illusion or marginalized.
Whole countries in the Middle East are imploding under the force of religious hatred, while religious terrorism has wracked America, France, Holland, Spain and Belgium recently. The future of civilization as we know it may well rest on whether religion continues on its lethal path or is tamed to be a critical force for human flourishing.
The explosion of current religious violence indicates that for better or worse religion is playing a central role in the unfolding of contemporary events. God is the most powerful human conception. How we understand God will determine whether our future will be one of progress or a descent into primordial chaos filled with unlimited destruction upon us all.
How does it happen that people wishing to serve the living God of creation have now become agents of death and destruction? Is violence rooted in the very worship an omnipotent and absolute God or is it a grotesque distortion of true faith?
What are the limits of our tolerance for the religious other? Ought it to include the rigid idealist, whose idea of God leads him in social and moral directions different from the rest of society?
And most importantly, what to do we need to do to correct faith’s recent turn to murder and mayhem?
There are no simple answers to these questions, but theologians, philosophers and leaders of all aspects of our civil society need to find answers quickly if we are to withstand the ravages of religious fanaticism and its destructive vortex engulfing us.
In the midst of our current political and theological crises, Christian and Jewish scholars confront these burning questions in Plowshares into Swords. The book is both a searing analysis of religious violence and an invitation for religious and secular thinkers alike to begin to confront the complex connection between faith and violence. Its ideas are essential for professors, teachers, clergy, students and all people who want to think deeply and confront the problems of religious violence and extremism.
[Plowshares into Swords is available on Amazon in Kindle edition format for $9.99.]
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is Academic Director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Israel. Any comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.