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Violence Disguised as Religion

Pastor Don Mackenzie on how to keep religion from being used to justify hatred and suffering.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog for YES! Magazine.

Love Revolution, photo by Jessica Lucia

Photo by Jessica Lucia.

In his last blog, Rabbi Ted Falcon asked, “If compassion in the context of Oneness and unconditional love is meant to help with the healing of the world, why is religion so often associated with violence and hatred and suffering?” As he said, this is a question we are often asked when we are presenting our programs on interfaith dialogue and collaboration.

The authority of religion has as much power as just about anything in human experience. I think that is because it points to something as ultimate as we can imagine. It deals with why we are here on Earth, what we are supposed to be doing, and what is responsible for our being here.

A sense of purpose is essential for any person’s well-being, and religion often helps to supply that sense of purpose. But why has religion been associated with and used to justify so much suffering?

Religions are institutions, things made by people to be the “containers” for the spiritual teachings that seek to help us understand that sense of the ultimate and give us that sense of purpose. So religions are human constructions. But, at the same time, they are made with the inspiration of spiritual teachings and spiritual stories. 

Just as it is important for us as people to monitor our own thinking and behavior, it is also important to monitor the thinking and behavior of religious institutions and the extent to which they are fulfilling the functions for which they were created.

It helps to think of religions as egos, mechanisms that are needed to manage people as well as institutions. Institutions are like big egos. That is not to say they are bad. But if egos are not monitored to be sure they are carrying out their purposes, they can, over time, be emptied of purpose and end up as empty shells. This is a pattern in human history. Institutions come into being, they function according to their structures, and then they begin to “leak” their substance. When they are empty, not only is their usefulness over—in their emptiness they can contribute to evil.

So, just as it is important for us as people to monitor our own thinking and behavior concerning ourselves and our relationships to each other and to the Earth, it is also important to monitor the thinking and behavior of religious institutions concerning the extent to which they are fulfilling the functions for which they were created. The failure to monitor our religious institutions has resulted in suffering and violence and, today,  increasing disillusion with the efficacy of religion in general.

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About five years ago, I saw a film entitled Water, part of a three part series of films about India: Earth, Fire and Water. Water is about widowhood. Widows in India often become either beggars or prostitutes or both. At one point in the film someone, trying to justify this reality, says, “It is about our religion.” Another says, “It is not about religion. It is about money, disguised as religion.”

We stand behind the authority of religion to justify actions that contribute to our needs for money or for power. Ironically, both of these needs are related to the deep desire to have our worth as people affirmed—and all our spiritual traditions affirm the inviolable value of persons.

We all have equal value and it cannot be taken away. But what makes us different from each other is not our essential value, but rather the things that we do and the things that we have. So, for example, people are not evil; people simply are. Yet they can have evil things and do evil things. But our tendency is to demonize the Other by saying that they are evil. To eradicate that evil, that person, or those people, we use religion to justify their murder or enslavement. This is one of the ways that religion emptied of substance can be used for negative purposes.

The purpose of religion is to carry forward the teachings of spiritual traditions that support healing for humanity and for the planet. If it is not doing that, it must be challenged and transformed.

Governments have found it useful to call upon the authority of religion to justify violence and brutality. The Crusades, the Inquisition in Spain, and the Holocaust stand out as examples. This is religion at its worst, collaborating with a domination system in the form of a government. But the repudiation of Judaism by Christians and the rejection of Islam by Christians has had less dramatic but equally hurtful consequences for Jews and Muslims, simply by projecting a sense that they are less than they would be if they were Christian. This form of violence is not as visible, but more insidious—and is also a form of violence supported by religion.

Keep in mind that a religion is an institution. The purpose of religion is to carry forward the teachings of spiritual traditions that support healing for humanity and for the planet. If it is not doing that—and often it does fail in this purpose and become an agent of evil—it must be challenged and transformed.

Religion is not, by itself, bad. It was after all, created for intensely good purposes. But when it is left unmonitored, it can contribute to evil in this world. We forget that at our peril.


Don Mackenzie bio picPastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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