Last night, the Atheist Wife and I were having one of our frequent religious discussions. I can’t remember what sparked it, but at one point, my partner said, “Why do religious people kill each other? Who cares who is right? Won’t they just find out when they die? What’s the point in making a war out of it?”
Honestly, I was brought up a bit short. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” I have never really understood the impulse religious people feel to make war (cultural, political or physical) on others. I used to feel the same way as they did. I was raised with the notion of “spiritual warfare,” the idea of an eternal warfare between good an evil. The whole “armor of God” passage. I never wanted to fight anybody over it, but I was aware that I had to be on my guard against evil in whatever form it might take.
On a purely religious level, I think this attitude contributes to the warfare we see today, to the religiously motivated violence that seems to rampant in our own time. It is hard to avoid forms of violence when your attitude is one of defensiveness. If you are expecting an attack, you will see an attack, not necessarily because there is one, but because that is what you are primed to see. That is what you want to see.
Too many people today want to see a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil. The “War on Terror” is a great example of that. President W. Bush called it a “crusade,” drawing on the imagery of religious war to describe the conflict. And he is not the only one. Extremists call their cause a “jihad,” a religious war. What is the difference between a crusade and a jihad? In essence, nothing.
The religious element of the “War on Terror” is best seen, not in the terrorists themselves, but into the reactions to them. The Obama administration has copped a lot of flack for not labeling terrorism as Islamic. As on Atlantic article put it,
“The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character. In Europe, where attention is so focused now, the great majority of the most lethal terrorist incidents of the past 15 years have been carried out by people professing to act from Islamist motives. The huge effort made to deny this truth is its most ironic confirmation.”
The effort is there to label the current enemy according to their religion. People want a religious war. You can see it in what they say.
The fact is, terrorism and this current global conflict have nothing to do with religion. Despite the rhetoric of jihad and crusade, what is really at stake is power. Islamic State is, first and foremost, an attempt to create a state. Religion is what binds these people together as a tribe, a group, not their actual goal. How is this different from some people’s insistence that American is a “Christian nation”?
For people who ask, “Then why are all terrorists Muslim?” let me give you some perspective. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa is a Christian terrorist organization (Remember the Kony thing?). The KKK is a Christian organization, its own leaders have said so. There are Christian militias targeting Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) of whom it is reported,
” Christian militias freely admit that theirs is an exercise in vengeance, an eye for an eye, and they will not stop until they have “cleaned” the country of Muslims.”
They are killing innocents just like Muslim terrorists have. Both sides have done this. Who is more right?
What all this has in common is not actually religion. It’s power. Who is in charge? Or it is revenge. “An eye for an eye.” Meanwhile, actual religion is ignored. Calls to peace from religious leaders on both sides are ignored. This is not jihad or crusade. It is people making war and masking their fear, their desire, and their hatred behind their religious affiliation.
My Atheist Wife’s question sounds naive, but she’s actually spot on. Why do religions spend so much time antagonizing each other? But it’s not in warfare that the answer can be found. Instead, it’s in the everyday interactions between religious organizations, the divisions we create that keep us from being friends or making the world a better place.
As a kid, I was isolated. I was homeschooled for religious reasons, but other people who were in the same boat were not my friends. Instead, we were divided by the thing we supposedly had in common: religion. I was an Anglican. They were evangelical protestants or Catholics. I can’t tell you how many times other children asked me, “Why aren’t you Christian?” I wasn’t Christian because I was “Catholic,” my shorthand explanation of Anglicanism. But then with the Catholics, I didn’t believe in the pope, so I didn’t fit there either. Secular children who went to “real school” were a haven because they didn’t understand and largely didn’t care. I didn’t have to talk about religion with them, so we could still be friends despite the fact we had nothing in common. Meanwhile, the people I had so many things in common with were a closed circle and I was not allowed in.
Religious people spend a lot of time keeping each other out rather than inviting them in. The minutia of their beliefs become insurmountable walls that cut themselves off from other people. Everyday religious people aren’t making war on each other, but they’re not making peace either.
This brings me back to that old idea of “spiritual warfare.” Here are two Bible verses on the subject:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
The talk here is not about physical warfare (“flesh and blood”). Instead it’s about wickedness, against bad things that go on in our world that are perpetrated, not by weapons, but by bad rulers. How is this different from this quote,
“The best jihad is the word of Justice in front of the oppressive Sultan.”
This is a quote from Mohammed as found in the Hadith, the religious teachings of Islam. Are they much different?