One recent morning, I opened up the newspaper and tried an experiment. I looked at the headlines trying to determine how many articles described violence in the name of religion. It was frightening. I imagine that were I to continue this practice each morning, every day would yield a fresh crop. That particular morning, a small piece in the middle of the A section caught my attention. A Baptist pastor in Bangladesh, who was leading a discussion about religion in his home, was stabbed by three men invited to the conversation. This was their second discussion about Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, and it ended in blood. The pastor's wife and daughter cried out "Save us. Save us," as the men fled on a motorcycle. The pastor survived. What pained me most was the mangled premise of the get-together: you can invite people to your home to discuss faith in an environment of safety, diversity and respect. Not in all parts of the world.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has just published and eloquent treatise on how and why we must confront religious violence called Not in God's Name. He opens with a discussion of why religious ideologies have garnered so much strength of late in the shadow of the Enlightenment and rampant secularism:
"Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence...But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural. The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning."
Religion fills in the meaning gap, but this return has not been gentle or kind to the other in the minds of many. Rabbi Sacks continues: "Instead it is a religion at its most adversarial and aggressive, prepared to do battle with the enemies of the Lord, bring the apocalypse, end the reign of decadence and win the final victory for God, truth and submission to the divine will." It's a formula fueled by intolerant passion, and it is not going away.
Rabbi Sacks describes this fuel as "altruistic evil," evil committed for a sacred cause or in the name of high ideals. He spends the next chapters describing the rise of altruistic evil, how it does damage to the integrity of faith commitments and how we have to re-interpret sacred texts radically so that religion can be restored to its aim of peace, love and justice. It is not religion that is violent but misguided human beings who put an overlay of violence on religion and compromise its holiness and its capacity to bring meaning and community into the lives of ordinary human beings. I invite you to read the book yourself because a failure to frame this phenomenon leaves us unprepared for some of the most challenging and pernicious global problems of our time.
Let's turn to the verse from Proverbs above - "Do not envy a person of violence, and do not choose any of his ways" - is simple and unequivocal. Do not become a person who envies violence. Why would anyone envy violence? Yet we are drawn to passionate, charismatic people who shun ambivalence and seem to walk in the world with confidence and certainty. That is why the context in which this verse appears is particularly important. Proverbs 3 opens with a reminder to a child not to forget God's teachings that will bestow life and well-being. "Do not be wise in your own eyes," states verse seven. Instead, "fear the Lord and shun evil. It will be a cure for your body, a tonic for your bones." This is actually the same chapter where we find the famous verse in our liturgy: "Her ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peaceful. She is a tree of live to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy."
For religion to do its most meaningful work, all of its paths must lead to peace. It has to be a tree of life, not a sword that leads to untimely and useless deaths. All those who care passionately about faith have to re-commit to passionate moderation. "No soul was ever saved by hate," Rabbi Sacks argues. "We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God's love does not work that way."