Today’s, on this, our 6th sermon in the Summer Sermon Series “8 Questions from the Pews,” I’ll be tackling a topic that you might say is one of my hobby horses, maybe even a fixation: the connection between religion and violence.
It was on this subject, nearly 4 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, that I preached my first sermon as St. Stephen’s pastor. Since then, at Pub Theology and in other sermons, I’ve covered similar ground.
In fact, judging by today’s question, I may have, in these last 4 years, made my case too forcefully—that I’ve made a solid link between religion and violence in you all’s mind.
The question is this:
“Religion is a source of hope and salvation for many, yet it has been the basis or cause of so many wars over time, why? And how do the positives negate all the negatives of war and radicals?”
To answer this questions we’ll look at our text from Joshua in order to think about how violence can be connected to religion both in scripture and in history—then we’ll consider why this connection get’s made, and then finally I’ll suggest a few ways these negatives can be upended or at least balanced.
It would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in scripture.
Consider the fanatical acts described in the book of Joshua, utterly destroying towns and people in the name of Moses and the name of God. Truly this is disturbing stuff found in our scriptures.
And it’s not the only place in scripture where we find dark acts dedicated to God.
We find rules about slavery and the oppression of women,
Calls to kill Babylonian and Assyrian Children,
Guidelines for war that are more concerned with trees than people,
And maybe there is a larger point that must to be made about these things:
Often scripture is being descriptive instead of prescriptive
—it’s showing and telling, not ordering
—describing a lived reality, not making a program for life now.
It’s faithful people at a particular time and place saying “wow, in the midst of it all God is here” so that we too might trust even in the most violent and strange of times, that God is here.
For that matter, it would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in history.
Take for example a common interpretation and use of the book of Joshua from the 15th-17th century. When the Conquistadores, who took South America, read this biblical book—they did so in a prescriptive instead of descriptive way—they read themselves into the book
They justified their slaughter of natives and taking of land as a parallel to the taking of Canaan in the books of Joshua and Judges.
In fact, frequently colonization and invasion has been justified by faith—it is often said colonizers
bring guns and germs,
and leave with gold.
And there is that icky question left—once you get into it, why?
Why is religion linked to violence? Why does invasion and war often have a religious tint? Why is religion woven into matter of statecraft and splattered all over the history of war?
It could be that religion is innately violent,
or that it encourages countries to colonize, or something like that,
but I think not, instead, religion speaks to our deepest selves and about those things which are most important to us both individually and collectively. Everything else is of secondary importance—imagine what kind of motivator our faith is!
For example, an American drone kills your kid on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—you want revenge… how much more of a motivation is it if you’re told not only will you get revenge for your kid, but also God wants you to get that revenge!
What I’m saying is religion is often a justification for war and other acts of violence, not the actual cause.
Take, for example, the most “religious” of wars, the Crusades. The initial Religious justification—when Pope Urban the 2nd declared “Deus Vult” “God wills it” it was a call to defend Christians traveling to Jerusalem, and throughout the Middle East, from attacks by Muslims. Yet, somewhere along the line it became more profitable to pillage fellow Christians in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor, so the religious justification for such actions shifted to fighting incorrect understandings of the trinity.
Two different acts of violence, both conveniently justified with a religious pretext.
So, what do we do with all that—how do we, to put it crassly, “come out ahead?” How can we be sure religion is “worth it?”
Well, firstly, it’s important that we continue to wrestle with the ways in which our faith has fallen short—more than that, we ought to repent of it.
I think of former Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen’s moving words about representing the ELCA as part of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart Germany, where they confessed to and repented of our historical persecution of the Mennonite tradition—there our Mennonite sisters and brothers accepted our repentance and declared us forgiven.
And that right there—receiving forgiveness—for me that would be enough, that would upend all the negatives of being a religious people—that would, to quote the questioner be the positive that “negates all the negatives.”
That this is a space where we can be honest about our faults and find forgiveness
—find a grace we don’t deserve
—that alone is of infinite worth. As Paul writes all else is rubbish.
But wait, there’s more!
While it can be deeply misused, religion is the language of our deepest values. It frames our existence, cultivates holy habits, and tells stories that give life meaning.
Also it gives us comfort like nothing else will—just think back to the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm, all that is packed into that, how those words travel with you through the very shadow of death.
Christ’s words we read today “No more of this” ring so true, in the face of violence both scriptural and historical, “No more of this.”
Faith is for healing the hurt, not hurting the healed. Yes, of course faith can be misused, but so can so many things
—If a child hits another child with a book, do we burn all books, or teach them to read?
The abuse of Religion, bad religion, can be best balanced by better religion.
And that’s part of our calling—to put away swords and bring healing.
To do what Christianity has always been called to do, to recognize the good in those things that are warped into evil, and redeem them! Bad religion is not to be banished, but transformed.
To conclude, my answer to the question is this:
The violence we find in scripture describes God’s relationship to a brutally violent world.
The violence we find in history often uses faith as a motivator.
We ought to confess to this and make amends.
In so doing we find the core of faith—forgiveness.
Faith expresses the ultimate, it comforts as few other things can, and Christ calls us to be religious in such a way that we can redeem religion.