Theologians wrestle with war and violence

LOS ANGELES – “It is possible for religious communities to stop blessing war and violence,” said Grace Dyrness at the opening of an afternoon-long symposium sponsored by Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, and All Paths Divinity School, held Sept. 25th at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul overlooking L.A.’s popular Echo Park.

A distinguished panel of religious scholars and activists came together to discuss three questions relevant to our moment, in the hope that this conversation might open up new ways of thinking about some concerns to which many of us have preconditioned answers.

1 – Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, three recent instances, among many, of violence done in the name of religion. To what extent do you think religions are actually responsible for violence?

The question framed violence as uniquely emanating from Muslims, and the panelists, all historians of religion, bristled at this formulation. Daniel Smith-Christopher, professor of Theological Studies and director of the Peace Studies Center at Loyola Marymount University, thinking no doubt of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the subjugation of indigenous peoples, said, “Christianity must admit we have a serious problem with violence. Christianity is deeply implicated.”

And not all religions have such a violent history: Rita Sherma, director of the Center for Dharma Studies and associate professor at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley mentioned both Hinduism (at least until British colonialism arrived) and Jainism as examples. Jack Miles, distinguished professor of English and Religious Studies at Univ. of California, Irvine, general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography, reminded us that “Only humans can be moved toward violence, not religions as such.”

“Religions are not transcendent,” said Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College and senior fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. “They are human constructs, human institutions.” The real question is “How do we motivate the best sectors of these different traditions?” And “if history is marked by its wars,” asked Najeeba Syeed, associate professor of Interreligious Education at the Claremont School of Theology, “what about the peaceful times? We must watch for our historical blindspots: No religion is capable only of violence or only of peace.”

2 – The reaction to these incidents has often led to various forms of Islamophobia. How can Islamophobia best be countered in society and by liberal religious groups?

Here again, the panelists reminded us of a far richer and deeper history than the question presupposes, given the history of violence in almost all traditions. “Islamophobia is embedded in Western culture and is part of our worldview,” said Firestone. “When Christianity became dominant it was considered God’s will. Then Islam arose, another monotheistic religion also claiming the will of God, and immediately the Christian establishment accused Mohammed and Islam of being Satanic.” This prejudice goes back much further than these incidents.

We must beware of overgeneralization, too, for Islamophobia has also been racialized. Syeed called attention to the murders of Sikhs in the U.S. because they wear turbans. “Phobia makes Islam ‘foreign,’” she said, “but Islam has been in America for 500 years contributing in every way to life in the U.S.” Sherma added that we must “think of all the benefits of religion, not just the violence, but ethics, philosophy, culture, art, architecture.” SmithChristopher suggested that “a well-written sit-com about Muslims in America would be far more influential than any book.”

3 – From “just war” to “just peace.” If religions are part of the problem of violence and terrorism, they should also be part of the solution.

It is true that violence is both militarized and masculinized, and often perpetrated in the name of justice to redeem grievances. “We must promote the mercy option, to forgo retribution,” said Miles. “Justice can only be completed by the nobler embrace of mercy.” In that vein, added Firestone, “All religions have the tradition of humility: We have made mistakes, we are sinners, we need repentance requiring action. The discourse is now controlled by people who are angry and fearful and wish to control others. We need to control the discourse.”

Questions and answers

Questions from the audience revealed a number of other issues. One person lamented that there was no atheist representation on the panel, and then asked: Is there something particularly virulent about specifically religious violence? A panelist pointed out that it’s unfair to say religion alone is the problem, when within our own memories we have the examples of Nazism, the crimes of Stalinism, and the Pol Pot movement in Cambodia, all of which were non-religious.

Responding to another question about repairing our faiths, Syeed said two things: “Each of us needs to be an advocate for inclusionary practices within our own tradition,” and then “we need a functional engagement with other traditions.”

Does prayer help? “What is prayer?” Firestone asked. “It affirms the relationship between the individual and the transcendent. It also gives us the support to do the work that needs to be done, affirming our own humility and putting us in touch with others who also feel their own humility.”

A participant asked about genocide in America, and how it compares to Islamophobia. Sherma cited the enormous vitality of a civilization such as ours today: But from a historical point of view, in that people living here now are benefiting from the foundations laid centuries ago by extermination and slavery, “everyone in the U.S. is complicit in genocide.”

Syeed answered a comment that promoted where peace is happening already by citing the effective but largely unrecognized work being done by African-American Muslim leader Aquil Basheer in gang intervention in Los Angeles over the course of decades.

The real struggle, someone observed, is not between religions themselves, but within each religion – between fundamentalists on one side and progressives on the other.

A questioner asked if war was the only kind of state violence we ought to be looking at. What are we doing against our own people – against women, against children, the poor and disabled? Miles proposed that while that is true, “in our democratic society we do have some say. Are we using it?”

Another audience member had an insightful response to that challenge. “History,” she said, “is recorded by the victors. Now digital technology, with our smart phones and cameras, allows us all to become reporters!”

Photo: left to right, Rita Sherma, Daniel Smith-Christopher, moderator Joseph Prabhu, Reuven Firestone, Jack Miles, Najeeba Syeed / Eric Gordon PW


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.