On Violence and Religion
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
September 24, 2006
Scriptures: James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
“If anyone one would be first, he/she must be last of all and servant of all” –Mark 9:35
When one hears a saying like this one suspects that it is impossible to follow Jesus. There is surely a diagnostic category in the science of mental health for someone who wants always to be last of all and servant of all. Such a person would be diagnosed at least as lacking in self-esteem, and probably as prey to several more dire disorders. Yet Jesus says it is the ideal way to be. In order to understand the saying properly we must consider its context, and see it as part of Jesus’ antidote to deformed desire.
Our two readings for this week complement each other neatly. Our Gospel speaks of the necessary suffering and humiliation of our Lord, and the need for the disciple to be like the Lord servile and self-effacing, while the Epistle tells of the true wisdom that is free of jealousy and selfish ambition. Jesus speaks to disciples who, having heard that their teacher must suffer humiliation and death, start wrangling over who is the greatest in their little group of twelve, and James speaks to a church, which many of know as typical, where there is “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition” and where people “boast and are false to the truth.” We recognize ourselves immediately, and we wonder if we ever shall be able to live lives the are “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty and insincerity.” We wonder if it is not just cant and hypocrisy to be talking about “…the harvest of righteousness sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:17-18).” How many church members like that do you know?
James diagnoses our malady as a pathology of desire. Listen to this: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).” This is a conventional description of the human problem; virtually every religion begins with this diagnosis, and then prescribes various anti-dotes to sick and self-destroying desire. To take only four examples, Judaism prescribes obedience to the Law of Moses, Islam, the prophecies of Muhammad, Buddhism, the teaching of Siddharta, and Christianity the teaching of Jesus. All of these representative religions target the same enemy, sick and self-destroying desire but differ in their recommended antidotes. Why should we prefer one to the other?
The recent statement of the Pope in which he quoted a Byzantine source to the effect that Muhammad’s prophecies brought forth only violence and inhumanity is unfortunate not only in its effects but also in its implication that the historical record of Islam in these matters is worse than other religions in general and than Christianity in particular. It is impossible to imagine such poor judgment on the part of a man so patently brilliant and careful so one can only conclude that he wants to open a dialogue with responsible Muslim leaders about the current surge of criminal violence that is bursting forth from within Islam. Unfortunately he gives the impression that Christianity’s historical record is better than Islam’s in the matter of curbing and curing the violent passions of desire. While one cannot maintain that Christianity has historically been free of lethal desire, or even better than Islam in this regard, one must face the fact that today, in the year 2006, there is no comparison between the two religions in this regard. Now there is an ever- growing wave of the cruelest and most fanatical violence crashing from Islam upon the creaky dams of an almost vanished Christendom, murdering men, women, children, old folks and babies with zeal and satisfaction. Its view of the world is gravely distorted, holding for instance that US and European business activities are a Christian crusade to deprive and enslave Muslims. This so-called Muslim jihadism is a major threat to world peace, as well as a massive pathology of human religiosity. It is as if the KKK and the Aryan Church of the Pure White Race were the chief representatives of Christianity today – entities that cause derision and nausea among the vast majority of Christians, and are massively repudiated. The fact is that the largest Christian institution, the Roman Catholic Church, is consistent and adamant in its opposition to war, especially the current US war, and to the death penalty. It is in fact a militant pro-life (in the general sense) institution ranged against the cultures of death, which solve their problems by killing human beings, from the weakest to the strongest. It stands against the desire for death, not violently but in firm humility. Whatever its record was in the11 thru 13th centuries when it crusaded, or the 15 and 16th centuries when its Inquisition was most active, it has not for a long time been anything like that. Therefore, it is no argument to claim that all religions are the same in this regard, and the Pope cannot challenge the responsible leaders of Islam today. Let’s hear from them! Let’s have an international Muslim conference to condemn finally, adamantly and forever, the violent jihad they claim has not part in classical Islam.
Since we Westerners cannot get the meaning of jihad right when all Muslims use it for spiritual struggle in general and only the murdering scum use it to mean merciless killing of the weak and defenseless, it would be very helpful if, as a writer named James Guirard suggests, Islam in general stopped referring to the crimes of their murdering scum as jihad (Holy War) and called it hirabah (unholy war), called the perpetrators irhabists (terrorists) rather than jihadists, and called these self proclaimed holy warriors not mujahideen (holy warriors) but rather mufsidoon (criminals or evildoers). One could not imagine responsible Christian leaders calling the work of the KKK a holy war, or their member’s holy warriors, and then complaining when people thought they were approving of their evil deeds. (Cf. Atlantic Monthly, Sept 2006, p. 69).
I regret that the Pope’s strategy in this matter was so inept; he has confused things, while at the same time demonstrating by the Muslim reaction the validity of the criticism that a Muslim theology of a God who transcends reason produces irrationality. The reason of the modern hirabah is the reason of humiliation, hatred, and revenge, not of civil dialogue and civilized tolerance, that is, not reason at all but idiot desire in its orgasmic paroxysms of violence. There is no point in claiming the attitudes of civil dialogue for Islam while so many of its best representatives are silent about the wild cruelty of its baby killing saints. Let us hear from the Muslim equivalents of the Pope that these people are not Muslims at all and in any way, but merely murderous felons to be excommunicated and attacked in the name of the Muslim god.
I know that one does not make ones own product better by dispraising the product of another, and I emphatically do not argue that because Islam is at present so bad, Christianity is rendered better. Nevertheless, it is instructive at some level I cannot specify, to compare the example of Jesus with that of Muhammad. Jesus goes willingly to humiliation and death because he in principle overthrows the religious order, and will not defend himself against the retributive violence of that injured order. He dies, falsely proclaimed a felon, outside the city, forsaken. Muhammad leads his armies to victory and spreads his religion by the sword. He dies in his bed in the presence of his wives and children (I am no expert on the life of the prophet, so these descriptions are not accurate in domestic details, but there can be no denying that he was in significant measure a military leader). I appreciate the comparative realism and humanity of the prophet’s example; Jesus is too extreme for most of us to emulate; but I am convinced that only Jesus got to the root of things, and revealed the disease of desire and its orgasmic violence. The cruel Cross, not the peaceful divan, discloses the truth about us, and thereby lances the infected heart; but it is the cross of the crucified, not the sword of the crucifiers that counts. That is the determinative and impossible difference; we are always claiming to be the crucified when in fact we are the crucifiers. (Did I not fear for my life, I would include here a remark about prophets who die in their beds).
There is so much that dare not be said these days; so the sore festers and the body soaks up the poison. CK Williams, in a poem recently published in the TLS (9/8/06) called “Apes” writes: “It’s occurred to me I’ve read enough; at my age all I’m doing is confirming my sadness.” This speaks for me; confirming my sadness I turn to Jesus whose sadness was infinite and whose subsequent joy, eternal. Myrtle told me shortly before she died that she found the figure of the suffering, crucified Jesus on the crucifix in St Ann’s chapel very comforting as she sat in service there. Jesus has a way of taking up our pain into his, but only when we are through with pretending. So let’s try to face the truth about our decadent desire and our inability to reform it, our need of the one real savior, Jesus the Resurrected, and let us go to him.