Violence, religion and hope

To the Journal editor:

The heart-breaking recent loss of over 4,000 children’s lives in the Middle East, perpetuated by religious extremists, approaches limits of human comprehension.

Such brutal violence is not new. But perpetration of these actions by leaders in the 21st century, now with access to nuclear weapons, is terrifying. The blood of children staining a landscape that served as the very origin of three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – is being justified by those in authority as collateral damage. This kind of reasoning is an insult to human decency.

The mix of politics and religion in the Middle East is a riddle of despair. How has it come to this? Some of us still choose to believe that religious life, at its best, offers frameworks for moral deliberation, spiritual exploration, and compassionate action. At times, it’s been that. Over the last years in the Upper Peninsula, faith-based volunteers provided the first shelters for the homeless, planted tens of thousands of trees, founded the first efforts to provide medical services to the underserved. Along with time spent at deer camps and hockey games, people of faith here in Northern Michigan have led the way welcoming and supporting refugees from Vietnam, Mexico, and Syria.

Currently, there is a massive defection from formal religious institutions across North America. Denominational leaders are facing a reckoning with the demise of a world they once knew.

There is hopeful news. Poets, musicians, and artists serve many of us now as our new priests. They document and memorialize both our suffering and our grasping for signs of hope. We need to listen. Not long ago, Pope Francis invited some of the world’s most prominent poets, musicians, and artists (few connected with any organized religion) to travel to Rome so he could do just that. Despite harsh criticism, this one-time Jesuit priest who never owned a car, continues to boldly warn that our planet cannot exist with its levels of violence, fevered consumption of material goods, and unprecedented destruction of natural resources.

There isn’t yet any clear map ahead, but an important step will involve new thinking about our respective troubled emotional lives, the need for healthy rituals, and the power of a symbolic life. Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist, after studying cultures around the world, said that without religion, humans become their own gods. History has proven, she said, we will become, like Stalin or Mao, monsters.

At the same time, we should recognize that religion is often part of the problem if it exists only to protect or serve its own interests. The Dalai Lama put it even clearer. He once remarked religion is like tea. It can be good for you. But kindness, like water, is better.

The dynamics of violence, domestic, cultural, global, are rooted deep within the human heart. If not constrained, transformed, they destroy first the most vulnerable among us. A day ago, a war correspondent from the Middle East reported that children hiding in the ruins of Gaza are writing their names on their arms. If and when the bombs fall again, they hope family members will be able to identify their bodies.

We also know one thing for certain: Violence hates beauty, justice, compassion. There are choices to be made. By each of us. The ending of whatever story we are living is still unfinished. Carl Braaten, a prophetic Protestant theologian once shared with a group of us as new seminarians. “No one can hate like a religion person can. No one can love like one can either.”


Cedar Tree Institute



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