Violence in the Name of God

Those who murder for their religion also have a claim to their religion

Posted Dec 28, 2015

"No one must use the name of God to commit violence," Pope Francis said at the Catholic University in Albania. "To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman."

The Pope’s remarks were aimed at terrorists who fight under the banner of Islam. He seems to say that those who use violence to further religion aren’t acting in good faith but rather contrary to established religious norms. But this is far from the case.

Violence in the name of religion has been a staple of human history. (Religion isn’t the only cause of violence. The three leading candidates for crimes against humanity in the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—weren’t religiously motivated.)

But violence sanctified is deeply embedded in nearly every religion. Here are some examples:

In the Jewish bible, God kills innocent Egyptian children to teach the pharaoh a lesson.

For Jews, Hanukkah celebrates the success of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire. In the 20th century, the Stern Gang, dedicated to ending the British Palestinian Mandate and opening it to unrestricted immigration to Jews, described themselves as terrorists. Yitzhak Shamir, one of the leaders, said he found inspiration in the biblical stories of Gideon and Samson.

Christians waged crusades under the banner of the cross. Not only did they kill Muslims, they also murdered other Christians over doctrinal matters and unleashed centuries of systematic anti-Semitism. Later, Pilgrims and Puritans, who fled Europe because of religious persecution, established violent and intolerant colonies in America, acting barbarically in the name of Christian theology. St. Michael is the saint of the police and military.

Islam established its roots as a conquering army. Mohammed is revered as a prophet and admired as a military leader. Shia and Sunni Muslims have been killing one another for more than 1,500 years, all in the name of who rightly succeeds their religion’s founder.

What religion is more non-violent than that of Buddhists? Yet during WWII, most Buddhist groups in Japan supported their country’s war efforts. This wasn’t the first time that Buddhism supported violence. During the 16th century warrior monks rallied to the idea that "The mercy of Buddha should be recompensed even by pounding flesh to pieces. One's obligation to the Teacher should be recompensed even by smashing bones to bits."

Hinduism is built upon the precept of doing no harm. Yet in their holy text, the Bhagavad Ghita, Lord Krishna argues that violence in the defense of justice isn’t contrary to the spiritual life. Om 2008, Hindus attacked more than 20 Christian churches in southern India.

The point is that those who do violence in the name of religion aren’t usurpers. Violence in the name of god is deeply rooted in religious texts and tradition. At the same time, denouncing those who use God’s name to justify violence also has its religious precedents. Terror and compassion are both part of religion and what is normative depends upon which strand wins over the hearts and minds of its adherents.

The issue isn’t whether terrorists and fanatics are acting in the name of their religion but whether they are acting on behalf of humanity. It isn’t whether they are good Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus but whether they are good people. On that score the answer is unequivocal: terrorists are criminals of the worst sort and their brutality needs to be condemned by every decent person. That was the Pope’s point and I agree.

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