Religion and violence


I am not a subscriber to The Wall Street Journal; so I was somewhat surprised to find a copy of this paper’s Oct. 3-4 weekend Review section lying at the door to my condo late one Saturday evening.

After a quick glance at the front-page headline, I understood why my neighbor had left it for me: “Swords Into Plowshares,” followed by “Islamic State’s creed embodies evil in the name of a sacred cause.  To defeat it, we must recover the values that can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together.”  The author of the essay beneath the headline is Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of British Commonwealth and author of the recently published “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” (Schocken, 2015).

In his essay, adapted from his new book, Sacks addresses a most troubling, most frightening phenomenon that we in the West are now forced to face: “the elemental, world-shaking power of religion when hijacked by politics.”

Sacks takes the position that the secular West should not have been blindsided by the widespread resurgence of religion, for failed secular revolutions almost invariably breed religious counterrevolutions.

From Sacks’ perspective, while modern science, technology, markets and the liberal democratic state have provided us with unprecedented material abundance and personal freedom, “[w]hat the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is a meaning-seeking animal;” for meaning, people turn to religion or to “the great modern substitutes for religion – nation, race, political ideology,” which for the most part have been exposed as gods that failed.  What has turned out to be so problematic is that the religious counterrevolution has featured religion “at its most adversarial and aggressive” in sharp distinction from “the gentle, quietist and ecumenical form that we in the West have increasingly come to expect.”

A few paragraphs into his essay, Sacks lists three commonly held views concerning the relationship between religion and violence: 1) “Religion is the major source of violence...” 2) “Religion is not a source of violence...” 3) “We are for peace.  They are for war.”

Sacks comments, “None of these are true.”  While such a terse statement could be applied to all of the world’s religions, I will limit my comments to the three major religions of the West.  Any careful investigation of the founding texts and the subsequent development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam will demonstrate that the interplay between religion and violence is exceedingly complex.  Thus, the Crusades of the Middle Ages would seem to offer proof positive that Christianity is inexorably entangled with violence.   Nevertheless, undeniably pacifistic notes are sounded within the Gospels and continue to sound throughout the ages; consider, if you will, St. Francis of Assisi.  Similarly, despite the fact that politicized radical Islam is a clear and present danger to world peace, a strong historical case can be made that ISIS is an aberration and that in other circumstances, Islam has served as an agent of tolerance.  Broadening this perspective, Sacks cites Charles Phillips’ and Alan Axelrod’s survey of 1,800 conflicts, which found that “less than 10% involved religion.”

If religion is not now and has not been the major source of violence in our world, one cannot deny that all major religions have contributed at one time or another to violent conflict.  We cannot pretend that the Crusades never happened, nor can we close our eyes to the unspeakably barbaric acts carried out by ISIS in the name of Islam. 

What further complicates our attempt to understand the relationship between religion and violence is that we tend to read the foundational documents of our respective religions – our Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the New Testament, the Quran – in a most selective, even self-serving way.  Whether we are Jewish or Christian or Muslim, we choose those verses from our sacred texts that best support our particular point of view.  Let me limit myself to but one example from our Tanakh: Those of us who want to stress the pacifist streams of Jewish tradition are quick to cite Isaiah, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (2.4) We conveniently forget that the prophet Joel proclaims, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.” (4.10)

The three world religions that see Abraham as their father possess elements which emphasize peace, tolerance and mutual respect.  Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find elements within the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions which call for violence, intolerance and hatred of the “other.”  Depending upon one’s point of view, we can create out of our traditions either “good” religion or “bad” religion.  It seems to me that the collective task of our Jewish community is to work to create those forms of Judaism which foster peace and tolerance and mutual respect – forms of religion which continue to draw upon our past while remaining responsive to the particular needs of our quasi-secularized West.

My talented younger colleague, Jonathan Blake, senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Congregation in New York, has on more than one occasion expressed the core idea of Sacks’ essay by stating that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion; rather, the antidote to bad religion is good religion.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at