RELIGION and VIOLENCE

White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12. The American Civil Liberties Union is reeling from criticism for its role in defending the white supremacists’ right to march in Charlottesvile. After that rally left a counter protester dead, some critics said the ACLU had blood on its hands. AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER, FILE

I n light of the recent extremist events in Charlottesville and in Spain, reasonable people might well be wondering again about religion’s relationship to violence. After all, the KKK began as a purportedly “Christian” movement in the later 19th century, starkly opposed to blacks, Jews and Catholics — and perhaps its most powerful symbol is the Christian cross set aflame. Extremist Islamic violence also cloaks itself in its own particular interpretation of the Quran. It is useful to remember the full name of the KKK. It is Ku Klux Klan, and it was created by confederate veterans in Tennessee by combining the Greek word “kyklos” (“circle”) with the English word “clan.” For some years it was known as the “Kuklux Clan.” Its symbol is a white Christian Greek cross placed inside a red circle. Somewhat similarly, the Nazi symbol of the swastika also contains a veiled reference to the Christian Greek cross: One can form a swastika by simply adding four lines on the four ends of the Greek cross. As an old dyed-in-the-wool linguistics pedant, I have always told students that language and symbols don’t lie, people who use language and symbols lie. A group’s language and symbols will often tell you more about that group’s way of thinking than the group actually wants you to know. Both the KKK and the Nazis appropriated earlier religious symbols and twisted them toward nefarious ends — in the process they hope to give their movements, via association and manipulation, the appearance and appeal of religious legitimacy. Both the KKK and the Nazis were, in their origins, explicitly clear (and powerful) in their appeals to the power of clan membership, in the psychological and anthropological senses of this term “clan.” A clan is defined as a group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent. In the 1930s, the Nazi Party platform emphasized over and over the purity and superiority of the Aryan/Germanic clan’s blood line. Nazism, in no small way, caused the German people to revert back (ignorantly but proudly) to an ancient clan identity. The KKK, of course, wants to do the same thing. For the KKK, the ultimate, superior clan is a certain type of northern European physical type. The scholar Susannah Heschel has provided a thorough analysis of the extremes to which this perversion went in Germany in her book titled “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany” (Princeton, 2008). The book is a careful examination of an actual Protestant organization that was formed in Germany named “The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life.” Books were written in Nazi Germany purporting to show that Jesus was actually an Aryan who was transplanted into Palestine in order to destroy and transform Judaism. I’ve read a couple of these books, and they are frightening examples of the lengths some scholars would go to achieve tenure. And that’s not a joke. All of this is tragedy on an immense scale. And also a misunderstanding of the history of religion on an immense scale. The internationally respected French/American scholar René Girard (1923-2015) devoted much of his life to a ground-breaking discussion of religion and its relationship to violence. His very convincing thesis is that one of the most important functions of religion, across thousands of years of our collective history, has been to control the human tendency to revert to violence. With intelligence — even primitive, purely animal intelligence — comes the desire of members of a species to want what others want and to compete (even to death) for it. This applies to territory, food, water and mates for sexual reproduction. Many higher species of animals have a primitive social structure that is built around the “top dog” or the “alpha male.” This is very common. We have every reason to believe that our distant, primitive ancestors organized themselves in a similar fashion. This grew into the family, clan, tribe and (eventually) nation system that has existed across the entire world. The problem is, of course, that this system’s earlier stages (clan and tribe) have severe limitations and entail quite constant violence — both within any given group and also between competing groups — in order to maintain order and to control “membership” in the groups. In order to accomplish this critical society-building achievement of containing the instinct toward violence (our “original sin”?), humans again and again around the world have resorted to the scapegoat mechanism, which is recounted so clearly in the Old Testament (Leviticus 16:10), for example. This is a cleansing and purifying ritual whereby an animal is chosen “to take on” the errors and sins of the clan/tribe, and this animal is then cast out into the desert to die or sacrificed on an altar. In order to “make things right” within the group, some living creature has to be sacrificed — so the group can then, as it were, start over with a clean slate. This puts the group back on good terms within itself and with its relationship to the group’s gods. At various times and places around the world across history, even humans were required to be sacrificed — and this continued right into the 20th century. One hopes not throughout the 21st. To be cast out or sacrificed as “unclean and impure,” the KKK picked blacks, Jews and Catholics. The Nazis picked the Jews, the handicapped, the Gypsies, the Slavs and thousands of Catholic priests as well. Of course, we all know that violent, extremist Islamic terrorists are picking the “infidels.” What is the point being driven at here? The point is, as Girard has argued, religion as a whole across the world has in fact evolved beyond the violent scapegoat mechanism and blood sacrifice requirement. Precious few polytheists are killing animals anywhere on their altars, and human sacrifice is against the law in every nation on Earth. For Christians, the sacrifice of God giving his only begotten son to “take away the sins of the world” has clarified once and for all that this kind of bloody and violent ritual of humans killing animals and humans killing humans, in accord with religious demands, is finished, over, and done with forever. The vast, vast majority of Christians and Muslims on this earth understand their religions to be religions of peace, religions that demand peace. The human instinct for committing violence is very strong. It has taken us thousands of years to discover a way to quell the drive to kill, maim and starve each other — whether members of our own clan or members of the clan across the way. If you find your religion requires you to engage in that activity, then you can be sure it’s time to re-examine your religion, because you (or your teachers) have misunderstood and perverted it. To think that way places you hundreds of years behind the times, and you are going extinct. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that those who do not stay abreast with their times are the ones who are cast out. Humanity will not revert to living in clans. That’s a silly, worn out, useless idea. We tried that for a very long time. It didn’t work. Now we know the truth, and it will set us free. The truth is we are one human family. John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.

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