“What are we to make of all the religious passages that glorify killing in the name of God or even God killing and torturing unbelievers?”
This is a valid question that frequently comes from people who are genuinely confused or conflicted by these passages.
Is the God who is preached in many Jewish and Christian congregations one of love, or the “jealous” one depicted in the Hebrew scriptures? Is Allah/God the merciful and compassionate being invoked in the Quran, or the vicious one who will condemn unbelievers to the eternal fires?
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur spoke of a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Hermeneutics is the study of interpretations. Ricoeur was telling us that we cannot merely accept literal passages from our religious scriptures. Instead, our task is to interpret them and ask how they speak to us here and now. The term “suspicion” is crucial to this. It is a warning that literal readings will not provide us with a full picture; there are underlying ideas lurking in the text.
One can find both sides of most arguments in our sundry religious scriptures. These classic works of the religious imagination represent both the loftiest of divine acts of mercy and compassion, and the most vile and self-serving condemnations of those who choose to remain outside of the tradition. While God may be perfect, our understandings and interpretations are not. Ricoeur certainly realized this. Yet, he also knew that interpretation was preferred to blind faith or unquestioned acceptance. If religion is to have any positive effect on our society, it will not come from emphasizing and adhering solely to the ones that condemn us to camps of “saved versus unsaved” or “chosen people versus others.” Instead, it will come from our honest and humble efforts to glean the most compassionate and unifying teachings that our scriptures have to offer, and telling ourselves that we are better people than the passages mentioning hate would have us believe.
A person who hates, abuses and even tortures or kills in the name of religion is one who is following their religion’s primitive pathologies rather than manifesting or embodying its ennobling features. A person whose core beliefs coalesce around hate is one to be pitied rather than emulated. While they may claim to be Christian, they fail to see that they worship a demonic fantasy or illusion. This extends to their actions when they fail to see that marching with their torches or dressing up in their Halloween outfits of sheets and dunce caps is a sign of weakness and an insult to the God they claim to honor.
By its very nature, religion is about bringing people together. This goes back to the Latin root, “religare,” which is often translated as “binding together.” However, merely binding together in a tribal sense is primitive when it is used to inflict violence on those who are considered “others” by our religious traditions.
Hate represents the antithesis of bringing people together. Its goal is to use differences to divide. In essence, hate is areligious, against religion. This is important to keep in mind when Klansmen and their ilk make the false claim that they are acting in behalf of Christianity, or when neo-Nazis speak of defending western civilization. The fact of the matter is, these are the barbarians that western society needs to protect itself against. Otherwise, their successes, small though they may be, are deleterious to the health of a civilized society. While our Constitution provides them with a certain amount of “free speech,” that freedom ends when it endangers the lives of innocent people and threatens our civil society. Finally, this “freedom of speech” carries no sanctuary from questioning and challenges. Rather than stooping to their level, our role as people of faith must be to continue preaching and proclaiming justice and equality for people of all races, religions, sexual orientations, ethnic backgrounds and countries of origin. We must overcome words of hate with a spirit of love and compassion that will empower and overcome hatred, wherever it comes from, and wherever it arises.