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Editorial: Scapegoating

Understanding Religious Wars

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Thou Shalt Not Kill:
Understanding Religious Wars

by Morris Sullivan
art/Eachean Edmundson

In June, rebels in Fiji took hostage 27 members of the island nation's government. The rebels'spokesman claimed to be giving the hostages, who included the deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, lessons in Christianity. The prime minister is a Hindu.

In the Philippines, hostages grabbed from a school by militant Muslims included 22 children and a Catholic priest. The extremists claim to have beheaded two of them so far.

Religious identity has been constantly present in the antagonisms that have for centuries pitted Balkan neighbor against neighbor, with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Western Christians struggling for power.

The current phase of the conflict in Sudan began in 1983, when a group of rebels sought a new government--a democratic, secular government that does not discriminate on religious grounds. Sudan's power currently rests with a non-compromising Islamic scholar; the government has unleashed terror on both Christians and Muslims who oppose its fundamentalist policies.

Most wars today, it seems, are civil wars in which one religious group oppresses another. Religion, we tend to believe, purports to bring inner--and outer--peace. It seems contradictory, then, that religion should provide the source for so much conflict. It might be easy for a westerner to blame "those Muslims" or "the Catholics" for the religious intolerance that fuels modern religious warfare. However, the conflicts are far more complex than they may appear on the surface, and the solutions are far less readily apparent than we would like to believe.

Today's civil wars differ from those in Vietnam and Korea, in which the nations were divided along geographic and political lines--the communist North against the Republican south, for example, and even from America's civil war, dividing the Abolitionist North against the slave-owning South. Now, civil wars are likely to be fought neighbor-against-neighbor, the Orthodox Christian against the Muslim next door, for example.

Since the dawn of European civilization, the Judeo-Christian world seems to have been at war. The Crusades killed countless Christians and Muslims as Europe wrestled for control of the Holy Land. The conflict continued as Turks made inroads into Europe, and when that tide was finally stemmed, Christians warred against Christians as the Reformation threatened Catholicism. When Israel was finally made a state, of course, that began a series of wars and battles that began almost from the first day of Israel's existence. Islam and Hinduism battled over India and Bangladesh. And now Protestants fight Catholics in Ireland, Muslims fight Jews in the Middle East, and Christians and Muslims kill one another in Sudan, Kosovo, and Jakarta.

We filter our information about our own and other cultures to suit our images of ourselves. Thus, as most Americans are Christian, at least in our ethnic background, we tend to paint for ourselves a somewhat self-serving, modernised, enlightened portrait of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Americans often think of Christianity in terms of its "love thy neighbor" and "turn the other cheek" philosophies. By contrast, when we think of Muslims, we often think of the term "jihad," the holy war that, we assume, feeds the flames of terrorism and civil war. Since the Crusades, the bloody battles between European Christians and Muslim Turks, we have seen Islam as a formidable and barbaric opponent.

However, as Joseph Campbell so conclusively points out in Myths to Live By, the aggressiveness that characterizes modern Islam has its roots in the warrior mythologies of the Aryans and Semites, as well as those of ancient Greece--the same mythologies that are shared by Christianity and Judaism.

"The two greatest works of war mythology in the west," Campbell says, "are the Iliad and the Old Testament." And, he continues, the war mythology of the Old Testament is in many ways far less forgiving than that of the Greeks--"when we turn from the Iliad and Athens to Jerusalem and the Old Testament [we find] a single-minded single deity with his sympathies forever on one side. And the enemy, accordingly, no matter who it may be, is handled...pretty much as though he were subhuman: not a 'Thou' but an 'It.'"

Let's not forget that Christianity is rooted in Judaism, and that the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament was supposed to be a great king who would lead Israel to victory. Therefore, the same God who urges us to "love our neighbor" also tells us (in Deuteronomy) "when the Lord your God gives [your enemies] over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them and show them no mercy."

This jealous God, it seems, fears that making peace and showing mercy to one's enemies will ultimately "turn your sons from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and He would destroy you utterly."

How does one reconcile that command of the Judeo Christian God, "Thou shall not kill," against His demand to "utterly destroy" one's enemies? For the answer to that question, one should look at the origins of both religion and war.

Humans are predators. Like all predators, we are territorial. Like lions and hyenas, we hunt in packs; if we're talking about a primitive human society, we call our packs "tribes." If we're talking about contemporary society, we call our pack a "nation."

The purpose of the tribe is to manage and exploit resources which we could not manage and exploit as individuals. Like technology, the tribe makes it possible for us to extend ourselves beyond our own capabilities: just as the weapon extends our hands beyond the grasp of our arm, thus making it possible for us to kill bigger game, the tribe permits us to survive more easily and comfortably. If you examine any society, you'll see that it battles other societies for control of resources, just as any two predators will fight for control of a territory.

Every society has laws. Before societies organized themselves into states, laws were provided by religion. Those laws are necessary for the orderly management of the society; they evolve mainly to suit the particular tribe; and they apply to the individuals within that tribe. Members of other tribes don't count; the laws are not intended to protect them, because they are competitors for our own tribes resources. Therefore, when Jehovah commanded, "Thou shall not kill,"what He meant was "Thou shall not kill members of your own tribe."

Today's civil wars are, like all wars, not really about ideology--no group of people really, at their core, give a damn about the ideology of another group. Rather, in one way or another, these apparently "religious" wars are about the control of resources--of land, the oil underneath the land, or the freedom to make money.

The warring groups, however, organize along apparently religious lines because the "tribes"have to share territories. Religion serves largely as a means of de-humanizing the other tribe. As we've seen with the de-humanizing of the Vietnamese, the Communists, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and so on, it's far easier to kill a person when we can manage to see him as somehow less than human. What better way to de-humanize another person than to point out that he doesn't even worship a "real" god, like we do?

And so, all over the world, people battle for control of limited resources, each side convinced that their atrocities are justified because "God is on our side."

Most modern governments have learned that they can reap more benefits through cooperation than war. Religious ideology, unfortunately, has not evolved the way government has over the last several centuries. Rather, much of religion holds tenaciously to its ancient--and now counter-productive--ideology.

There are, of course, no easy solutions to this problem--no pronouncement that will put an end to religious warring. If the civil wars are to ever end, several things must eventually take place. First, world leaders must continue to insist that freedom to choose one's form of worship is a fundamental human right. Second, religious leaders must come into the modern world--they must realize that cooperation will be more beneficial than strife, and take the stance that peace, freedom, and survival take precedence over ideology. As Pius XII averred, "Nothing is lost with peace; all can be lost with war."

Most important, though, we must have economic equality. During deliberations in Milan over the situation in Sudan which included professors in political science and African history, human rights advocates, and representatives of the conflicting groups, consensus arose that the war was much more than a religious one--that religion has merely been manipulated to fuel the fire.

The best solution to come from the conference, according to Altercifi Ahmed Kormino, the Deputy Director of the Sudanese Embassy in Rome, was re-routing profits from the sale of Sudanese oil to help end the strife. "Why is there no war in the USA, Canada, or Italy?" he asked. Earnings from oil exports could be used to improve infrastructure, fight ignorance and disease, and minimize infant mortality. In comparison to their current conditions, those on both sides of the Sudanese conflict could become wealthy, "and, as we all know, rich people don't fight."

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Morris Sullivan's Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns