Religion and Violence

Kristallnacht vst clippingIt has been a full week, a very full week. Full of hope, and full of despair. Full of religion, and full of violence.

Last Thursday, the Vancouver School of Theology hosted a Kristallnacht Commemoration, woven with words and music, history and testimony, thought and feeling.

From the podium, I saw a hundred faces moved to tears. So I said: Please do not bury today’s powerful thoughts and feelings in the a secret place. Instead, remember them, return to them, and act on them — so we can repair the world together.

Our keynote speaker, Helen Waldstein Wilkes, reminded us how fragile Canada’s open-hearted multiculturalism can be. All it takes to flip the switch of prejudice, she said, is one little word: “the.”  This little word reifies, objectifies, hypostatizes the noun it introduces. For example, I can speak easily of Christians: diverse individuals, integrated into my daily life.  But I can also slip into speaking of “the Christians” – a group of dangerous Others, who have long been at odds with Jews.

Watching one’s speech can be powerful. To change a habit of speech, one must reshape a habit of thought. As thought changes, so does action. Still, it seems a very tiny intervention in a world greatly in need of repair.

On Saturday at synagogue, I spoke about the tension between gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. We know that tikkun olam consists of an infinite number of acts of lovingkindness. And, unfortunately, that an infinite number of acts of lovingkindness does not add up to a world intact. This terrible real-life math threatens my hope — and also keeps me moving forward.

On Monday, I heard Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Religion, Karen said, is blamed for causing violence. But blame actually belongs with the “cocktail” (her word) of politics and religion. At the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, she said, is a need for land and resources. Neither the early Zionist movement nor the PLO were religious organizations. Violence began before religious fervour, and has escalated under its influence.

On Tuesday, we learned of more terrible violence in Jerusalem. Palestinian activists (reported by relatives to be) angry about violent tensions over the Al-Aqsa Mosque, entered a synagogue, killing four worshippers and a police officer, before being killed by Israeli police. Today’s conflict was framed in religious terms, Muslim vs. Jew. Or, to borrow Helen’s language, since the attackers and attacked were strangers, the Muslims vs. the Jews. “When you bring the religious dimension,” said philosopher Moshe Halbertal to the New York Times, “it globalizes the conflict, because it’s every Muslim, it’s not anymore an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This absolutizing seems an unraveling of the world repair Helen and I both seek. Here, as action changes, thought follows, and so does speech. Can one simply re-ravel the world with careful speech? Careful speech from a few interfaith religious activists, thousands of miles away?

Despair is no reason to give up. At the same Kristallnacht observance, Professor Harry Maier spoke of a defiant group of Protestant pastors in Erfurt, Germany, in 1938. These ministers refused to participate in the anti-Jewish riot, or stop teaching the Old Testament. They refused to make an enemy of “the Jews.” Surely they knew their resistance would not add up to a victory. Yet they acted, and they taught, and they continue to teach us today.

They are my heroes.

Image: Kristallnacht Observance Poster for VST, by Shannon Lythgoe


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