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Neither inherently violent nor safe

19 July 2019

To what extent do scriptural texts inspire terrorist acts today, asks Michael Wakelin

A LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly when it comes to interpreting scripture. After all, you could argue from St Luke’s Gospel (2.16, KJV) that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were all lying in the manger together. I believed this as a child, and could not understand why all the Christmas cards got it so wrong. More tragically, you could also argue from the Abrahamic scriptures that genocide was God’s will, ethnic cleansing was sometimes necessary, and that infidels were ripe for slaughter.

An academic project, Scripture and Violence: Challenging Assumptions, run by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme (CIP), has been tackling this issue during the past two years. Under the leadership of Dr Julia Snyder, Dr Daniel Weiss, and Dr Giles Waller, it has assembled extensive wisdom from scholars around the world to address such questions as: What part do Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy scriptures play in real-world acts of violence? How have these texts been read at different historical moments?

A symposium was held in January, in Cambridge, and a follow-up public meeting was held in the LSE Faith Centre, London, on 27 June, in partnership with Coexist House, which is linked to the CIP. Lively discussion explored further questions about whether the Abrahamic religions and their texts were inherently violent, inherently peaceful, or neither of these.

Impetus was added to the project‘s imperatives, between the two gatherings, by an unusual ruling from the Home Office. An unnamed Iranian Christian convert’s asylum application had been rejected on the basis that the applicant‘s claim, to have converted from Islam to Christianity because it was a “peaceful” faith, was “inconsistent” with passages of the Bible, several of which were quoted in the ruling (News, 22 March).

The decision was criticised for exhibiting an alarmingly superficial understanding of biblical texts (Comment, 12 July). But this assumption of scripture’s direct contribution to violence is clearly not isolated to the Home Office: it is far more widespread. The fact is that many people today apparently think that it is scripture that plays a key part in causing violence; so how should we read these more troublesome verses?

THE CIP project takes the view that scripture is neither inherently violent nor inherently safe — it is a complex relationship. Dr Snyder, from Universität Regensburg, in Bavaria, speaking at the recent consultation, called into question the category of “religious violence”. She argued that it represented an artificial category that was unhelpful for understanding the whole picture of what was going on when a violent act occurred.

“It suggests that when someone commits an act of violence, there is only one main contributing factor,” she said. “Likewise, reading the Bible and the Qur’an does not inevitably lead to violence: a book can’t hold a gun to someone’s head.”

But dealing with the question whether passages from the Bible and Qur’an ever play a part in motivating or justifying violence, Dr Snyder had to agree that, sometimes, “sorry to say,” they did — but often as a justification after the fact rather than as a motivation before it.

One of the contributors to the January meeting, Dr Omar Shaukat, had a hands-on approach to his research, interviewing Islamic State (IS) fighters and supporters. What he found was not a religious army fired by scripture but a cohort of young idealists, compelled to right the wrongs of past imperialism, colonialism, and invasions. He described their self-understood motivation in terms of “bad-ass do-goodery”. These young men from various countries liked the idea of a global stage, and thought that they wanted to play their part in making history. It was only after enlistment that imams, invited by the IS leaders, shared with them verses of the Qur’an that, out of context, could be seen to endorse their despicable behaviours.

Another chapter in the book looks at the way in which particular American Evangelical “end times” readings of the Book of Revelation justify violence and war in the Middle East, and motivate Islamophobia more widely.

The CIP project has also looked at the ways in which texts have been interpreted and enacted in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. It has found that, in many historical cases, communities have theologically understood seemingly violent texts in ways that did not give rise to violence from religious practitioners, and contemporary justifications of violence often constitute a departure from previous traditions of interpretation.

THE upshot of this, they concluded, was that, if people today really are concerned about the relation between scripture and violence, a shaking up of common assumptions is needed so that people do not end up blindly blaming scriptural texts, and, likewise, do not fixate on “religious texts as a problem”, in a manner which distracts from analysing the actual sources of violence.

The problem is that, on a balmy evening in the LSE Faith Centre, there were 30 religiously literate folk nodding in agreement and then returning to their mostly safe and poverty-free existences. Sadly, in my view, the fact remains that texts that can be taken out of context, and twisted to be seen as inflammatory, are vulnerable to exploitation. His­tory has shown this to be the case in past and present Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Add them to soil watered by years of discontent and injustice, and an already violent situation can turn rapidly into a holy war. Breaching the gulf between academic insight and “bad-ass” activists is the next challenge.

Michael Wakelin is head of programmes for Coexist House, and a former Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC.

Scripture and Violence will be published by Routledge in 2020.

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