The conviction that God is on our side is like atomic energy. We can use its enormous power for good or ill. Amidst affliction and pain, believing that God is with us can sustain hope. But too often we misuse this conviction to justify violence against human beings whom we judge to be violating God’s will. We act as if God were on our side alone. But God stands on all sides. God is with those bent on evil, urging them to change their ways. And God stands with their victims, giving them strength to endure until they find a way out.
Of course, we want to believe that God is in our camp rather than that of others. We may assume that God inspires and sanctions our beliefs and actions rather than those of other religious traditions. Indeed, we tend to think of God as “ours.” But as the English writer J.B. Phillips famously said in a book by the same title: “Your God is too small.” We reduce God to human dimensions, projecting our tribalism on the Divine.
We might well make our own Paul’s exclamation in the Letter to the Romans: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (11:33-34).
God is impartial and He is the Master of all. Islam rejected the concept of a chosen community and a priesthood. All are equal in the eyes of God. The best among them are those who are conscious of God. It is not right to believe that God takes sides because of one’s faith, or that one’s race is better than the other. This idea leads to extremism and violence. In Al Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, God is referred to as Rabb al `Aalameen (the Cherisher of all in the Universe). Muslims recite this name for God in every unit of their prayers five times a day. However it could be justified that God does take the side of the oppressed, deprived and those whose fundamental rights are grossly violated when they stand for their just cause within the guidelines prescribed by the Qur’an.
The Bible includes many examples of brutality reputedly carried out with orders from God. When the Israelites are about to conquer the Land of Israel, Moses instructs them about its residents: “. . . [Y]ou are to devote-them-to-destruction, yes destruction, you are not to cut with them a covenant, you are not to show-them-mercy! . . . For YHWH your God is the one who goes with you, to wage-war against your enemies to deliver you” (Deuteronomy 7:2, 20:4, Everett Fox). Here we find the classic recipe for carrying out violence in God’s name — a divine order and a promise that God is on your side.
The dangers of taking scripture literally could not be more palpable. Fortunately, Jewish thought has evolved far beyond a literal reading of Deuteronomy. Jeffrey Tigay, a scholar of the Book of Deuteronomy, put it this way:
. . . [Later commentators] must have regarded this understanding of the law as implausible because it is so harsh and inconsistent with other values, such as the prophetic concept of repentance and the prediction that idolaters will someday abandon false gods, and the halakhic principle that wrongdoers may not be punished unless they have been warned that their action is illegal and informed of the penalty. In effect, they used interpretation to modify and soften the law in deference to other, overriding principles.*
The fact Jews wielded relatively little power over the past two millennia rendered these considerations mostly moot. Jews were victims, not practitioners of unleashing violence in God’s name. For Judaism the challenge was to explain how God could still be on our side when we were brutalized by one enemy after another.
Parts of the Bible teach that history reflects a divine plan that revolves around sin and punishment. God ultimately remains “on Israel’s side” but when the people of Israel sin, God “chooses” other nations to punish them. Followed to its ultimate conclusion, this approach has led some Christian theologians and ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups to believe that at least for a time God was on Hitler’s side, using Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to punish the Jews.* Irving Greenberg, a progressive Orthodox theologian rejects this as blasphemy. He suggests that rather than taking sides and determining historical outcomes, God has “contracted” so as to allow humanity greater opportunity to realize its ultimate potential for freedom.* Still, according to Greenberg, God is not absent, even during events such as the Holocaust.
God was where God should have been during the Holocaust. God was with God’s people, suffering, starving, being gassed and being burnt alive. Where else would God be, when God’s people are being treated that way? The real question is ‘What was God’s message when God did not stop the Holocaust? God is calling humans to take full responsibility . . . It is their obligation to take arms against evil and to stop it.’*
In order to allow human beings to fulfill their potential as mature partners with God, the side-taking God of the Exodus has stepped aside. I believe God wants autonomous human beings to transcend our claims of an exclusive relationship with God. “To Me, O Israelites you are just like the Ethiopians — declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up [rescued, Israel] from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). Heschel drew a profound lesson from this: “The God of Israel is also the God of her enemies, without their knowing Him and despite their defying Him.”*
The all-too-human wish to see God as exclusively taking our side reveals far more about us than about God. If God is with any of us, God is with all of us. Before Cain kills his brother, God counsels Cain that though the urge to sin is strong, “You can be its master” (Genesis 4:7). When Moses fears confronting Pharaoh, God says, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Remembering that we are all created in God’s image and that God has a stake in the future of each of us would bring us a lot closer to being able to live with one another in peace. Imagine God’s witnessing all of human history, watching each and every death brought about by someone claiming to have acted in God’s name. The reservoir of God’s tears must be vast.
Perhaps the most serious indictment against religions is their role in legitimating, inspiring or even fomenting intolerance and violence. The numinous realm of the sacred that persons access through symbol, myth and ritual is not necessarily guided by a moral compass.* Moreover, religion has powerful language that can be misused by those who believe they know the mind of God; its binaries of good and evil can be and have been used to demonize others and rationalize one’s acts of violence. A recent book, based on case studies across religious traditions of individuals and groups who engaged in terrorist acts in the name of God, argues that their violent acts arose in large measure out of the religious imagination, “which always has had the propensity to absolutize and to project images of cosmic war.”*
All religions are susceptible to being hijacked by pious persons who believe it is God’s will that they perpetrate violence on the “other,” whom they judge to be impure and wicked. In Christianity there is no more toxic exemplar of this susceptibility than the Crusades, which began in the late 11th century.
Pope Urban II, responding to the request of the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius I Comnenus, for military help against the Seljuk Turks in 1095, called for a “holy war” to liberate Christians in Asia Minor and the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem from Islam.* Although reports differ about the specific wording of the pope’s call—there are at least five versions—his apparently rousing call to arms during a church council in the French town of Clermont in November 1095 elicited enthusiastic cries of “Deus lo volt,” that is, “God wills it.”*
Thus, waves of crusading armies left Europe for the Middle East, slaughtering many Jews in the Rhineland en route. In conquering Jerusalem in 1099, “Muslims and Jews were cleared out of the Holy City like vermin.”* Perhaps as many as 30,000 were slaughtered, including Christians from the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Crusades, major and minor, went on for over four centuries against various perceived enemies: primarily against various Muslim groups (e.g., Seljuk Turks, Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottomans) but also against pagan tribes and heretics. Jews, while not the principal antagonists, nevertheless were often touched by the violence. The Crusades ranged over a vast territory—from western Russia to the Nile Delta and from Portugal to Arabia—but it was Jerusalem and the Holy Land that dominated the imagination of the Crusaders.
The Crusades profoundly damaged Christian relationships with Muslims and Jews, as well as with Eastern Christians. This initial contact with the Christian West bequeathed to the Islamic world a longstanding legacy of mistrust of the West: “The religious imagination of millions of contemporary Muslims is shaped in part by the vividly preserved cultural memory of these brutal encounters with the so-called followers of the ‘Prince of Peace.’”* The violence they suffered from the Crusaders also increased their devotion to Jerusalem (al-Quds), resulting in a more intensely Islamic city than had been the case before the attack of 1099.* Not only was the attack on the Jews of the Rhineland in 1096 the first full-blown pogrom in Europe, but it “augured heightened tensions ahead.”* Crusaders, after all, were those who “took the cross” (crucesignati), and under the banner of the cross, unspeakable deeds were justified. As a consequence, the cross, the preeminent symbol of Christianity, took on an ominous meaning, particularly for Jews.
The Crusades were a complex phenomenon, and historians point to multiple causes. But whatever the conditions that helped to give rise to them, they are a source of great shame to Christians. They reveal just how far those who professed to be disciples of Jesus heeded his imperative in the Gospel of Matthew:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (5:44-47)
Non-violence is a major theme in the Qur’an. The Qur’an says: “But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend! (41:34). The Qur’an asks for patience in difficult times. “And if there be some among you who have come to believe in the message which I bear, the while the others do not believe, then have patience in adversity till God shall judge between us [and them]: for He is the best of all judges!” (7:87).
The Qur’an permits defensive war with strict stipulations. Though recognizing Qisas (the law of equality), the Qur’an encourages people to forgive those who commit violence against them: “O YOU who have attained to faith! Just retribution is ordained for you in cases of killing: the free for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman. And if something [of his guilt] is remitted to a guilty person by his brother, this [remission] shall be adhered to with fairness, and restitution to his fellow-man shall be made in a goodly manner. This is an alleviation from your Sustainer, and an act of His grace. And for him who, none the less, willfully transgresses the bounds of what is right, there is grievous suffering in store” (2:178). In case of defensive war, the Qur’an asks Muslim to return to peace as soon as the other party agrees to it: “But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well, and place thy trust in God: verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing!” (8:61). A peace offer shall not be rejected even when the enemy is suffering defeat.
Muslims are cautioned to avoid conflict and deception. The Qur’an says: “. . . and, whenever they heard frivolous talk, having turned away from it and said: ‘Unto us shall be accounted our deeds, and unto you, your deeds. Peace be upon you – [but] we do not seek out such as are ignorant [of the meaning of right and wrong]’” (28:55). Transgression of limits and boundaries is strictly forbidden in Islam. All Muslims are required to be just and peaceful. The Qur’an says: “. . . these are the bounds set by God; do not, then, transgress them: for they who transgress the bounds set by God — it is they, they who are evildoers!” (2:229).
Despite the many verses in the Qur’an that call for non-violence, peaceful coexistence and forgiveness, some Muslims use the Qur’an to justify violence. There are two types of Qur’anic verses that some interpret to justify violence. One justifies Muslims on Muslim violence; the other justifies violence against non-Muslims. The Qur’an commands that Muslims live by the revelation and calls those who do not iniquitous, evil doers, disbelievers or deniers of the truth. The Qur’an further says that Jews and Christian were also commanded by God to live according to the revelation and have failed to do so. “Let, then, the followers of the Gospel judge in accordance with what God has revealed therein: for they who do not judge in the light of what God has bestowed from on high — it is they, they who are truly iniquitous!” (5:47).
Muslims are divided over the interpretation of these verses. However these verses give support to the rule by Shari`ah (Islamic Law) in Muslim states. It was in reference to these verses that the religious leader of Taliban, Sufi Muhammad of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi in the Swat Valley of Pakistan justified violence in the country. In his statement on May 4, 2009, Sufi Muhammad declared it un-Islamic for anyone to be photographed, and added that democracy, communism, socialism and fascism are un-Islamic systems of governance. He dismissed the Constitution of Pakistan as un-Islamic and accused the Pakistani Government of acting like disbelievers. He demanded the Government to implement the Shari`ah immediately. Thus, the Taliban in Pakistan justify their violence.
In Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban view the NATO forces as occupiers and therefore the war against NATO forces is a defensive war against invaders sanctioned by the Qur’an: “Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged … For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed. And God will most certainly succor him who succors His cause: for, verily, God is most powerful, almighty” (22:39-40). Al Qaeda’s list of examples of U.S. aggression toward Muslims provides a moral justification for its defensive war against Americans. When Osama Bin Laden was asked why he targeted innocent civilians, he recited lex talionis or the law of reciprocity. Pointing to the deaths of Muslim civilians, he argued that Al Qaeda was justified to respond in kind (“tooth for tooth”).*
Because they are friendly to America, Muslim countries, especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are also viewed as un-Islamic. Just as President George W. Bush, declared “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Bin Laden told Muslims, “You are either a true believer with us or against us.”* When asked how they could win against the vast majority, extremists referred to the victory of Saul and his small band of soldiers against the forces of Goliath in the Qur’an: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave! For God is with those who are patient in adversity” (2:249). Or, taking it out of context, they quote, “And so, [when you fight in a just cause,] do not lose heart and [never] beg for peace: for, seeing that God is with you, you are bound to rise high [in the end]; and never will He let your [good] deeds go to waste” (47:35). Still another verse refers to the battle of Badr when, in the second year of Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Medina, the Meccans attacked the Muslims there. In this case, there were promises that God would send angels to defend those who stand for a just cause The few Muslims prevailed against the massive number of Meccans. God answered Muhammad’s prayer saying, “Lo! You were praying unto your Sustainer for aid, whereupon He thus responded to you: ‘I shall, verily, aid you with a thousand angels following one upon another.’ And God ordained this only as a glad tiding, and that your hearts should thereby be set at rest — since no help can come from any save God: verily, God is almighty, wise!” (8:9-10).