Untangling the roots of violence

By Kris Lewis

In the courtyard outside Trinity Wall Street sits a brass sculpture cast from the root of a large sycamore tree that once stood in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel. On September 11, 2001 when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down, this tree absorbed the shock waves that some have likened to a small nuclear blast, and fell in such a way that it shielded the chapel and the graveyard from damage caused by falling debris. I walked by this sculpture each day to enter the church for Trinity Institute’s program on religion and violence but it wasn’t until I was leaving Wednesday evening at the conclusion of the conference, my head and my heart full, that it struck me what an apt symbol this sculpture was for what we’d been doing. Just as this root provided strength and stability for the tree it supported, so too does religion provide grounding for the community of faith. And just as these roots were ripped from the ground by seismic shocks, allowing a tall and proud tree to fall, so too can religion be uprooted, shaken and disturbed by forces of conflict and change. Ironically, the root memorialized here had buffered the effects of perhaps the greatest single act of violence this country has witnessed—an act many have attributed at least in part to religious fundamentalism. And we were here to untangle the roots of religion and violence.

The program began with lofty questions—are religion and violence inextricably linked? Is the perceived link the result of misinterpretation, subversion of sacred texts? Can our religious symbols and stories be reinterpreted, reshaped to break that link? Or must we abandon religion, completely rid ourselves of what many hold to be archaic ways of making meaning, in order to forge a more peaceful world? Hard questions with no easy answers.

The conference speakers, like the attendees, represented the three Abrahamic religions. Each spoke movingly of both their particular faith tradition and their own experiences. Each called into question some of the assumptions made about those traditions and experiences both by those in the faith and those outside it.

Noted Black Liberation theologian James Cone recalled for us the role religion played both in the oppression of African Americans and in their attempt to find meaning in an unjust world. Injustice itself is a form of violence, he reminded us, and the church cannot truly be church unless it calls into question the social structures that support injustice. As long as there is injustice there must be resistance and the church is called to empower the people for that resistance. Moreover, the church should be the source of hope for a people engaged in resisting the violence of an unjust world.

Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel questioned the validity of blaming violence on religious fundamentalists and extremists. What, after all, defines extreme—is it praying once a day or five times? Is dying for one’s country allowed, but not dying for one’s religion? And cannot liberalism lead to extremes just as fundamentalism might? Violence is present in our sacred stories, but how we understand those stories will necessarily affect how we deal with that violence, and so we need to consider how we construct and interpret our religious narratives. The challenge, according to Heschel, is not to erase the particularities of our faith communities, but rather for each community to embrace its own tradition without demonizing the other, all the while remembering that the ultimate expression of God is justice.

Catholic author James Carroll noted how deeply the myth of redemptive violence is embedded not only in the religious consciousness of America but also in our secular worldview. From the Puritan settlers who envisioned a new “Jerusalem on a hill” and who sacrificed the lives of native Americans and black slaves to achieve their vision, through the series of wars fought to maintain freedom but on whose altars the lives of millions of young men were laid, culminating in the current “war on terror,” sanctified violence has been a way of life in this nation. Our challenge now is twofold—to come truly to grips with the violent realities of our past and to wrestle with issues of boundaries, purity, inclusiveness, atonement and sacrifice in a way that allows for both honest self-criticism and hope for the future.

Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan argued that we must promote justice and dignity for all if we want a world of non-violence. Tolerance of the other is not enough; rather we must respect the other and look for places where values and conscience are shared as a foundation for a peaceful world. We must reform ourselves before we can reform others, Ramadan reminded us, and we must work to find meaning in life from God.

(Interviews with Carroll, Cone, Heschel and Ramadan will be featured on the Cafe’s Video blog, courtesy of Trinity, Wall Street.)

A pacifist at heart and a firm believer in non-violent resistance, I came to this conference already full of my own questions about the roots of violence and what I perceive to be a failure on the part of the Christian community to honestly confront it. I left with a head full of new perspectives and insights from my own faith community and from those whose faith is different. I left, too, with a heart full of sadness and doubt, seeing the scope of the problem to be even greater than I had conceived. Despite this sadness and doubt however, I also left with a sense of hope—hope born out of the willingness of people of different faith communities to come together to grapple with such difficult issues and out of the experience of sharing my doubts and fears and my dreams for a better world in a group willing to hear them and bear them with me.

The Rev. Dr. Kris Lewis is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary and serves as the Assistant Rector at Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church, Barnstable MA. She is learning to see the world with new eyes through photography and keeps the blog My Soul in Silence Waits.

Past Posts