SCRIPTURAL SANCTION FOR SAVAGERY
Religious Fundamentalism is the cause of social upheaval in much of the world today. Yet it can be argued that it is only natural for militant activists to employ violence, aggression, and ruthless tactics when dealing with their opponents, because, after all, isn’t that what the wrathful God, Jehovah, deems acceptible? Does not the Bible offer numerous cases where the oppression, enslavement, and slaughtering of one’s foes is the proper thing to do?
Back during the closing days of the Roman Empire, when the Goths were threatening to descend upon Western civilization, a Christian missionary, Ulfilas, was sent to convert these savage peoples. And it was thus that Ulfilas produced the first Gothic translation of the Bible. The original Gothic Scripture was peculiar in one respect, however. It did not include the books of Kings and Chronicles. Ulfilas deemed the Goths to be warlike enough just as they were, without giving them any justification for their way of life from the bloody records of the Hebrew kings.
Unfortunately there remain large passages in the Bible that exert influence upon impressionable minds toward a belligerent way of living. The “eye for an eye” spirit of retaliation is the direct cause of the never-ending strife in the Near East. Also it undergirds the brutal tactics used by Fundamentalist factions in usurping control of any religious system or denomination. After all, it is simply a matter of record in the annals of the Jewish faith that they were the ones who first practiced genocide in the conquest of their homeland. In the taking of the ancient city of Jericho, the Bible says, “they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21). Sadly, as the sons of Israel have found, one holocaust can lead to another.
“Love your enemies” is in the Bible, but so is the strange beatitude “Blessed is the man who takes your babies and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9). Also the Bible’s edict that “wars will never cease” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and, therefore, a detriment to attempting peaceful solutions to the disputes of contending people. All of this barbarity should have been mitigated by the higher ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, but this has not been the case. It seems that as long as the evil actions of men appear to have divine sanction in Holy Scripture, some hotblooded people will simply not understand that there is a better way.
Much turmoil nowadays is the result of Islamic militancy. This is due to the fact that the faith of Islam has sanctioned propagation by means of the sword. The Muslim rule of conquest was that “idolaters” (Hindus and animists) who did not convert were to be killed outright. On the other hand, “people of the Book” (Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians) who would not convert could be either killed or made second-class citizens and heavily taxed. The Prophet set the example by waging holy wars and executing stubborn captives. His writings, the Quran, proclaimed, “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads” (Sura 47:4). Also, “Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah; those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (Sura 48:29). Scriptures such as these are a detriment to peaceful coexistence with non-Muslim neighbors and a hindrance to milder philosophies that might otherwise prevail. Life magazine, December 1995, quoted basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon as saying: “Terrorism is not Islam. Bombing is not Islam. Racisim is not Islam. The Nation of Islam is not Islam. In true Islam, what these people believe is called ignorance. Islam is about character - honesty, sincerity, righteousness. Islam is light.” Would that it were so, but the Holy Text quoted above and the historical records of the Near East show otherwise. In some backward Islamic nations there are actually laws that sanction savage acts of persecution against citizens belonging to minority groups. And in these benighted lands, terrorists who destroy themselves along with their victims are actually venerated as holy martyrs by religious fanatics whose warped beliefs have corrupted their rationality as well as their sense of human decency.
Hindu scripture also justifies war. The background of the Bhagavad Gita is an account of a fight between powerful kinsmen for the throne of India. As the story goes, just before the great battle commences the hero confesses his distaste at having to slay his relatives. But his divine mentor Krishna comes back at him with the stinging rebuke: “Is this hour of battle the time for scruples and fancies?...To a warrior there is nothing nobler than a righteous war. Happy are the warriors to whom a battle such as this comes; it opens a door to heaven.” The justification given by Krishna for this line of reasoning is that killing is of little consequence, since souls continue to live on and occupy other bodies in time to come: “Bodies are said to die, but that which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited or destroyed. Therefore, you must fight.” Now everyone knows that enlightened souls like Mahatma Gandhi have rejected such foolish aggrandizement of warfare, but still, bloodshed in India continues because other less perceptive people live by the rules of an ancient savage Scripture.
As it stands, religious adherents will continue to be fed with old, time-worn fallacies, and violence will still be justified, whether in killing employees of abortion clinics, bombing federal facilities, collecting arsenals, taking innocent hostages, practicing ethnic cleansing, or targeting foreign tourists as a means of hurting a nation’s economy. In olden times, Fundamentalists got their kicks out of burning people at the stake. Now the fashion is to burn the churches of those one has been taught to hate.
It should be a matter of personal shame for every person alive today to admit that such barbarism still exists, especially in these modern times wherein freedom and democracy are opening new vistas of progress and prosperity in much of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has now existed for half a century, and by this time the world should have come to harmonious accord with its spirit and ideals. Its provisions are plain and unequivocal: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5), “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (Article 9), and “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (Article 18).
Despite the international agreements that forbid it and despite the denials from governments that use it, physical violence as a political tool is commonly practiced around the globe. The systematic use of torture is reported in many countries, regardless of political ideologies or economic systems. Government sanctioned psychological pressure and social stigma deprive multitudes of minority groups of their basic human freedoms. In Iran, all citizens must carry identity cards listing their religion, and non-Muslim shopkeepers must display signs showing their religious affiliation. Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and Parsee places of worship have been closed. Conversion of Muslims to other faiths is actually against the law (in a clear violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and Iranian authorities arrest, imprison, interrogate, and torture such converts and their families.
Now, some will argue that this old world is so set in its cantankerous ways that it will never improve, in accordance with the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And obviously, many nations and peoples of the world have not risen above the baser elements that are embodied in their holy writings, and have remained in the primeval slime of prejudice,
intolerance, ignorance, and superstition. But such sorry conditions cannot always prevail, for there is a powerful movement afoot nowadays toward democracy, enlightenment, and freedom.
It is a vital lesson of history that tyrants never seem to learn: repressive regimes tend to drown themselves in the blood of martyrs. And the relentless tide of support for human rights will, in the long run, cause the final overthrow of all despotism and autocracy that blights the human race and blemishes the lives of miserable creatures who are, after all, made in the image of God. Meanwhile, the divine sparks in every human breast are just waiting for a breath of the fresh air of freedom that will make them all glow brightly.
There is a passage in the Bible that enjoins “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), i.e., searching out the eternal truths and high ideals that lie embedded in the sacred text. This should be taken as the divine mandate of all those who teach and preach from any Scripture to reject violence, or any obsolete ethic, regardless of the fact that such barbaric acts and ideas were set down as correct rules for living by men of old. Hopefully, enlightenment did not cease with the ancients, however venerable, and a better way may be disclosed in modern times for all to follow.