Calming the Tempest of Religious Strife

by Josh Yarden

6a019b0109ca0b970d01b8d0bdc3c4970c-320wiThe Bible in all its poetic minimalism and rich ambiguity has given rise to seemingly endless meditations and diverse interpretations. There are times when I imagine the narrative as a prism of words, as though etched into cut glass, reflecting and refracting the light shining on the surface of the text from myriad angles. How might these words have landed on the ears of listeners thousands of years ago? We don't really know how the heard the symbols and the metaphors, but we are forever assuming and inserting our understandings of the contexts of our own lives in order to understand what the biblical authors had to say about theirs. We ask questions and provide our own answers… some better than others, some brilliant, some foolish.

Depending upon the angle from which we perceive it, the prism of Torah sends forth seemingly infinite reflections. They are all reflections of ourselves projected agains the text and reflections of the words on the scroll in our eyes, beams of light bouncing off the walls in the room and off the far recesses of our minds. As long as we accept that the text is open to interpretation, we can continue to shed light and to enlighten one another. But the book goes dark when it is closed. People stop reading, stop listening, stop thinking, and sometimes they take to fighting over their beliefs. A closed book is a blunt instrument.

Different people read different books. Sometimes they read the same books differently. Sometimes they argue beyond reason, stop reading, stop listening, grow increasingly impatient for any number of legitimate and illegitimate reasons in which they believe, sometimes with all their might. As long as we keep asking questions, illuminating the texts and the contexts of our lives, we can maintain dialogue and a mutual commitment to exploring and finding solutions to our differences. If not, the power of an angry thought can be divisive, even irrevocably destructive.

There are times when I cannot resist the temptation to suggest—no, to insist—that the Bible is deeply misunderstood. Sometimes a feeling wells up from with inside of me that most people in most places are missing the meaning of the poetry that is scripture. Look, it's right there, in the lines, as well as between them and below the surface. The tempestuous young iconoclast that still resides within me wants to believe that nearly everyone got it wrong but me. I don't take him too seriously. His (and my) older and (hopefully) wiser self corral that impatient voice into a more productive discussion. While others may not have gotten it entirely right, that does not mean they are necessarily ‘wrong.' There is plenty of room for discussion without debate. One can learn to contend without becoming contentious. Conflicting opinions need not end with winners and losers. The beauty of the text also resonates in the sound of the discussion.

Searching for mutual understanding, respect and accommodation are the keys to living peacefully in a pluralistic society. When it comes to exploring meaning, diversity of opinion is not something to be merely tolerated; it is an essential good, to be celebrated. On my stronger days, I believe that without reservation. On my weaker days, I don't always have the self-restraint to slow down and reconsider my less thoughtful assumptions; I just want to be right. As in all matters of strength training, achievement comes with regular exercise. Good judgement is also a capacity we need to exercise regularly if it is to endure the challenges we face in living with inevitable disagreements.

Arguments have a way of becoming fights. Discord is inextricably woven into the history human interaction, and it appears that sole ownership of supernatural truth is at the essence of multiple religious traditions. Power struggles breed contention and vengeance. From there it is a short hop to thinking that ‘kill or be killed' is simply the way of the world, and once that is the mindset, it seems to make a lot of sense to think that ‘if someone is on his way to kill me, I'd better get up early to kill him first.' Indeed, our venerated texts, as beautifully poetic and symbolic as they can be, also come complete with war stories and fighting to the death for the glory of gods we create in our own images. I don't know if we can we extricate our rich cultural traditions from the context of murderous fanatics attributing their extremism to religious commitment.

With authority comes the right and the responsibility of wielding power, as well as the inherent risk of abusing it. People understood long ago that they could use stories to keep people in line, rather than to emancipate them from ignorance and oppression. Ironically perhaps, but understandably, oppression breeds submission. Dehumanizing subjugation somehow leaves people feeling safe when they are actually being subjected to the will of others. Resistance to power is risky, but ‘live and let live' is a passive strategy for survival. Even though the over-arching theme of the biblical narrative is human liberation, many people are afraid to let go of the robes of the holy men who, then and now, tell people what to think and how to think, which thoughts will lead them to Divine reward and which will lead them to a shower of fire and brimstone for all eternity.

6a019b0109ca0b970d01b8d0bdc44c970c-320wiVengeful interpretations of venerated texts lend support the idea of killing in the service of a cause. Extremist violence may be a direct outgrowth of stories about divine punishment. After all these generations of violence in the name of a higher power, can we escape the conclusion that it is to be expected? We have an ethical obligation to resolve that problem. We definitely need to stop fanatics, but we don't need to hate them. When we let that emotion run wild, warped interpretations of honor and courage pervade our sensibilities. When we hate ‘them' as much as they hate ‘us,' we fall into step with their values, undermining the foundations of an open society emancipated from oppression. When we can no longer listen or see different points of view, we are no longer able to exercise sound judgement.

The confusion between justice and vengeance, as well as the need to make sense of the contradiction between the two are woven into religious texts and into the fabric of our society. I feel a pressing need to understand the people who blow up busses and buildings, shoot up artists and shoppers, talk up hateful speech about their selfless acts of targeted and indiscriminate killing. I do not mean to understand them in order to sympathize with their actions. I mean that in order to defuse a bomb, you have to understand how it is wired. We can not allow ourselves to hate the people who kill in the name of some deranged interpretation of reality, because we embody their hatred when we do.

There are instances when there really is no other option but to ‘kill or be killed.' A passive ‘live and let live' strategy provides no solution in the midst of a life and death conflict. But the choice is rarely between one and the other. The third possibility, and perhaps the best way to establish and to preserve a safe and open society, is an active commitment to ‘protect and to be protected.' For the third way to prevail, we need a widely, broadly and deeply shared sense of commonality of purpose. That purpose must be supported by laws that limit the possibility of abusing power, whether by gunmen, by dictators or by abusers of any other sort. The heroes of the stories of protecting a safe and open society are not only warriors, if they are warriors at all. They are survivors and builders of bridges, artists and athletes, teachers and children, the people who open their doors and their lives to strangers.

The ways we learn to explore difference, embrace diversity, laugh together and to celebrate the richness of learning from one another are stories to teach our children well through personal experience. In doing so, we cultivate a multicultural tradition, in spite of eruptions of violence. It is perhaps inevitable that there will be tempers that cannot be overcome except by force of hand, but overcoming the violence and fear of our tempestuous world is something we can strive to achieve through mutual understanding. This is a belief that can sustain our way of living together.