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Is Faith Both the Cause and the Cure of Violence?
Just War or Jihad, Breaking the Peace or Making it


In an editorial written just prior to the Sept 11 terrorist attacks (The Violence of God: Thinking the Unthinkable), I opened up a conversation about the relationship between religion and violence. I had no idea at that time that only a few weeks later, events would take place in my own city that would raise the stakes in that conversation more than a thousand fold. Having seen the towers of the World Trade Center come tumbling down, and having felt the shock waves from that tragedy reverberate through my own network of friendships, family and business associates, I now realize that people are asking some of  the very questions I addressed then, but now, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still raging, the questions press upon our minds and hearts as a matter of survival.  

There is first and foremost, the terrible Why? Why would a group of people from so far away be so filled with hate that they would sacrifice their own lives to strike a blow at these symbols of our economic and military power: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?  And that Why is backed by another, perhaps even more urgent one. Why would a just and loving God permit such an unspeakable act of terror to occur? Surely it cannot be, as Jerry Farwell and Pat Robertson believe, because we allow secular organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to operate freely here. If the destruction of nearly 3000 unsuspecting human beings is God's preferred way of expressing displeasure with certain groups of people in this country, then God is a monster far more sinister than any human terrorist ever dreamed of becoming.

The fact that the terrorists are associated, at least nominally with the religion of Islam, reinforces the presumption on the part of many that Islam is a religion more likely to offer a justification of violence than other world religions. But is there any basis in fact or in Muslim belief that would support such a conclusion? 

And if the terrorists invoke the name of Allah to justify their acts, what of our own leaders' penchant for invoking the name of God as they try to rally public support for a world wide war on terrorism? At the conclusion of one of the first large scale worship services following the September 11th attacks, the congregation at the National Cathedral in Washington, joined in singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  The President and nearly all the political and religious leaders in the nation's capital raised their voices to sing these words:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

The problem, of course, with that hymn, is that it tends to confuse two very different subjects. The first being what this nation, the most powerful on earth, might undertake by way of lifting up a "terrible swift sword" against the terrorists who were responsible for all the carnage of the prior week; and the second being that final day of judgment when God will correct every wrong and put the power of evil to flight forever. Apparently there is a great deal of confusion on both sides of battle lines in this first world war of the twenty-first century between what various world leaders may decide, and what God may in fact have in mind for our world. And the more one gets into the hymn, the deeper the confusion becomes, as the final verse reveals:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

In normal circumstances it would be a real stretch to equate the gentle words and deeds of  Jesus, with the violent actions of soldiers and warriors in battle, but these are not ordinary times. And upon the spur of the moment it is easy to lose sight of the all important distinction between the purposes of the Almighty and our own. The Bush administration was apparently caught up in this confusion when it first named its anti-terrorist effort a "crusade" and titled it "Operation Infinite Justice."  It was widely reported that the name was withdrawn because of complaints from the Muslim community that only Allah is infinite. I would have thought that the complaints would have been just as strong from Christians and Jews who, after all, worship the same God!

Now that the initial after shock of Sept 11 has fadeed and most of us have returned to something that has at least the appearance of a "normal life," there is perhaps greater opportunity to reflect upon the questions that arose with such force during those first days after the fall of the twin towers.

Below are links to several articles from a special edition of CrossCurrents that address some of the more urgent questions ... 

Are there substantial differences between and among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam with the respect to the likelihood that adherents of any of those Abrahamic religions are likely to be involved in violence?

Religions, Hard and Soft
"Every religion contains, in varying degrees, elements that contribute to peace or war. For the sake of world peace, dialogue within religions and among them must strengthen the peacemaking elements within them."
by Johan Galtung

For those interested in a clear and compelling statement of basic Muslim teaching, few have presented it better than Riffat Hassan, who teaches at the University of Louisville.

What Does It Mean To Be Muslim Today?
"To be a Muslim means to be both Allah-conscious and creature-conscious, and to understand the interconnectedness of all aspects of one's life, of the life of all creation and of our life in this transient world to life eternal." 
by Riffat Hassan

The Politics of Religious Correctness: Islam and the West
"Follow Alice through the looking glass, and the clash of civilizations reveals itself in a new -- and surprising -- guise. To enter the language of Islam and the West is then, with Alice, to enter the Wonderland of the Looking Glass. It is an instructive perspective; but only if we Westerners know we are looking not at another but at ourselves."

by John C. Raines

Islam and the Trialogue of Abrahamic Religions
by Leonard Swidler

Vaclav Havel is regarded by many as having a clearer sense of how spirituality can be a mediating force in the confrontation between cultures of the East and West than any other. 

A Sense of the Transcendent
"By once more taking nourishment
from their life-giving spiritual roots,
East and West can open an era of mutual inspiration.
The precondition is readiness to step beyond
dead habits and deadly prejudice."

by Vaclav Havel

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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