The wind blows wherever it pleases...       John 3:8
Mike Leno
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Sacrifices and other Forms of Religious Violence

imageI believe they went after Ollie because he shredded paper—destroyed evidence. But they went after me for shredding people. Let me also add for the record that I had more fun doing my shredding than Ollie had doing his. – Richard Marcinko reacting to a statement by Mike Wallace (60 Minutes) who had compared him to Oliver North.1

Short of mass assassination, there is no natural end to the cycle of retaliation. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.2

In spite of advances in knowledge and culture, humans still exhibit a primitive tendency to violence. We kill each other for causes involving competition, honor, revenge, and devotion; and sometimes for no apparent cause at all. We appear to be the most cruel and also the most benevolent of species; at once selfish and altruistic. Furthermore, violence appears to be so engrained in our world view that it seems normal. In one moment we claim to be victimized and repulsed by it. But a moment later we might be fascinated by it and even find it useful and necessary. Even our views of God reflect our split personality with respect to violence. We believe in a loving God with a sinister dark side. He might just kill you (or worse) if you don’t believe properly.

The recent attacks in Paris and the bombing of an airline over the Egyptian desert got our attention for obvious reasons. But what we may not have noticed is that this type of violence, often perpetrated in the name of God, has spread at an alarming rate throughout the year. According to Wikipedia, the score for 2015 is 298 terrorist attacks worldwide. And the year is not over yet. The year began with a January massacre in Nigeria, part of the Boko Haram (roughly translated, “Western education is forbidden”) uprising that has displaced 2.3 million people over the last 2½ years. This is the same ISIS affiliated group who, in April 2014, kidnapped 276 girls with the expressed intent of selling them into slavery. The number of people killed in the January massacre has been estimated as high as 2000. But beyond the numbers the magnitude of ongoing anguish and suffering remains incalculable. It would seem that any atrocity is now accepted by some as necessary and even honorable.

After the 9-11-2001 attacks on US soil, many including Rudy Giuliani, then Mayor of New York, grappled with the impossible task of explaining the horror. In his address to the UN General Assembly he echoed the sentiments of democratic countries when he stated, “On one side is democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life; on the other is tyranny, arbitrary executions, and mass murder. We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that.”

But it was disconcerting when other, more reactionary voices were heard and applauded, including one state congressman who proclaimed, “We need to bomb the hell out of them. And if there’s collateral damage, so be it!” (I remember this radio sound bite from a local news broadcast in Atlanta, GA.) A Midwest pastor went an even more bizarre direction, sending out emails that said in effect that the 9-11 attacks were a predicted manifestation of divine judgment on sinful people. Others were rightfully offended by such sentiments because they had an uncomfortable similarity to the way the terrorists explained their own actions.

The recent wave of violence seems new. And 21st century weapons and communication certainly amplify the reach and influence of violent groups. But in certain respects, the recent atrocities, massacres, and terrorist attacks harken back to something very old, even primitive. The kind of violence that blatantly targets the weak and insignificant for the benefit of the powerful, the kind motivated by prejudice and hate, and the kind that is justified as God’s will; these appear from the beginning and throughout human history. And all three kinds often use what is called the scapegoating mechanism.

The notion of “Holy War,” for example, invokes the will of God as promoting the worst kinds of violence, often making scapegoats out of weaker victims who may be chosen simply because they belong to a minority or hated group. Their victimization provides a measure of stability and resolution in a conflict. Thus it is in effect a form of human sacrifice, which has been part of every belief structure (including atheism) since Cain killed his brother Able.

Throughout history, human beings have used sacrificial or scapegoating language both in promoting violence, and also in condemning it. Even for those who are not making a religious statement, the assumption of a sacrificial mechanism appears, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Anthropologists give us reason to take this line of thinking a step further, saying that primitive religion came into existence because of violence and that blood sacrifices were necessary to prevent further violence. (For a Christian application of this anthropological principle see Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, 1995, by Gil Bailie. For a contemporary Jewish perspective see Not In God’s Name, 2015, by Jonathan Sacks.)

The ancient sacrifices of primitive religion, then, arose from and attempted to deal with the violent nature of human beings. Even when human violence was not specifically in view, violence remained the core issue for which ritual sacrifices were performed. Evidence also indicates that animal sacrifice developed as a proxy or substitute for human sacrifice. The examples of Cain and Abel, and especially Abraham and Isaac, illustrate how animal sacrifice was adopted as a necessary alternative for human sacrifice.

Religion and God are not necessarily invoked in all violence that is sacrificial or scapegoating in form. Gil Bailie cites an account of a 1981 atrocity perpetrated by soldiers in the Salvadoran military. In the account the officer in charge explains the massacre of 676 people, not in the name of a religious cause or deity but in the name of war itself.

Now, I don’t want to hear that, afterward, while you’re out drinking… you’re whining and complaining about this, about how terrible it was. I don’t want to hear that. Because what we did yesterday, what we’ve been doing on this operation this is war, gentlemen. This is what war is.3

Justifying an atrocity as simply what war is, invests the term war with mythical and quasi religious significance. The officer was trying to interpret a morally reprehensible action as part of a greater good. He was basically saying: We’re not just slaughtering innocent defenseless people for no reason (Unless you’re a psychopath or sociopath, that would be intolerable.) We’re warriors at war! So man up and embrace your role as a killer in the name of war.

Bailie explains that the justifying myth of war is an echo from the past when similar violence was justified and promoted by saying that God sanctioned and motivated it. By scapegoating his victims, exonerating his soldiers, and discounting the misgivings that would naturally occur to people in that situation, the Salvadoran officer unwittingly participated in the same pattern of religious violence as was exhibited, for example, in the Crusades even though he never once invoked the will of God or religion. Bailie concludes:

The myth that justifies scapegoating or sacrificial violence is a product of the primitive sacred. Religion is the final arbiter of violence in cultural life.4

So the type of violence we see today, in revenge killings, holy wars, massacres, ritualized beheadings, immolations, and crucifixions, appears to be a resurgence of primitive and barbaric religion. And it doesn’t matter whether or not the perpetrators believe in God. It is the continuation of a violent past when God supposedly took sides and whoever was not on God’s side was supposed to suffer and be eliminated.

The violent reactions to barbarism, however, can be just as bad. Using the same methods and thus sinking to the same moral level as the Salvadoran soldiers, for example, who raped, shot, and cut a young girl to death (while she sang hymns) would not eradicate evil. It would just cause more of it. Fighting fire with fire often just makes a bigger fire.

But here is the crux of the issue. Does God intentionally use, promote, or sanction scapegoating violence? Is that his way? Another way of asking the question, and one that is likely to offend many is this. Is God a terrorist? We must not avoid the question, especially if we call into question the belief structures of others in this regard. It’s been said, for example that the Quran is a violent text. Yet the sacred texts in the Judaeo Christian tradition can be interpreted as just as violent. The point is, a literal and prescriptive reading of violent texts is unacceptable and dangerous regardless of the particular text or religion involved.

Inevitably, the topic of violence in scripture will bring us to the central issue: What kind of person is God? My next blog will further explore the meaning of biblical violence and the implications regarding the character of God. But in spite of any impression that this is just a trip to the dark side; do not despair. There is good news. We may be violent. But God is good.

  1. Richard Marcinko and John Weismann, Rogue Warrior: Designation Gold, (New York: Pocket Books, 1997), 278, Note.
    Not in God’s Name, 2015, 110.
  2. Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 110.
  3. Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote, 78-79, quoted in Violence Unveiled, 266.
  4. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at he Crossroads, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995), 267.