by the Rev. Cliff Cutler
On Wednesday, masked gunmen shouting “Allahu akbar” killed 12 people including a Muslim French policeman in France’s worst terrorist attack in 50 years. Some have called it France’s 9/11. After the shootings, a French woman who works at a synagogue said, “People shouldn’t cling to religion too much, because that leads to war.”
That is a common enough refrain, but it bears some examination. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong in her book “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” counters, “It is simply not true that ‘religion’ is always aggressive.” Who is right?
The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The Book of Genesis is describing the primordial chaos out of which everything was created. In our contemporary world since the holocaust and Hiroshima we are haunted by humanity’s ability to un-create the world, to take us back to that formless void.
Armstrong describes the work of forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman. In his interviews of the 9/11 terrorists and those who worked closely with them, Sageman found they were “chiefly motivated by the desire to escape a stifling sense of insignificance and pointlessness.” How to react to the dread of that formless void?
One way is the youthful rage that seeks meaning in some imagined heroic death. Another way is to create your own state like the Isis caliphate. To counter the dread of dissolution, the state takes upon itself absolute value, and there resides the danger. Rather than listen to criticism even if crudely stated or drawn (and possibly by doing so become a better version of itself), the absolute state reacts violently to any threat, to any hint or dread of its undoing. Terrorism whether by an individual or a state is always about power.
Religion asserts that God by whatever name is the only absolute. Only God sweeps away the chaos and emptiness. In the book of Job it is God who tramples the waves of the sea, that primordial deep covered in darkness. I think that may also be part of the meaning of Jesus walking on water, overcoming the stormy sea, the foaming, formless chaos. We no longer need to dread being overwhelmed by emptiness. We can lean back on the fullness of God.
The French terrorists have very little knowledge of the Quran. This is typical. In his study of terrorists, Sageman found their knowledge of Islam was quite limited, many were self-taught and some would not study the Quran until they were in prison. Instead, they take in an al-Qaeda narrative that is all about power rather than oneness with and surrender to God that is the heart of Islamic spirituality. Sageman believes that a regular religious education might have deterred the young men from their lawless violence.
A Gallup poll after 9/11 in 35 predominantly Muslim countries found that 93 percent of people polled condemned the attacks, citing verses in the Quran showing that killing innocent people has no place in Islam. The 7 percent who justified the attacks did so not for religious reasons – for them it was all about the politics. The aggression that we see today is arising out of various political tensions in the world.
In my faith tradition, John the Baptist goes into the desolate wilderness. He faces into the emptiness and void. There the Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth.” He receives the Spirit at John’s baptism and has to try to make sense of God’s words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
He would come to see his kingdom or realm as inclusive and compassionate, earthly and more than that. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus said to Pilate in the Gospel of John. In fact, Jesus’ kingdom measures up against all earthly kingdoms as a prophetic critique for which in the end Jesus was crucified.
Terrorism is always about power. In this story, God’s answer is resurrection which is always about love, a love that is peaceful beyond terror and stronger than death.
What do we take away from this? In our contemporary world, religious education, knowing your faith story, is critically important. When we pull away from religion because, like the French woman, we think it leads to war, we are feeding into the very impulses that will seduce our young people into the aggression we seek to counteract.
Whatever your faith tradition, if you have a chance to be involved with its teaching or support it in any way, do it. If you have the chance to encourage families to educate their children in their faith, do it. The evidence is overwhelming. Aggression is about human nature and power politics. An understanding of religion is the antidote.
I learned early on that religion does not make sense to people who are hopeless. They will latch on to absolutist leaders and try to escape insignificance by belonging to an unassailable ideology. Religion in contrast has a quality of “self-emptying” that counters the superior impulses that so often lead to violence. Of Jesus it was said, he emptied himself, humbled himself and faced the cross. We can face into the darkness trusting in the God who created the day. We can face the void without being overwhelmed. Religion instills hope even at the foot of the cross.
So grieve for those who lose their lives to the terroristic love of power, and condemn those who carry it out. But don’t call them religious. For the most part they have never been educated in their faith. Theirs is the love of power not the self-emptying power of love. That is why Karen Armstrong can say, “It is simply not true that ‘religion’ is always aggressive.”
The Rev. Cliff Cutler is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.