GEORGE BROWNING. Violence and Religion

Oct 18, 2017

Recently released Fairfax poll figures indicating that Australia records the highest percentage of citizens of any comparable country believing the world would be better off without religion because of its assumed connection with violence is somewhat of a shock.  That we are apparently more tolerant of religious difference than most is comforting, but does not ameliorate the first figure.

This finding is salutatory reading and it is not hard to understand why.

First, the Royal Commission’s findings on Child Sexual abuse within the Church are deeply shocking and not helped by more than ample evidence that much of this appalling activity has been ignored or worse, covered up.  While institutional perpetrators are relatively few and statistically children are most at risk from family members, never the less the Church’s role is shocking and the consequent lack of trust and disdain will take a long time to ameliorate.

Second, past and current history records numerous shocking events, including ethnic cleansings, which appear to result from religious dispute. The examples are as obvious as they are numerous, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, The Middle East, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar etc.

Third, despite recent migration which has seen a dramatic increase in folk of other faiths especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Australia remains significantly a Christian country in terms of its heritage, customs and practices.  And yet knowledge of Christianity in Australia, not simply from the almost one quarter who now identify as ‘no religion’, but also from many who still claim some Christian allegiance, is negligible. As Martin Luther King once memorably retorted in face of Christian based white supremacy violence in the US south, “what is required is not less Christianity, but more”.

That violence will not end with religious demise is easily illustrated by mentioning the following well known names, all of whom have lived and acted in modern history without any known religious affiliation or motivation: Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao. However, this is weak defence.  We still need to know why religion and violence have any connection.

Nor is it adequate defence to state the obvious, that religion and particularly Christian religion in the West has contributed to and in many cases founded the social reforms in education, medicine and social welfare which we now take for granted, and which form the very essence of modern civil society. It does not help either to remind everyone that much of the very best in music, art, architecture, and literature is inspired by Christian faith. Take them away and we would all be diminished, believers or not. Neither does it help to say that Christians remain vastly over represented in all levels of volunteerism in Australia.  None of this explains why people of religion, and of Christian religion in particular, become caught up in shocking violence.

So, how do we respond to this?  When religion is involved with violence, is religious faith and adherence the reason for the violence, or has religion been recruited to a cause with origins outside and in fact alien to its foundations.  I contend it is the latter and believe that this is the issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of a more peaceful and harmonious world.

It is recognised that the 1st WW unleashed pain and anguish on a hitherto unimagined scale.  How and why did this happen?  There will never be an end to the writing of books on this subject, but what is clear is that people were recruited to the pride, arrogance and desire for power of competing personalities, several of whom on all sides (British, Russian and German), were all descendants of Queen Victoria. Power, a desire for it, and the desperation involved in keeping it, is at the root of most conflicts.  Wealth is the expected outcome of power.

In a world in which power is disproportionately distributed and wealth appears to be the entitlement of a few, violence is often the outcome. Recruiting religion is the easiest way of giving violence credibility and a flag for recruits to follow; even tho the violence is anathema to the religion.  The problems in Northern Ireland were all about power and inequality. Britain (protestant) held power and advantage, seen by the Irish Catholic majority as an unacceptable expression of colonialism that was far past its time.  Recruiting religion is to recruit passion, to recruit justification; it is an attempt to make unacceptable behaviour acceptable.

The Crusades, perhaps the biggest blight on Christianity’s flawed 2000 year history were more about the domestic audience at home than a commitment flowing from discipleship of Jesus.  Popes, Kings and Emperors needed to prove their authority, shore up support and build wealth.

The Balkan conflicts of recent past involving Catholic Croatia, Orthodox Serbia and Muslim Bosnia did not flow from doctrinal differences, but from ethnic aspirations, hopes and fears. And so one can go on. The recruiting of religion for a cause which might be just in its origins but which becomes totally unjust through its actions; is likely to continue long into the future.

So what is to be done?  Following the injunction of Dr Martin Luther King, it is more religion, not less that is required.  By more I mean that the wider community will make up its mind about the tenets of religion (in our case the Christian religion) by default, if those who are its adherents fail to demonstrate by word and action what believing in that faith truly means – choosing service – perhaps even choosing weakness.

When given an opportunity to do this, we generally fail – dismally.  Members of parliament with the highest Christian profile and apparent commitment – Cori Bernardi, George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, are generally perceived to be fighters for yesterday’s causes. The recruiting of religion for violence will always be easy when fundamentalism of any shade is not unequivocally condemned by religious leadership. Fundamentalism is not a sign of religious purity; it is a demonstration of ignorance and misplaced elitism.

It needs to be unequivocally said that the desire for power, the protection of privilege, the use of violence is utterly inimical to followers of Jesus. Even more important it needs to be said and demonstrated that embracing difference, promoting inclusiveness and desiring to serve, are from a Christian perspective responsibilities derivative of being a member of the human race.

George Browning is the Retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn


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