Recent tragic events in Boston, and then news that the people apparently responsible for those events seem to have been influenced by some form of radical Islam, have renewed a number of on-going debates in American life. Some would like to use what happened as an argument against immigration, since the Tsarnaev brothers were not born here — though their exposure to radical Islam likely took place here. Others would like to use what happened to once again attempt to paint Islam as an inherently violent religious tradition, ignoring the fact that the radicalism seemingly displayed by the Tsarnaev’s is not the norm for many millions of Muslims all over the world. And still others have taken this opportunity to suggest that the apparent fact that religion was either a motivating or catalyzing force in the recent violence in Boston is another proof that religion in general is an ill wind in the world, and that if we could only get ourselves free of religion, much of the world’s violence would suddenly vanish.
There is certainly no denying that religion has been used as a tool in the hands of those who have done violence in the world throughout human history. The question, for me, is whether religion is more than a tool in that violence, becoming somehow the cause of it.
I will not claim to have done any rigorous research and analysis regarding this question, but I do think that most of what seems to be religious-motivated violence in the world is, in fact, violence rooted in motives that have nothing to do with religion. But, religion becomes a tool for framing and channeling these motives — a way, if you will, for justifying the motives in a way that makes it possible for someone to act on those motives violently.
If we look, for example, at the historic conflict in Northern Ireland, I think we see religion acting as more of a tool than a motivation. It so happens that those who want to retain English rule in Northern Ireland also happen to to be Protestant, while those who want the territory to become a part of Northern Ireland happen to be Catholic. There is nothing within either religion that would lead these groups of people to feel one way or the other about whether Northern Ireland is a part of Great Britain. The violent conflict over that question was motivated not by religion but by political and nationalistic concerns that have little if anything to do with religion. However, religion became a convenient tool for both sides in the conflict. The Protestant-Catholic distinction was convenient, as religious affiliation was a clear marker of which side a person was on. Sadly, Protestant and Catholic religious leaders for the most part were willing to use their religious authority for the causes they believed in, allowing each side in the conflict to somehow feel that there was a divine sanction for both their points of view and their violent acts. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not a religious war, but religion was a powerful tool used by both sides in the conflict — a conflict that was rooted not in religion, but in other concerns.
While it is rather premature to attempt much analysis of what happened in Boston, it does seem that the older Tsarnaev brother — who seems to have been the instigator of all of this — felt disconnected from the society in which he was living. While his younger brother took the path to US citizenship and, by all accounts, had American friends and felt comfortable in American society, his older brother is quoted as having said that he had no American friends, and that he didn’t understand America. I would venture to say that he was a young man who felt alienated, lost, unable or unwilling to connect with the people among whom he was living for reasons that are not entirely clear at this point. It seems that into this alienated, disconnected life came someone who was committed to a radical form of Islam, and that this person offered a life that was free of alienation and that was connected, albeit with people and ideas that were very dangerous. It seems very possible that the older brother found, through this unfortunate apostle of a twisted brand of Islam, a meaning and direction in his life that he lacked. And in this way, religion became a tool that directed this young man toward a vision of anger, hatred, and ultimately violence. I suspect that his crimes did not really have a religious reason behind them. Rather, he was a lost, confused, and angry person, and, sadly, religion became a tool to channel that negativity in a terrible direction.
All of this points to the fact that religion is a powerful thing, for good or for ill. And, that there are human beings who harness the power of religion for good or for ill. And how a particular person harnesses that power of religion will depend very much on what sort of life that person has, independent of any religious affiliation.
For me, this underscores the tremendous responsibility that rests with religious leaders and communities. As a Christian clergyperson, for example, I am keenly aware that within my own tradition, there are plenty of biblical texts that present God as both responding violently against some perceived evil or sin and as sanctioning or demanding that human beings act violently against some perceived evil. When these texts are handled carelessly, they can become powerful tools to justify violent behavior if they fall into the minds and hearts of people whose personal grievances have made them disposed to resorting to violence. The fact that so much of Christianity these days is dominated by a kind of literal reading of Scripture that encourages careless handling of these texts does not help matters. And many other religious traditions, including Islam, face a similar challenge.
There are, however, people working in all of these traditions to understand their sacred texts in new ways, and to make it clear that a deeper investigation into the texts reveals something quite different than what first appears on a surface, casual reading. When we see religion abused in ways that produce such violent results, those of us within faith communities are reminded of how important it is for us to work toward forms of religion that transform people in positive, life-giving ways, rather than aiding their descent into madness. It is, after all, this sort of positive transformation that all the religious traditions see at their hearts. We should not allow distortions of our traditions to obscure that.
We should, however, not deceive ourselves into thinking that religion, by itself, is a cause of violence. Sadly, the roots and seeds of violence lie within humanity. We are a species rather given to violence, and if religion were suddenly not be available as a tool to catalyze that violence, people disposed to violence would be catalyzed by something else. Properly understood, religion has the power to help us see those seeds of violence in our own nature, to acknowledge them for what they are, and then learn to move beyond them. And perhaps never has humanity needed that role of religion more.