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Religion and Attitudes about Violence

January 10, 2013

An important, even crucial subject for Christians and all religious or spiritual people is how they view the use of violence…. Violence in its many forms.  For our purposes here, let’s restrict it to physical violence, although threats and any kind of  coercion should be (and often are) included in the broader concept of violence.

Every informed American is aware that in the US right now, in the wake of our most-disturbing-yet school shooting, we are widely discussing remedies to mass violence.  This is particularly centering on “gun control” and defensive measures such as armed guards at schools.  While these are important issues, they do not come even close to penetrating to the root issues.

Peace Education

Peace Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are a just a few of the ways religion and spiritual beliefs and practices relate to issues surrounding violence:

  • The supporting and guiding role of community.
  • The teaching of principles such as care for neighbor and forgiveness (rather than revenge or bitterness).
  • A potential commitment (not always present) to restrict even violent resistance (as well as aggression, of course) to threats of immediate, direct physical harm.  And this on all levels from personal to national or international.

Note that these pertain to any and all major religions, although some, as implied, will apply the third one more strictly or consistently than others.

Now a popular notion these days, which does contain some truth, is that religions have been responsible for some of the most inhumane and widespread violence via inquisitions and religious wars, support of violently oppressive systems such as slavery, and such.  The point I’d like to make in relation to this is that it is not religion per se that is at fault here.

Rather, it is the developmental level of a religion’s followers at a given time and place, how the power/control exerted by their religion has intermixed with governmental power, etc…. A complex mix, to say the least! To a degree, one can also cite the developmental level of a given religion itself as part of why violence is perpetrated or condoned.  To those who study religions, it is clear that they evolve, and sometimes regress, over time.  Generally they mature, which I would say includes moving away from the use or condoning of violence.  

Of course, religions are not uniform throughout membership and locality, so rather than focus on identifying a level for a religion (or all religions collectively worldwide) as a whole, let’s look briefly at subsets within a religion.   (These are not necessarily the same as sects, denominations or branches.)

Here is the key co-factor that seems to exist in religious or spiritual groups (or networks of groups) that are most clearly and fully nonviolent, and thereby a force for diminishing violence in a given locality or culture:

They have as much or more concern for “neighbor” and for everyone worldwide, as they do for their own or their members’ security and comfort.   

In other words, the wider the circle of compassion, the further from the use of violence a group and its members will tend to be.  (We tend to justify and can emotionally accept violence against “the other” while we cannot when it is “one of us”.)

This fits common sense pretty well.  (I won’t go into what would have to be fairly complex as to making a logical or “scientific” case for the contention, but it has been ably made by numerous “developmentalists” and others, perhaps most notably in recent years, Ken Wilber).

Among the things important to note in this simplified statement of a principle is that it does not include any element of the differing and often opposing dogmas of specific religions.  Such dogmas serve a place in education and observance of rituals that members often find meaningful and important, but when they are given a falsely universal or you must believe” status, they tend to undercut the expansion of the circle of compassion and inclusion.

Now, leaders within religions, from lay leaders on up to teachers-of-teachers (e.g., seminary professors) are almost forced (generally) to uphold distinctive dogmas to keep their positions.  This is part of the mechanism by which religions resist change from the inside and tend to elevate specific dogmas and systems of theology beyond what is more broadly growth-inducing for members.

So this is where it leaves a highly religious culture like ours in the United States:

  • Local churches and other spiritual communities have a vital role in supporting their members in personal growth and establishing personal and family security so that these people are then capable of widening their own circle of compassion.  If an adolescent or young adult feels emotionally unconnected as well as perhaps despairing and angry, he or she (especially “he”) is much more prone to violence to self or others.   If  a congregation can’t effectively connect with such a person directly, there is a better chance they can effectively support and/or guide a parent or the parents of such a youth.

Through a parent, if not a young adult himself or herself, they may also be

able to work in conjunction with mental health professionals, social

workers, employers or others.  In a nutshell, we need to get over our

excessive fear of “meddling”, while doing our meddling carefully and

thoughtfully, without judgment.   

  • Churches and spiritual groups need to explore more and more ways to effectively teach how to develop compassion, practice forgiveness and self-sacrifice (once a sense of “self” is adequately in place — NOT before)…. One of the key principles is that such things are more “caught than taught”.  This means creating “structures” — times, occasions, etc. in which more and less mature members mix, do things together (like compassionate action) and build relationships.
  • When a given group (or religious subset) begins to see how the world actually can work on the basis of such compassionate, nonviolent principles, and not via naive idealism, it may then be ready to embrace and teach nonviolence as a lifestyle and even a worldview which can spread to “places of power”, including government! (What a concept!)

Please share your thoughts or questions!


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