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by Alan Race
from Signs of the Times, No. 27 - Oct 2007
We were right to label violence at our 2007 conference as a stubborn pandemic. The popular perception is that violence is on the increase - whether we are thinking of domestic, street, city, national or international contexts. I do not know whether this perception is correct. A similar perception exists in relation to crime but we are told that crime figures are down substantially. Still, 'stubborn' violence is.
Violence has been analysed as being rooted variously in human nature, social injustice, ideological rivalry, and the increasingly desperate competition over resources. But to this list we must now add 'religiously-motivated violence'. Not only is the default position of much media commentary and academic out-put, but it is also receiving theological attention. Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, who was unable at the last minute to address the conference due to personal and family circumstances, has analysed religiously-motivated violence across five traditions - Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism and Judaism - in his book 'Terror in the Mind of God'. The results are a frightening scenario. All of us, it seems, have the potential to put religious impulses to violent ends, irrespective of religious tradition, culture or civilisation. Had Mark been able to address the conference we would have been made to wrestle with this aspect of violence more than we did.
I arrived at High Leigh after just having read John Crossan's recent book, 'God and Empire'. Always deeply provocative, Crossan points out how the reality of civilisation/empire is actually founded historically on what he calls 'the normalcy of violence'. In other words, violence lies at the heart of civilisations and is not an aberration or symptom of decline. At its simplest, civilisations require policing at their borders and control at their centres of life. Further, Crossan depicts the Bible as a story (from Genesis to Revelation) of the struggle between the violent and non-violent God, and it remains an open question which one we shall embrace for the future. Justice is the key on which everything turns, so 'how will we tackle justice today?' is his question to us.
Our conference did not set out to answer that question. But we know that it is not sufficient for us to complain that religion can be misused in the cause of violent ends and that religious commitment itself is essentially spiritually noble. Our religions themselves need purging from the 'texts of terror' residing in all our scriptures. This means therefore that there is no escape from the theological dimension of violence and its continuing or its ending. If we are to dent the 'stubborn pandemic' this will have to become a priority now.
Alan Race was Conference Secretary and Co-Chair.