Harold Kasimow

Sacred Texts and Violence – A Call for Dialogue

“History has made us all neighbors. The age of moral mediocrity and complacency has run out. This is a time for radical commitment, for radical action.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Religious traditions have brought beauty and astonishing enrichment to millions of believers. They have also been a cause of considerable suffering and anguish. The twenty-first century has already witnessed a great deal of hate and violence in the name of religions, by the children of the three Abrahamic traditions and also by members of other religions. There are still too many believers who feel that violence is what God wants and too many religious leaders who are encouraging such a view. I agree with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that the “choice is to love together or perish together. ” Hans Küng, the well-known Catholic theologian, has repeatedly stated there can be “No peace among nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.” Today, with tensions between religions at painful and dangerous levels, dialogue is imperative.

Even at this moment, there are too many ongoing wars based in part on religion. People still use religion to justify their bigotry and interpret sacred texts in a way that conforms to their own prejudices. Martin Buber, the prominent 20th century philosopher, wrote “religion is the enemy of mankind.” He was speaking about religion when it encourages hate rather than love and causes division rather than unity. I think that one of the main reasons that Buber made this statement is that he believed that organized religion can prevent us from getting to God because it can turn the original revelation into a formulation, turning trust in the relationship with God into belief that can result in violence. Buber was especially critical of organized religion and did not belong to any of the Jewish denominations.
One of the greatest dangers for future prospects for dialogue is the exclusivist belief that only we posses the truth and all other faiths are false. As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain said, “Men kill because they believe they possess the truth while their opponents are in error… Truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth… In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths.” The conflicting truth claims that exist between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contribute to violence between these monotheistic traditions.
Passages that encourage violence are found not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but even in the Hindu tradition, with its strong stress on nonviolence. Even the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most spiritual texts for Hindus, has been interpreted by some as inciting violence. Yet, it was the Gita that was precious to Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, above any other sacred text.

We cannot ask Orthodox Jews or Muslims to cut passages out of their sacred books or tell them that there is a human element in sacred texts. But we may ask them if the “texts of terror” in their traditions are in harmony with the core of their traditions. The members of the Abrahamic religions, for example, must ask themselves whether their interpretation is in harmony with the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and are interconnected and are responsible to one another. The sacred texts are in our hands, whether they are the verbatim word of God or inspired, it is up to us to interpret them. Even if we believe that every word of the text is the word of God, we still have to interpret the text that is now in our hands. There is always the danger if one reads texts literally because one may assume that words have only one meaning. Rabbi Heschel said “the cardinal sin in thinking about ultimate issues is literal mindedness.” Interpretation of sacred texts should be read in accord with the love and compassion of God.

No one today would want to defend slavery with a literal reading of the Bible. I believe that Pope John Paul II realized this problem and told Christians to avoid anti-Jewish interpretation of scripture. The prophets and saints of all religious traditions I have studied dream of a world of peace, one in which every person is treated as having infinite value.
I am surprised and deeply saddened that in the twenty-first century there is slavery, persecution, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, all of which seem to be on the rise, and wars with a religious component are still with us. In spite of all the horrific events that we are witnessing each day, we must not give up hope on the possibility of change. Heschel’s words still resound today:

The greatest heresy is despair, despair of man’s power for goodness, man’s power for love . . . . Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? . . . .What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals.

About the Author
Harold Kasimow has written and published books on Pope John Paul II, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Jewish-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist relations. His books and articles on interfaith dialogue have been published in the US, Poland, England, Belgium, India, China, and Japan.
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