Blaise Pascal once wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” How true! This has been going on since the beginning of time and is not showing few signs of disappearing any time soon. We still do violence and evil and justify them in God’s name.
We see countless examples of this in history. From the time that we first gained self-consciousness, we’ve done violence in God’s name. It began by sacrificing human persons to try to attain God’s favor, and it led to everything from actively persecuting others for religious reasons to waging war in God’s name, from burning people for heresy at the Inquisition to practicing capital punishment for religious reasons — and, at one point in history, even to handing Jesus over to be crucified out of our misguided religious fervor.
These are some salient historical examples; sadly, not much has changed. Today, in its most gross form, we see violence done in God’s name by groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS, who, whatever else might be their motivation, believe that they are serving God and cleansing the world in God’s name by brute terrorism and murder. The death of thousands of innocent people can be justified, they believe, by the fact that this is God’s cause, so sacred and urgent that it allows for the bracketing of all basic standards of humanity, decency and normal religion. When it’s for God’s cause, outright evil is rationalized.
Happily, it’s impossible for most of us to justify this kind of violence and murder in our minds and hearts, but most of us still justify this kind of sacral violence in more subtle modes. Many of us, for instance, still justify capital punishment in the name of divine justice, believing that God’s purposes demand that we kill someone. Many, too, justify abortion by an appeal to our God-given freedoms. And virtually all of us justify certain violence in our language and discourse because we feel that our cause is so special and sacred that it gives us the right to bracket some of the fundamentals of Christian charity in our dealings with those who disagree with us — namely, respect and graciousness.
Our language, in both the circles of the right and the left, is rife with a violence we justify in God’s name. On the right, issues like abortion and the defense of dogma are deemed so important as to give us permission to demonize others. On the left, issues of economic and ecological injustice, because they so directly affect the poor, similarly give us permission to bracket respect and graciousness. Both sides like to justify themselves with an appeal to God’s righteous anger.
There’s a story in John’s Gospel, delicious in its irony, which helps expose how we are so often blind to the violence we do in God’s name. It’s the famous incident of the woman who is caught in adultery. They bring her to Jesus and tell him that they caught her in the very act of committing adultery and that Moses commanded, in God’s name, that women like this be stoned to death. Jesus, for his part, says nothing. He bends down and writes with his finger, twice, on the ground and then tells them that the one among them who’s without sin might cast the first stone. They understand the gesture: why he is writing on the ground, why he is writing twice and what that means. What does it mean?
Moses went up a mountain and God, with his finger, wrote the Ten Commandments into two tablets of stone. As Moses approached the Israelite camp on his return, carrying the two tablets of stone, he caught the people in the very act of committing idolatry. What did he do? In a fit of religious fervor, he broke the Ten Commandments, literally, physically, over the golden calf and then picked up the fragments and threw those stones at the people.
So here’s the irony from which to draw a lesson: Moses was the first person to break the Ten Commandments. He broke them in God’s name and then took the fragments and stoned the people. He did this violence in all sincerity, caught up in religious fervor. Of course, afterwards he had to go back up the mountain and have the commandments written a second time. However, before giving Moses the commandments a second time, God also gave him a lecture: Don’t stone people with the commandments! Don’t do violence in my name!
We’ve been very slow to grasp this mandate and take it seriously. We still find every sort of moral and religious justification for doing violence in God’s name. We are still, like Moses, smashing the commandments on what we consider idolatrous and then stoning others with the fragments. This is evident everywhere in our religious and moral discourse, particularly in how we, as Pascal might put it, in God’s name, “completely and cheerfully” bracket charity as it pertains to graciousness and respect.