Adventures in Theology--Obama, the Crusades, and the Myth of Sacred Violence

In the last post, I talked a bit about Rene Girard's theory of memetic rivalry.  Conveniently, yesterday provided an excellent example of this process in action.

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama was talking about ISIS.  ISIS is, of course, very bad, a fact that the President was clear to state.  However, he pointed out that those of us in the Christian camp live a in glass house with regard to religiously-motivated violence.  In particular, he pointed to the Crusades as an example of the same kind of religiously motivated violence seen in ISIS appearing in a Christian context.

Religious conservatives lost their minds.  How dare you compare the Crusades to ISIS's jihad?  Certain kinds of Catholics, notably the dangerous lunatic Bill Donohue of the "Catholic League," argue that the Crusades were a "just war," and thus nothing like the violence of ISIS.  Said another way, "our violence in the name of God was totally justified, but your violence in the name of God is completely improper."

One imagines, if you could speak to the members of ISIS, they would say precisely the opposite thing.  And, of course, that's Obama's point.

Memetic theory provides a very clear diagnosis of these situations--all violence that is done in the name of God, or the gods, or whatever, is both pretextual and illegitimate.  It is pretextual because it is not really about God or the gods at all, but is instead a mechanism to channel our own rivalrous violence against each other onto some outside enemy who becomes the source of all of our discord. ISIS kills foreigners and Christians (and whoever else they can get their hands on), not because Allah commands it, but because the foreigner and the Christian is the Other that allows their community to dissipate the violence that would otherwise be turned on each other.  Likewise, the Crusades did not happen because "Deus Vult" ("God Wills It"), but so that violence could be directed at Muslims (and Jews, and whoever else they could get their hands on), as opposed to other Christians in Europe.

To say it simply, we don't commit violence because God or the gods tell us to; we create gods to justify and cover-up the violence we commit, or want to commit.
The god that tells us to commit violence in his (or her) name is, by definition, not God.  That "god" is ourselves--our own broken and violent selves, projected onto an ostensibly transcendent screen.  We are not worshiping and honoring God, but an idol of our own creation.  In fact, we are worshiping the primordial idol, the one that has defined the human species since we developed self-awareness.  We are back to being pagans.

It is equally irrelevant and pretextual to get into a discussion of "who started it."  Yes, Muslims attacked and killed Christians prior to the First Crusade in 1098, and those attacks should be (and have been) condemned.  But that's not the origin of the First Crusade in any real sense.  The real origin is, once again, within ourselves, in our violence, our rivalry, our desire to blame all of our problems on the Other.  We use the actual events to craft a story of why our violence is justified, why the community is justified in striking out against the other.  Ultimately, whatever events are available will work in creating that story, which proves the events don't really matter.  The events may change, but the story is always the same.

The take-away point is not to that ISIS is better or worse that the Crusaders, but that they are fundamentally the same.  And both are the same as the Nazis' unspeakable acts against the Jews in the name of the German Volk, or the crimes of Stalin or Mao in the name of the "Inevitable Historical Triumph of Marxism," or the crimes of the United States in the name of "Manifest Destiny."  We create idols to justify our own violence, our own need to exclude and punish the Other.

Two last points.  First, it is worthwhile to take a look at Jesus's comments to the Pharisees at the end of the 9th Chapter of John's Gospel.  Jesus heals the man born blind, and the man then gets into a dispute with the Pharisees, who kick him out of the Temple:.

 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

"It can't possibly be us that are blind," say those who want to defend to the death our righteous crusades against the Other.  When we, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, try to justify our own violence, we are saying "we see."  And thus our sin remains.

Second, while President Obama was 100% justified in calling out the Crusades, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  While violence done in the name of "God" is an idolatrous form of religion, it is precisely the osmotic dispersion of the wisdom found in the Bible that allows President Obama, and hopefully us, to see things as they really are.  But, that's the next post.


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