Sunday, June 12, 2016

A word on religious violence

The horrific Orlando shootings have prompted the usual wave of armchair criminology from pundits hoping to mobilize popular sympathy and outrage towards sundry political causes. In this particular instance, my personal take is that we still know very little and the rush to ascribe cause and motive is extremely sinister. Donald Trump may insist that we have to get "smart real fast", but it seems to me like we would be much better off suspending judgment until we have much more information about the shooter and why he did this. For instance, it may turn out (as it so often does) that Mateen was just mentally ill and that all of the ideological associations with the killing were just pretexts and rationalizations. In that case, the relevant solution here would not be a war on radicalism, or homophobia, or toxic masculinity, or whatever - it would be to treat this situation as a public health problem and a gun control problem. It is not the politicization of the shooting that I object to, but attempts to politicize it blindly and simplistically - attempts motivated by political agendas ranging from Islamophobia to liberalism.

It's that latter motive I'd like to touch on here.

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The right's effort to characterize Islam as a "religion of violence" has compelled necessary and admirable pushback from the liberal-left, particularly since this rhetoric is so often a fig leaf for empire and anti-pluralism. But occasionally, liberals use this controversy as a jumping off point to make all kinds of additional claims that have nothing to do with pluralism, tolerance, or anti-imperialism, and everything to do with ideological / theological beliefs about what religion is and distinctly capitalist beliefs of what peace should be.

One extreme version of this, for example, suggests that no sect or school of religion really advocates violence. As far as I can tell, this is coming from a vaguely 19th century transcendentalist tradition that argues for the fundamental commonality of all religions and invests them with an ethic of pacifism. Usually the position gets even more specific, because it turns on a pacifism that corresponds quite neatly with liberal ideas about civility and order - thus (for example) it accomodates imprisonment, or the eating of meat, while many theories of pacifism prohibit both.

Suffice to say that this is a pretty heterodox doctrine from the perspective of most major religions as expressed in their historical practice, their institutional literature, and the lived experiences of the faithful.

Consider my own experience. I was born into a family with three Anabaptist pastors, attended church and Bible study groups every week, and spent my formative years among a tightly-knit Mennonite community. I read from books like the Martyrs MirrorGandhi as a Political Strategist, and The Politics of Jesus on a regular basis, and they were long central to my personal politics. In college, for example, I founded and ran an extraordinarily successful pacifist student organization, and used it to launch all kinds of actions and protests against various forms of violence.

It was during my turn to Marxism that I grasped the sheer depth of disagreement among Christians over violence. As any Mennonite will tell you, Christians contemplate all kinds of serious and direct disagreements over when and under what circumstances violence is acceptable (if ever); even among themselves, Mennonites often wrestle with questions about self-defense, stopping Hitler, etcetera. But Marxism suggested to me an even more profound disagreement among Christians over what violence actually is. Consider, for example, the argument of Mennonite icon John Howard Yoder:
Jesus...ordered his disciples to practice the jubilary redistribution of their capital...Still, it is not our belief that Jesus prescribed Christian communism...when Jesus formulated the celebrated commandment, "Sell what you possess and give it as alms"....this was not...a constitutional law to found a utopian state... (Politics, 69-70)
Note how Yoder takes for granted the capital as their capital, leaping from the fact of possession to a claim of ownership. This is certainly at odds with all kinds of historically and theologically mainstream Christian orthodoxy. For instance, Catholic writer Elizabeth Bruenig argues that 
the status quo in relation to property - that is, the way property now exists in our collective political imagination, as the claim of an intrinsically valuable right - conflicts essentially with a Christian construal...
Meanwhile, Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy, revered by much of the Christian left (including the Mennonite left), insists that
The time will come  - it is already coming - when the Christian principles of equality and fraternity, community of property, non-resistance of evil by force, will appear just as natural and simple as the principles of family or social life seem to us now. (The Kingdom of God is Within You, 100)
These passages represent three radically different perspectives on violence. Yoder and Tolstoy share a notional committment to non-violence, but Tolstoy understands property as a violent institution of the state, and therefore his Christianity recognizes a whole category of violence that liberalism does not. Bruenig (and Marx) also recognize private property as a violent state institution, but unlike Tolstoy and Yoder, they accept as justified a degree of state violence in order to guarantee its abolition.

These are not trivial, hair-splitting theological differences; they are substantive, consequential disagreements about what violence is and when it is justified. They align with the deeply held beliefs of millions of Christians throughout history, beliefs that (for better and for worse) they have dedicated their lives to, fought for, and even died for. And they do more than a little to explain why I stopped identifying as a Mennonite long ago.

It's easy to understand why liberalism would want to deny that these differences exist: they threaten the status quo. If all schools of thought about religion are peaceful - where "peace" specifically means accepting the violence of private property - then any sect that opposes capitalism can be dismissed as a perversion or misrepresentation of the true faith. Thus for example a U.S. Embassy, in a 2007 cable, discussed "the challenge to the traditional Church played by liberation theology" and applauded "major efforts to stamp out this Marxist analysis of class struggle".

None of this, of course, calls into question the basic committments to peace shared by Muslims, Christians, and other religious folk all over the world; nor does it apologize for the brutal acts of terror and violence committed against the innocent, such as just took place in Orlando. Or as took place during the US war against adherents of liberation theology in Latin America. But it should remind us that when liberal capitalists talk about "peace", they often mean something quite particular and different from what much of the rest of the world has in mind.