A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Joanna Manning

Ever since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, I have been haunted by the religious overtones of the tragedy, and the way it has highlighted the continuing influence of religion as one factor fueling today’s global conflicts.

     Even as Islamic fundamentalists were hijacking U.S. planes in pursuit of their deadly mission, Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the town of Jos in northern Nigeria. A few days prior to September 11, Protestants in Belfast attacked Catholic children who were on their way to school. Orthodox Jewish invasions into Palestinian settlements have provoked another round of the intifada. And here in Canada, Christian churches are being called to account for their role in the residential schools that were part of the colonization and forcible conversion of native peoples.

     Countless times in the past - and I’m talking millennia rather than centuries - adherents of the three main western religions have massacred unbelievers and each another in the name of God. Can the horrible events of September 11 lead to a re-evaluation and rejection of this terrible legacy of violence?

     Jews, Christians and Muslims claim a common heritage from the promises of God to Abraham. Adherents of each of the religions that claim their descent from this covenant have subscribed to three foundational ideas, ideas that have often been distorted to fuel religious extremism.

     One of these is the notion of divine election. God assured Abraham of descendants and land and the status of most favored nation. This pledge has been used as a pretext for the claim that God’s universal love for humanity is dispensed exclusively through certain chosen groups and their institutions. The shadow side of this is that these elect of God feel they have carte blanche to convert or kill unbelievers and divest them of their property and rights in the name of the Lord. The divine right of kings, the fierce battles by crusaders ancient and modern over the city of Jerusalem, the jihad of Islam, Christian Europe’s subjugation of the native peoples of the Americas - all are manifestations of theocratic ideologies where the power of the state has been co-opted as a means of enforcing sectarian religious orthodoxy.

     Under-girding this idea of divine election is the text in the Book of Genesis, which directs the first humans to "go out and subdue the earth." This is interpreted to mean that the world and all its creatures are merely means to human enrichment, and can be deployed at the disposal of whichever branch of humanity claims the status of God’s most favored group. There are many echoes in U.S. political rhetoric of the myth of the manifest destiny of the descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, who set out to build a new Jerusalem in the pristine Eden of the New World. Evangelical Christians endorse America’s material wealth as a sign of God’s continuing favour and the divine right of the capitalist economic system, recently victorious over its atheistic communist rival, to dictate the economic destiny of the rest of humanity.

     The third myth is the apotheosis of violence as a sign of divine judgement. Throughout history, scriptural texts about an apocalyptic "end time" when God will mete out the punishment due to sinners have been suborned to serve personal or political interests. It seems that every group would like a little apocalypse now and then to get ready for the final one. Corporal punishment is a divinely-sanctioned means of chastising wayward children, to prepare them for the real wrath of God. Pat Robertson stated that the deaths of September 11 occurred because God was provoked to exact retribution upon feminists, civil libertarians and homosexuals. Moslem fundamentalists were provoked to acts of terrorism by the desecration of their sacred land during the Gulf War.

     Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, excommunications, fatwas: who can enumerate the untold collateral damage to innocent people from the institutionalized religious violence which desecrates the name of God? Surely the time has come to recognize that the world has reached saturation point in missionary endeavors, and for religious leaders to call a halt to further conversions in order to reflect on the fundamental equality and dignity of all humanity created in the image of one God.

     The notion that non-believers of any stripe are rejected by God, and are thus only tentatively human and therefore dispensable, must be publicly confronted and challenged. In this twenty-first century, the time has come to find and celebrate what unites us, rather than what divides. The horror of September 11 is a wake-up call to all believers to set aside competition among religions, and to rediscover the real fundamentals: the universal compassion and unconditional love within the heart of God.

Joanna Manning is the author of Is The Pope Catholic?: A Women Confronts Her Church published by Crossroad Publishing. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.

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