The real religious war is not between one religion and another or between believers and nonbelievers.
I am Jewish. A few years ago I read a great book called Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek, which is a wonderful history of the yiddish speaking Jews of Europe over the last thousand years or so and the civilization they created- a civilization wiped out by fascism in the first half of the 20th century. This book changed my understanding of Jewish history in many ways, and in one way particularly. Growing up in the Jewish community I was taught that our time in Europe had been one long stretch of persecution by Christians, followed by the climax of the Holocaust and the triumphant creation of the modern state of Israel. I often wondered what Jews had done between the 2nd century CE and 1939, but I had no clear idea other than vague notions of shtetls in Poland. But how did the Jews get from Roman occupied Palestine to Glemboke, the northern Polish village where my grandfather grew up?
Reading Kriwaczek’s book I learned of the way that Jews had moved outwards away from Israel to fill the boundaries of the Roman Empire and beyond, and had often followed the movement of new frontiers as merchants. I learnt how they had eventually settled in Germany, Hungaria, Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, and Russia, forming the Yiddish Civilisation that my father descended from. I also learned three new and to me amazing things. The first was that the Jewish trek through European history was not one of unmitigated suffering. Jews had also thrived and contributed to the various Christian civilisations of Europe- politically, scientifically, medically, philosophically, and artistically. Jews had also created their own civilisation and culture with its own languages and dialects, its own art, mores, institutions, and literature. The second was that Jews were far from the only persecuted minority. The fact is that European culture was often brutal and marked with almost constant inter-communal violence. Prior to the Reformation in the early 16th century violence tended to be along ethnic, political or geographical lines or directed towards minority religious movements. After the Reformation the previous list of targets continued, adding the multinational fight between Protestants and Catholics and the fight against the Anabaptists, with everyone else doing the killing and them doing the dying.
It began to dawn on me that, as the author of YC argues, to a large extent the violence against Jews does not stand out. It is part of this larger pattern, not an anomaly. Many Jews, habituated (again, like other persecuted minority groups) to a narrative of victimization, will find that a shocking assertion. All I can say is: check the history books.
The third realization was that although it is a horrible truth that Christians, both individually and as government policy, discriminated against and persecuted Jews, it is also true that Christians, both individually and as a matter of government policy, protected, cooperated with, and supported Jews. It was this last realization which brought me to the insight I want to share here. It will not be new to many of you, I’m sure, but it bears repeating and disseminating.
It has become a commonplace bit of “flat-earth” philosophy today to say that religions cause wars. This is not true: historically only about 7% of wars have been religious in nature, and explicitly anti-religious societies have in fact been much, much more violent, which suggests that religion, even when the cause of war, may actually curb the amount of violence perpetrated over-all. In any case, it is certainly true that religious leaders and followers alike have committed acts of violence for what they have described as religious motives. It is also true that religious people have used religion to defend morally heinous ideas and practices like slavery, male superiority, colonialism, violence against LGBTQ people, and even capitalism. What is often overlooked is the other side of the coin: religious people, claiming religious motivation, have run hospitals, fed the poor, reformed the justice system to make it more humane, advocated for feminism, against slavery, against war, against colonialism, against social injustice, in favour of greater access to education and literacy, for human rights, for the ecology, for the rights of LGBTQ people, and even for freedom of religion itself. Which brings me to my point: the real “holy war”, the real “religious war” is not religious people against non-religious people or members of other religions. It is within religions themselves, between those who heed the wisdom those traditions have accumulated in their centuries of pilgrimage through history and wield the immense transforming power of religion for the soul and the community from a heart of love, and those who are lost in ignorant and malformed fundamentalisms or are busy fashioning religion into a weapon to use against others, driven by anything but religious motivations whatever they may claim.
This war has raged throughout history in every religion without exception, and continues to do so today. As a Jew I realized that the true history of European Christendom was not a war of Christians against Jews, but one between Christians who wanted to persecute, exploit, or eliminate Jews and Christians who wanted to treat them like human beings or even, occasionally, to treat them like Jesus would want them to be treated.
Today it is imperative that we understand that there is a similar war within Islam, as in other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. I would argue that attention, friendship and community should be extended to those within all religions who teach and embody the values of justice, kindness and peace for all people. To those who don’t we should extend love and honest, respectful attempts at communication. Mockery, hatred and dehumanisation will not serve us- they are just sophisticated forms of revenge and subtle violence.