Posted by: Sue Spencer | January 26, 2008

Religion, Violence, and Self-Reflection

Earlier this week, Sr. Carol Bernice and I were fortunate enough to attend the Trinity Institute, an annual two-day symposium of lectures, worship, and reflection sponsored by Trinity (Episcopal) Church, Wall Street. The theme was “Religion and Violence: Untangling the Roots of Conflict.” So much has been written on this topic – generally about “those people” who are violent – that I was a bit skeptical about hearing anything new. Once at the Institute, however, my doubts were quickly put to rest.

In his introduction, General Seminary’s Mark Richardson said the purpose of exploring this topic was not to ask, “Why are THEY so violent?” but rather the more challenging question, “How do I/we contribute, and how can we be converted?” The interfaith panel of speakers more than delivered on this promise of challenge.

Black liberation theologian and Union Theological Seminary professor James Cone’s address was entitled “God and Black Suffering: Calling the Oppressors to Account.” Asserting that the injustice of institutional racism is itself violent, even if it hides behind a veneer of civility, Dr. Cone reminded us that it was mainstream Christians, not fundamentalists, who used religion to justify slavery.

Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, and daughter of the great Abraham Joshua Heschel, similarly questioned the notion that fundamentalism or religious conservatism is the root of religious violence, pointing out that in Hitler’s Germany it was the most liberal theologians who became Nazis, not the neo-orthodox thinkers like Barth and Bonhoeffer.

Catholic writer James Carroll, perhaps best known for Constantine’s Sword, about Christianity and violence against the Jews, spoke on “The Nonviolent God: reforming theology as a way for peace,” noting that his central concern is “religion and WAR,” rather than “religion and violence.” Returning again and again to the holy city Jerusalem, the “city of peace” but also the place of animal sacrifice in the Temple, Carroll asked how we might “unlink the link” between the impulse to worship and the impulse to kill. For Americans, he hit closest to home when he tied the theme of blood sacrifice to the “fervent American civil religion” growing out of the U.S. Civil War. Perhaps, he said, “the soul of America” needs to be saved from what made it America.

Finally, Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, spoke on “Islam in a Pluralistic Society.” His focus was on “mastering our own inner violence,” starting with the humility that comes from an awareness of our need for God. Barred from entering the U.S. by our State Department, this gentle-spoken man’s address came to us from London via cable connection.

I hope to have more to say about all of these speakers in future blogs. In the meantime, if you have the right software, you can view them at



  1. An old Myth: Religion is the primary source of violence:

    • Okay – but I don’t think I said religion was THE primary source of violence.

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