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Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher (ed.), Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions (New York, Orbis Books, 1997).

In Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions, editor Daniel L. Smith-Christopher has assembled an excellent array of contributors whose provocative and balanced chapters are all written at a high level. Normally, edited volumes contain both strong and weak chapters. Not so this book, which is recommended for courses on religion, nonviolence and conflict resolution. In fact, after reading this book, I think I’ve finally found a companion volume to go with the biographies I assign in my own course, “Gandhi and King: Nonviolence as Philosophy and Strategy.” In that course, we spend considerable time incorporating the religious currents (how could we ignore them?) running through both M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lives.   And so it is with this book whose authors do an excellent job of grappling with one of the most important questions of the day: how does one take what are seemingly contradictory tenets about nonviolence and violence in most religions and put them into practice?

Every chapter in this book, which is organized by specific religion, applies to that subject matter. With the exception of the chapter on Jainism, each chapter acknowledges both the violent and nonviolent aspects of the faith in question: that includes the religion’s scriptural teachings as well as its everyday practice. The singular achievement of this book is that it confronts head on the paradox of religion, i.e., that religion serves both as a source of convergence and divergence. Is it no small wonder that many of history’s most brutal-and durable-wars were grounded in differences over religion? Consider the Hundred Years War or the Crusades as examples from Western History. And, is it not equally curious that the greatest achievements in nonviolent mass political movements were accomplished by activists who were singularly–and publicly–devoted to their respective religions? Here, of course, I am referring to Gandhi’s eclectic Hinduism and King’s Southern Baptist Christianity. Religion, and more specifically, religious practice: it generates unity as well as division, it breeds love as well as hatred, and it conjures ignorance and also understanding.

In locating both conflict and conflict resolution within the theory and practice of their respective religious traditions, none of the authors in this volume is shy about addressing this paradox. Indeed, the editor proposes the same idea that the Dali Lama himself has insisted on for years, namely that if religious symbols and values can be (and are) manipulated for great effect as weapons of war, then they can-and must-be used likewise for peace and reconciliation. War cannot come from humanity while peace comes from the deity, or vice versa.

The danger in this is obvious, and even relates to the current U.S. President’s so-called ‘faith-based’ initiative. What is stop one denomination from using religion, not as source of unity, but rather as a source of dominance, say in seeking converts through coercive economic means-the likely outcome of Bush’s ill-advised policy.

There are chapters in this book on many significant religions, including Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, Hinduism, Native American beliefs, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In all the chapters, the authors confront the varying contradictions and paradoxes of both religious principles and practices as they relate to questions of violence and nonviolence in the public sphere. The chapter on Jainism, by Christopher Key Chapple, presents an exception here because of Jainism’s unequivocal commitment to nonviolence in thoughts, words and deeds. The author quotes an ancient Jain text: “all breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law” (15). Not much room for contradictions and paradoxes there.

In S.Y. Shastri and Y.S. Shastri’s chapter on Hinduism, the paradox of violence and nonviolence that grip so many other religious philosophies is clearly demonstrated. While the authors insist that principles of ahimsa (positive nonviolence) are central to Hinduism, they also recognize that there are exceptions to the practice of nonviolence in the Hindu tradition: “Soldiers on the battlefield who kill their enemies do not engage in himsa [violence], but are carrying out a professional duty” to one’s country, a duty which is considered heroic (80).

Even so, this interpretation might not sit well with others who interpret Hindu scripture, not least of whom is Gandhi. Although the authors quote Gandhi extensively regarding civilization’s duty to foster nonviolence, they do not go far enough for it was Gandhi who, by virtue of his aversion to the seeming bloodlust and carnage presented in the Gita, essentially rewrote the poem to reinterpret it as an allegory against the use of violence. Nevertheless, many Hindus, including his militant Hindu assassins, felt Gandhi’s was a naïve, unrealistic-even blasphemous-take on the epic battle. To be sure, whereas Gandhi tried to reconcile the paradox by rejecting it, Shastri and Shastri try to reconcile the paradox by admitting it.

Shastri and Shastri’s sentiments on Hinduism are similarly echoed in the chapter on Judaism, by Jeremy Milgrom. On the one hand, Milgrom cites passages from Deuteronomy and other Books, making the case that violence can be more than justified in the Hebrew Scriptures. On the other hand, he says “while the Hebrew Bible doesn’t explicitly demand or expect a totally nonviolent lifestyle, it commands the love of one’s neighbor and sees love as the proper response to situations that breed hatred and vengeance” (120).

Although Shastri and Shastri defend the soldier who kills his country’s enemies, such “dutiful” violence on behalf of the nation is explicitly rejected by Smith-Christopher in his chapter on Christianity. Smith-Christopher argues that today’s Christian denominations that practice some form of nonviolence, e.g., “worldly” withdrawal like the Amish or social activism like the Quakers, implicitly reject war and patriotism the way early Christians did vis-à-vis Rome. Nonviolence as a religious value presents a direct challenge to nationalism: to adopt a faith that embraces the nonviolence of Christ is to declare opposition to nationalism and patriotism (144). Indeed, argues the author, even when Christian theologians like St. Augustine and policy makers of the state like the various popes fashioned their “Just War” doctrine, they were forced to draw heavily on Greek and Roman sources rather than Christ’s actual teachings because “the ethics of the just war have virtually nothing to do with Jesus” (155).

In fact, Smith-Christopher seems to be arguing, there is no paradox when comparing the early Christian practices with the contemporary denominations that try to model themselves after the early practitioners. It is only when temporal power finds its way into the hands of the “guardians of the faith” that the clerisy, in its hypocrisy, seeks theological explanations and justifications for its use of force and violent coercion. Christopher S. Queen’s chapter comparing ancient Buddhist practice with modern Buddhism also explores this topic.

Ultimately of course, religion plays a critical role in motivating people, both for war and for peace. And, as the book’s sub-title indicates, nonviolence does indeed challenge religious traditions. To be sure, Gandhi and King’s religious devotions (and credentials) not only gave them personal strength, but also considerable tactical maneuverability, first within their group of adherents and, second, with their opponents and adversaries. King’s incredible response to Birmingham’s unsympathetic clergy in his Letter from Birmingham Jail is a classic example of this.

However, this challenge of nonviolence extends beyond the religious realm and into the secular. One has to wonder, therefore, why secular-based mass movements have not had as much success using nonviolence as have religious-based movements. Indeed, one could see how the sub-title of this book could be inverted to read “The Challenge of Religion in Nonviolent Traditions.”

Michael J. Nojeim is Associate Professor of Political Science at Ohio University’s Eastern Campus.

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