Is Murder a “Sacred Practice" in ALL Religions?

The murderous attacks in France last week have called forth a mixture of horror, outrage, disgust, and fear – – all legitimate responses.

One response has been to claim that Islam is – uniquely — a religion of violence, terror, and war. Another has been to claim that the perpetrators of these murders, though they claimed they were acting for the honor of God and of Islam, were acting falsely, betraying the Islam that is entirely a religion of peace.

Both these responses evade the truth.

First of all, within Islamic teachings there are both passages of nurture and streaks of blood.

Some Muslims can authentically quote some bloody words to justify shedding the blood of other-belief believers   — especially those who drip contempt on Islam itself — just as other Muslims – by far the great majority — can quote passages that forbid such behavior.

Secondly, Islam is by no means unique among religions – and atheist societies, too — in having some adherents claim that violence, even aggressive violence not in self-defense, is taught by their sacred texts as in some circumstances a sacred practice.

Some Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs have either called on their sacred teachings or acted as religious communities, invoking communal solidarity, to justify killing “Others,” while other Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs have called on their sacred wisdom to forbid it.

(“Buddhists?? ” you say. “Come on!”  Well, check out what is going on this very moment in Burma, where some groups among a Buddhist majority, with the acquiescence or assistance of a government made up of Buddhists, are carrying on massive pogroms against a Muslim minority.)

It is hard to find a major religion or secular ideology that has not been used by some of its adherents to justify violence against others.

Some atheists have used this fact to accuse religion itself of being the root of violence. But the blood-drenched history of the atheist government of the Soviet Union, drawing on what it saw as “sacred” teachings of Lenin and others about the need to “defend the revolution,” hardly supports that claim. Nor does the blood-drenched history of the non-religious government of the United States, proclaiming the “defense of democracy” as justification for wars against Vietnam, Iraq, and a number of Central American countries.

Why are there streaks of both blood and love in the histories of religious communities?

Most such communities begin with the deep discovery of the One that unites all life, whether that Unity is called “God ” or not. To celebrate that Unity, the community develops practices of compassion and justice, enriched by rituals, text, festivals, and other ways of keeping the knowledge of the One alive into future generations.

Then the community meets another community that claims to be in touch with the One. But this other community has developed different texts, different rituals and festivals and practices, to affirm the One.

There are two different ways of responding to this encounter.

One way is to say that the other community has it all wrong, because “we” know the right texts, festivals, and rituals to invoke the One. Not only are “they” wrong, they are lying when they claim to be in touch with the One. So they must be denigrated, attacked, even killed.

The other religious response is to say with delight that now we’ve learned how infinite is the One, how the Infinite One can only be expressed through many different forms. Through this response, the religious community finds itself drawn toward broadening its arena of compassion.

In most religious communities, both responses emerge again and again and again during generations of encounter with other communities.

We must also take into account that even in communities where the expansive and compassionate response to Otherness has won the day, some specific circumstances can lead to rage and violence. For religious leaders and communities are not immune to rage and violence when their beliefs and symbols are desecrated and they are humiliated.

Thought experiment: Imagine Christian “satirists” in a country with an isolated, low-income Jewish minority putting on a play that includes pouring sewage and pig-offal on a Torah Scroll.

How would various Jews react? Might some demand laws to forbid such versions of  “free speech”? Might some use violence?

In fact, many European countries — remembering how the Holocaust began with such acts of “free speech” (and drawing on a different approach to freedom of expression than the US First Amendment) now forbid certain versions of free speech when used against one or another religion  — such as Holocuast denial. Was Charlie Hebdo immune to these laws because it poured contempt on ALL religions, not just one? 

And then some reasons for the use of violence by some who claim to be acting on behalf of a religious community might not be called “religious” in origin but emerge from the economic, political, or cultural marginalization of a religious community. Religious communities that are kept in poverty or denied a share in shaping the future of their country or even their own community are not immune to feeling rage and using violence.

Does any of this justify violence? No. Does any of it justify the murders of Charlie’s writers and cartoonists or of the Jewish customers at a kosher grocery store?? NO.  Does any of it justify arson attacks on mosques or the criminalization of wearing the hijab? NO.

But these thoughts might point us in the direction of better ways of dealing with outbursts of religious violence. I pose six questions toward that possibility:

Question 1: Even where it is legal to pour contempt on one religion or on them all, is it wise? Is it compassionate?  Should society applaud and encourage such vitriol, or oppose it?

Question 2: In every religious and ideological community, should its leaders be explicitly celebrating the Infinitude of the One, and thus Its manifestations in many different forms – rather than attacking difference as evidence of apostasy and heresy and falsity?

Question 3: Should those who are powerful in every society be acting to ensure that no community – religious, racial, sexual, lingual – be excluded from economic justice, cultural dignity, and political empowerment?

Question 4: Should the same rule be applied internationally and globally, so that no nation, however much a Great Power, can trample on another?

Question 5: Does all this point us in the direction of elevating the principle and practice of nonviolence into a more and more central precept of all religions and ideologies?

Question 6: Should leaders and teachers of varied religions meet once a year to face the bloody streaks of text and action in their own tradition, to publicly make restitution, and to ask forgiveness?

If we answer Yes to this last question and actually make such gatherings happen, we could begin the work that will unfold itself into answering all the questions before.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 


Is murder a sacred practice in all religions?

The six questions in the email of Rabbi Waskow of January 15 clearly point to the issue of non violence and the need for everyone, buit especially political and religious leaders, to better consider their actions and their responsibilities to work towards a world of toleration and co-existence. It would be good if a national debate on these questions could be initiated by The Shalom Center or some other concerned institution. It is essential that all people and each new generation learn that respect and toleration of differing religious and political views does not imply agreement with those views but it does mean a willingness to accept their validity to others.


Thanks so much for your comments. I am amazed that National Public Radio and others are still claiming that this is an issue of free speech. The BBC, fortunately, has noted openly that France has a law against hate speech, and questioned why some of the "Charlie Hebdo" stuff is not being challenged under that law. I have made an extra copy of your article to share at Quaker meeting.

Murder as a sacred practice

Dear Rabbi Arthur, I’m afraid I have to raise objections when you assert “some Buddhists have … called on their sacred teachings to justify killing ‘Others,’ while other Buddhists … have called on their sacred wisdom to forbid it.” I also detect misrepresentation when you cite the example of Burma, where you say, “a Buddhist majority, with the acquiescence or assistance of a Buddhist government, is carrying on massive pogroms against a Muslim minority.” First, with regard to the Buddhist scriptures, there is not a single passage in the Buddhist scriptures that can be cited to justify violence against any human being or non-human being, let alone to justify murder. The Buddhist scriptures unequivocally assert that a follower of the Buddha must abstain from taking life, whether human life, animal life, or insect life. The first precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.” The first principle of wholesome action is “to abstain from taking life and to dwell compassionate and merciful toward all living beings.” The first factor of “right action” in the noble eightfold path is abstinence from taking life. Thus it is false and misleading to establish an equivalence in this respect between the Buddhist scriptures and the Quran, where we find such statements as this: 9:5 Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way. 2:190–91 Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. 2:192 And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. 47:4 When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. 5:33 Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the country. They shall be held up to shame in this world and sternly punished in the hereafter: except those that repent before you reduce them. For you must know that God is forgiving and merciful. 9:123 Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous. 9:73 Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate. There is nothing in the scriptures of Buddhism remotely similar to this, and thus there are no texts for Buddhists to cite to justify violence against those of other faiths. As for the situation in Burma, it is quite inaccurate to state that “a Buddhist majority, with the acquiescence or assistance of a Buddhist government, is carrying on massive pogroms against a Muslim minority.” It’s true that Buddhists are a majority in Burma, but this does not mean that the Buddhist majority as such is carrying out “massive pogroms.” This is no more true than it would be to say that because the Ku Klux Klan considered themselves Christians, “a Christian majority in the US carried out the lynching of black people in the south.” It’s actually a very small minority of Buddhists in Burma, incited by a small number of influential monks, that have carried out attacks on Muslims. And these attacks have been small scale and occasional, not frequent enough in number or large enough in scale to be considered “pograms,” a word that implies continuity and massiveness of scale. The monks and lay Buddhists who carry out these attacks, moreover, cannot cite any Buddhist scriptures to justify their actions. The hostility is mainly based on ethnic grounds rather than articles of religious belief, particularly because in central Burma the Muslims are more successful as a business community than the Burmese and thus incite resentment. Apart from this, I agree completely with your six questions. Sincerely, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

BuddhisT Violence in Burma

<p>Thanks to Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi for his comments. In light of his assertion that Burmese Buddhists carrying on violence against the Muslim minority are not quoting sacred Buddhist texts, I am slightly revising that aspect of my essay. But all the&nbsp; evidence makes clear that what has been happening are indeed pogroms. I QUOTE THE FOLLOWING FROM THE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY AT&lt;<strong>;/wiki/2013_Burma_anti-Muslim_riots&gt;</strong> I am especially distessed at the language that sau=ys the properity of Muslim merrchants "incited" violence by Buddhists.--- Rabbi Arthur Waskow</p> <p style="padding-left: 60px;">Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups flared into violent clashes in <a href="" title="Meiktila">Meiktila</a> on March 20 and continued until the 22nd, killing at least 40 and wounding 61 people. The violence started on March 20 after a Muslim gold shop owner, his wife, and two Muslim employees allegedly assaulted a Buddhist customer and her husband in an argument over a golden hairpin. The situation further escalated when a local Buddhist monk was dragged from his bicycle, doused in petrol, and burnt alive by six Muslim youths at a nearby mosque.<sup id="cite_ref-1" class="reference"><a href=""><span>[</span>1<span>]</span></a></sup></p> <p style="padding-left: 60px;">The deadliest incident occurred when a Buddhist mob attacked and torched Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School. While security forces stood by, rioters armed with machetes, metal pipes, chains, and stones killed 32 teenage students and four teachers.<sup id="cite_ref-2" class="reference"><a href=""><span>[</span>2<span>]</span></a></sup></p> <p style="padding-left: 60px;">On the 25th of March, communal rioting targeting Muslim houses and mosques spread to the towns of Othekone, Tatkone and Yamenthin. At least 9,000 residents were documented to have been displaced by the violence.<sup id="cite_ref-3" class="reference"><a href=""><span>[</span>3<span>]</span></a></sup> In April, the BBC provided a video showing police officers standing by while rioters torched houses and businesses in Meiktila. The video also shows the brutal burning and killing of at least two Muslim students at the hands of rioters, which included Buddhist monks.</p> <p style="padding-left: 60px;">On the 21st of May, seven Muslims, including the gold shop owner and those who perpetrated the murder of the monk, were convicted for inciting the unrest and jailed from 2 up to 28 years. In July, the Burmese courts sentenced 25 Buddhists to up to 15 years in prison for murder and other crimes during the riot.<sup id="cite_ref-4" class="reference"><a href=""><span>[</span>4<span>]</span></a></sup></p> <h2 style="padding-left: 60px;"><span class="mw-headline" id="April_riots_in_Okkan">April riots in Okkan</span></h2> <p style="padding-left: 60px;">On the 30th of April, 400 Buddhists armed with bricks and sticks overran mosques and torched more than 100 homes and shops in <a href="" title="Okkan">Okkan</a>, killing two people and injuring at least ten more. Another 77 homes were destroyed in the nearby villages of Yadanakon, Panipin, Chaukthe and Thekon.</p>

religion and violence

Thank you, Rabbi Arthur, for providing a context for the Parisian killings.

More questions than answers

Thank you, Reb Arthur, for some deep reflections on a painful subject. I think what you say has truth in a theological or spiritual sense. And, I feel that religious violence is often an outward manifestation of political struggles for power, dominance and land/resource control. I think that the current manifestations of violence and widespread repression emanating from many parts of the Muslim world must be recognized and opposed. I am heartened by those in the Muslim community who seek a more enlightened and tolerant path for their faith in the modern world. Yes, we all have these manifestations of violence in our religious heritage, but politics and power play a big role.

Is Murder a “Sacred Practice" in ALL Religions?

Dear Rabbi Arthur, Speaking selectively or specifically about one religion and its correlation with violence….hard to say! All religions teach high moral values and positively contribute to life on Earth. There is no doubt that the deep-rooted teachings and fundamental ideals of all faiths persuade and promote love and also respect for the life of every human being. So, it really is a challenge for us to better understand and align with the very substance of religion and the core of God’s message, which advocates love and peace between all members of the human family. Although compassion and kindness are the foundation of all the world’s great religions, unfortunately many of us [yes ‘US’ as I am one of you], sometimes with certainty in the name of the same religion, do exactly the opposite. This strongly indicates that we have deviated from the very substance of God’s message. We need to create a culture of kindness and encourage a spirit of generosity, thoughtfulness, and love where differences are accepted and celebrated, rather than targeted. Truly, God’s universal message conveys love, compassion, and mercy, and is meant to establish peace and harmony between people of all faiths, cultures, and traditions—a message sought to unify people rather than divide them.

How many questions?

Great essay! Thanks. I have seen a version with six questions, but the one on the website has only five. The missing question is "Should leaders and teachers of varied religions meet once a year to face the bloody streaks of text and action in their own tradition, to publicly make restitution, and to ask forgiveness?" Why is that one not on the website?

The missing question

<p>Bill -- I'm startled to hear that question got left off, and I will put it back in. In a way, since&nbsp; it's the most immediately actionable one, it's the most important. Thanks for raising the question about the question.--&nbsp; Shalom, salaam, sohl, Peace!</p>

Add new comment