By Carol S. Pearson
Although all the Abrahamic religions are monotheistic, believing in one God, there have been many times in history when their adherents, in the name of that God, have killed others who have different worship practices and beliefs. And yet, all of these three major religions have foundational beliefs in love. Jesus’s primary teaching was that we should love one another as ourselves and not judge others. In Judaism, the primary purpose of the Torah is to promote love and peace, with all else being seen as commentary. In Islam, the faithful are called to show their love for God by loving others.
My study of depth psychology provides me with some understanding of how such perversions of religion occur. There is a human tendency to build up one’s own self and group by tearing down others, projecting blame onto them for one’s misfortunes, and then projecting one’s desire for revenge onto God, so it is seen as God’s will, not one’s own. When people also feel powerless to solve their own problems, it is natural to gravitate to an answer that makes them feel powerful, even dying for it if it promises a better life after death.
Last weekend’s massacres in Paris followed many similar atrocities in the Middle East, where innocent people regularly are being murdered. The shocking news came my way during a period when I was experiencing how lovely it is when people of various faiths live out their shared core injunction to love one another.
A week or so ago, David and I were visiting with many of my relatives, in Houston, who are devout conservative Christians, who read the Bible every day, and who regularly attend, or lead, Bible study groups. David and I then had just two days at home before traveling to Providence to visit with our daughter’s family, and from there to Boston for a Bar Mitzvah. Immediately afterward, we rushed back to Maryland to attend our grandson’s confirmation in the Catholic Church.
I was raised in the same traditions as my Houston relatives, and my Protestant roots still anchor me in their more progressive forms, while my Doctorate in Ministry is ecumenical and I find truth in many spiritual traditions. In my view, as humans, most of us have a desire for some connection to spiritual meaning. I believe that our various spiritual paths reflect our diversity and speak in ways that provide us with choices to follow the path that is our genuine calling. My husband, David, identifies strongly with his Jewish cultural heritage, but not in a dogmatic way, and I have a particular love of Jewish rituals.
Theoretically, my more conservative Christian relatives could take issue with both of our choices, but instead they just combine sharing honestly about their own practice when doing so is relevant to the conversation with being respectful and loving to us. Some Jews might have difficulty with David’s marrying outside the religion, but his relatives have always been loving and welcoming to me. And, at the Bar Mitzvah, the rabbi referenced Jonathan Sacks’s new book, Not in God’s Name, as a lesson to us all to practice love, peace, and mutual tolerance for those of other faiths. After Daniel’s confirmation, we went out to dinner with members of our nuclear family, who hold varying beliefs or gradations of nonbelief, but all of whom support Daniel in his choice to follow in the spiritual tradition of his loving Costa Rican mom.
These experiences reminded me that many followers of different religions have come a long way in understanding how to be true to their own paths while also being respectful and loving toward those who profess another creed. The more of us who can do this, the more we can resist being pulled into hating others and in the process demeaning the spiritual faiths that teach love by demonizing whole groups because of the actions of a few.
Most religions declare that the test of faith is its fruits—generally, some combination of hope, love, joy, and inner peace, qualities that I find in some people who are not religious as well as in others who are. Whatever our faith or lack of it, it is wise to demonstrate such qualities as we gather with friends and relatives over the coming holiday season, starting with respect and appreciation for who they are, not what we wish they would be. I share this because I know many people who dread family occasions due to the degree of mutual judgment of one another they entail, leading to tension, conflict, and hurt and hard feelings. We cannot control the behavior of others, but we can influence our own.
As our country makes decisions about how best to support our French and other allies and stop the spread of ISIS and its violence, it is similarly important that Americans of various faiths not get sucked into the regressive undertow of hatred and demonization of others. This spiritual and ethical opportunity calls us to defend ourselves and our allies while also recognizing that the perpetrators as well as those they have killed and injured are victims—of false teachings that demean their own spiritual tradition and lure the young into a futile form of martyrdom that does harm rather than good. Our ability to do this will be furthered if we regard what is transpiring with ISIS as a cautionary tale of what dogmatism, projection, fear, hatred, and the desire to remake others in one’s own image can lead to. It is, indeed, a slippery slope to be avoided as we hold fast to our country’s beliefs in freedom of religion and the individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.