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Religion Evokes Violence - Objection!
(A Forthcoming Book by the Innsbruck Research Group on Religion - Violence -Communication - World Order: Schwager, R. / Niewiadomski, J. (Hg.): Religion erzeugt Gewalt – ein Einspruch! Forthcoming Münster: LIT, 2003.)

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
Abstrakt:The aftermath of September 11 saw, among other things, a renewed debate about the relationship between violence and religion, first and especially focusing on Islam, but soon putting religion as such, understood as the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, under the suspicion of fomenting and inciting violence. The Innsbruck research group publishes this book as an objection to the contention that the monotheistic religions as such are prone to violence, while at the same time offering a critical analysis, as to where certain theological interpretations or political misuses of these religions in fact do enhance violence. This article is a short overview over the project, to the extent that the contributions were available to me in January.
Publiziert in:COV&R Bulletin No. 22 (March 2003)



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The aftermath of September 11 saw, among other things, a renewed debate about the relationship between violence and religion, first and especially focusing on Islam, but soon putting religion as such, understood as the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, under the suspicion of fomenting and inciting violence.

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In our Innsbruck research group, Raymund Schwager took the initiative to make that an occasion for renewed reflection on the topic for a common publication, containing some material already previously published, and some new contributions to the question from the different members of our group and their different academic backgrounds. (1)

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The result is an objection to the contention that the monotheistic religions as such are prone to violence, while at the same time a critical analysis, as to where certain theological interpretations or political misuses of these religions in fact do enhance violence. I will attempt to give a short overview over the project, to the extent that the contributions have been available to me already.

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R. Schwager and J. Niewiadomski lay out the question at hand in their introduction: Are those thinkers right who deem violence to be a particular consequence of monotheistic religion and recommend a form of modern-day paganism instead? The authors think not and neither is modern humanism a sufficient answer, because, as it loses ever more its theoretical foundations in rational argumentation, it evolves more and more into a mantra that is recited, but is not acted upon. They then describe the real dangers of fundamentalism and apocalypticism. An answer to these challenges for peace, however, cannot be found in simply ignoring them or in the vain hope of their being overcome by economic progress, it can only be found in a reading of monotheistic religion and apocalyptic texts along the lines R. Girard has laid out. That way these texts can be related to current political, social and economic problems and can contribute to finding viable solutions that enhance world peace and justice.

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The first common text of the research group, edited by R. Schwager and J. Niewiadomski, "Dramatic Theology as a Research Program" (2) discusses theology's status as an academic discipline and tries to ground it in a theory of knowledge and of science that is acceptable in modern discourse. It thus sets the methodological framework for the other contributions. The core hypotheses in that framework are: "A deep, true and lasting peace among people which is not based on sacrificing third persons and can exist without polarization onto enemies is very difficult or even exceeds human strength. If it nevertheless becomes reality, this is a clear sign that God Himself (the Holy Spirit) is acting in the people. … If true reconciliation fails, the problem which people do not cope with is shifted onto third persons - often in the name of God." (3)

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Pope John Paul II.'s prayers for peace, especially in the presence of other religious leaders, constitute a clear sign that religion should not be the catalyst for violence, but rather for peace, as W. Sandler explains in his commentary on those prayers.

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Another "sign" - associations or echoes of the biblical concept of "sign" are encouraged - can be seen in the prayers of forgiveness the Pope and several high cardinals said in the liturgy of the 1st Sunday of Lent in 2000, as part of the millennial commemorative events of the Catholic Church. In a commentary on the meaning and relevance of these prayers I try to show that by doing so the church attempts to re-examine its ways during the course of history, and by apologizing for wrongdoings it re-adjusts its understanding of its mission, acknowledging erroneous ways and thus drawing its lessons for the future. It turns out that the church is not alone in doing that, but that apologizing has become common-place also between nations and states. This underlines, how important the perception of honesty in these undertakings is. The many-fold criticism that met the pope's decision to insert those prayers into the liturgy can be seen as misapprehending his intentions: They are neither to sully the image of the church and make the past a scapegoat - thus he does not apportion guilt to specific persons or institutions within the church, does not judge the intentions of the wrongdoers, but the outcome of their deeds in relation to the gospel they were supposed to promote -, nor are they to deny any wrongdoing that has been done by the believers or representatives of the church in order to white-wash the ecclesial image - thus the grave sins of Christianity (persecution of dissent, schisms, anti-Jewish behavior, religious intolerance and war, sexism and racism, violations of human rights) (4) are mentioned without any moralizing or finger-pointing. The aim thus is a "purification of memory" that is to be achieved by the church forgiving those that have hurt her and asking those for forgiveness she has hurt. In doing so - at least in intention, however unsatisfactory the actual realization might be in some areas - the church can be seen as the "model" of a society that tries to enhance peace by forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

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That complements the second common text of the group, edited by W. Palaver and W. Guggenberger: "Pluralism - Ethical Basic Intuition - Church" (5). It first describes the "Babylonian" chaos abounding in today's post-modern and pluralistic ethical thinking. That means, however, that a theoretical grounding of ethics by rational insight into what is due, as Kant and the enlightenment envisioned it, is at least not effective anymore - everybody adhering to a different kind of "rationality". Christianity can react and to a degree has reacted to that situation by a return to its own traditions and values, which are dependent on Christianity's own narrative tradition. Here, however, the proximity and difference of those narrations to the myths of human societies has to be taken into account, and Girard's analysis becomes an invaluable tool. Christian ethics thus has to draw on the model of Jesus and the experiences the first disciples made with him: among them also the experience of their own complete moral failure and Jesus' response of forgiveness. This distinguishes Christian from Platonic ethics: while both share the same ideals, Platonic ethics merely seeks to avoid a breach of those, while Christian ethics also offers a way to deal with breaches that do occur ever again: forgiveness. Christian ethics therefore challenges Christians in the first place to live by it - that means also to constantly try to rekindle the willingness to forgive. If Christians and the Christian churches do that, they become in themselves "models" for other groups or societies and that way, "their" ethics return - not theoretically, but practically - with a universal claim.

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With that the projected publication moves on to the current post-9/11-situation. W. Palaver offers an analysis of terrorism as a phenomenon: its essential marks, its origin and its relation toward religion. Terrorism turns out to be a modern phenomenon, originating in Europe after the French Revolution as a means of "propaganda by action". Violent acts of destruction for political or social ends are used as means to achieve a wide public perception, thus evoking fear in the attacked, and support by those who stand to gain from their success. That means that terrorism is dependent on and makes use of the most modern mass media available. Without these means of communication, its intended goals could not be reached. Terrorism is a fighting instrument of the weak against an over-powerful enemy, and it is aggressive and not merely defensive. From the beginning terrorism and religion were in close proximity. However, it would be short-sighted to see religion as the only catalyst for terrorism. There has been secular terrorism as well, yet that was marked by a clear pseudo-religious attitude. There are two main reasons for the close relation between terrorism and religion: 1) the closeness of religion and violence, as the mimetic theory has laid it out; 2) terrorism can be seen as a "parasite of biblical thinking" with its concern for victims and the downtrodden. All three monotheistic religions can be viewed as "religions of lamentation" that - as the Lamentations in the bible - expect a violent solution to their problems, a solution coming from God in an apocalyptic Armageddon, which some might aspire to bring about themselves in the name of God. However, the biblical apocalypse, while taking up those themes, transforms and actually inverts them: it is humans who commit the violence, it is God who soothes and heals and who recommends patience to all those feeling downtrodden or being treated unjustly. Thus terrorist and apocalyptic solutions are a distortion of the biblical and monotheistic message.

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The fourth group-text, edited by R. Schwager "September 11, 2001 and a Theology of the Signs of the Time" (6)

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aspires to read the attacks of 9/11 as indicators for the particular historic situation the world is facing. They can be seen as a symptom of a fundamental difference between the way modern Western society and Islam see the relationship between religion and public order: the first wants them strictly separated, the latter sees them as integrally one. That way, what is tolerance for one, is intolerable for the other. Christianity finds itself in a strange position in between: it cannot accept the narrow restraining of religion to the private sphere, as secular modernism would have it, it has however learnt in a long, and oftentimes violent and painful, history that there is a legitimate distinction between a particular religion's convictions and public order in a pluralistic society. Thus Christian-Muslim dialog could be seen as a bridge between two cultures that - at least in certain shapes - seem to be divided by an unbridgeable chasm, however difficult it may be because of past violations and sins of the religions against one another. Such a dialog only has a chance of success, if it is conducted with candor and does not avoid painful or divisive issues.

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The fifth and final group text, edited by R. Schwager and J. Niewiadomski, tackles one of the most difficult political problems of our days, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and analyzes the ways religious ideas contribute to it and how religion could help finding a solution. It shows how each of the conflicting parties rightly claims to be a victim in that conflict, but how, in laying exclusive claim to the status of victim and in denying that status to the other party, each avoids part of reality, and that in turn constitutes a grave hindrance on the way to a solution. The conflicting parties have become rivals in their claim for victim status. Religion contributes to the conflict in several ways, among them the Jewish theology of the land and the Muslim theology of dar al islam, which holds that territory, once Muslim, may not be given up again. American support for Israel is also, to a certain degree, motivated by Christian apocalyptic groups that see the existence of Israel on its biblical lands as a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ. These groups can be counted among the religious right and may exert considerable influence on US policies in the region. Finally the most extreme political or terrorist groups on either side of the conflict support their extremism with religious arguments. Solutions can only appear, when this cycle is broken. One step towards that would be the quest to come to a common understanding of the common history of the conflict, where each party would acknowledge the other's having been victimized too, so that each side becomes "ready to sympathize with the anxieties and sufferings of the other side", the aim being reconciliation through forgiveness rather than through satisfaction. Finally the article argues that an honest and thorough search in each and any of the Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - will provide theological answers to the situation that could enable the conflicting parties to overcome the current stalemate in violence: "A faith such as this lives out of the perception of a God that turns to humans - directly in their experiences as victims - as comforting, strengthening, and nonviolent."

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This text is complemented by an introduction to the symbolic significance of the City of Jerusalem by A. Vonach.

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In chapter 6 the university course "communicative theology" offers its contribution to the central theme: M. Scharer sees communicative theology as a practical model of how a theologically inspired dealing with conflicts can work and lead to reconciliation . F. Weber sees the church's efforts to live its catholicity as a test case of a fruitful dealing with tension and conflict.

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The final chapter presents some reflections by individual members of the research project. W. Ernst considers the origin of violence in the Adamic myth from a psychoanalytical perspective. H. Büchele and E. Kitzmüller pose the question, whether the 21st century will be an American century, critically analyzing the policies of the current US-ad-minis-tra-tion. These are seen to be driven by a messianic self-view of the USA, intending a kind of benevolent hegemony, which is distinguished from dominance. However, even a benevolent hegemonic power needs a justifying ideology for keeping up its role and that ideology has to hide the negative consequences of its behavior and constitutes a lie to the power itself. This clouding of the view of the power leads to a hardening of its stance, a disruption of the checks and balances of power within and thus subverts the very order it aspires to guard. Moreover the attempt to protect freedom and participatory democracy by unilateral action, which denies others the freedom to voice their concerns and to participate in the process of decision-making, is a self-contradiction. Thus finally, the hegemonic concept for restoring and upholding law and order in the world is not satisfactory. As an alternative conception the authors develop the "vision of a world-republic of freely aligned states".

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 1. See: - for publications:

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2. - This English translation unfortunately is a little bumpy.

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3. "Sacrifizing" was corrected into "sacrificing" by me.

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4. For a summary see the Vatican homepage: mp;po_date=07.03.2000&lang=en

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5. German version available at:

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6. English version at:

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