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The Tangled Web of Religion, Violence and Evil

The debate about the nature of the relationship between religion, violence and evil has been rather lively in recent months and years.

Between the nauseating treatment of Muslim dissidents and non-Muslims in Syria and Iraq in the name of “Islam,” the continued bloody oppression of Palestinians justified through some divinely sanctioned “Jewish right” to land, and the repulsive incarceration of children on the pretext of some blind obedience to “Christian” and “biblically sanctioned” submission to government laws, our generation has plenty of reasons to say goodbye to religion and welcome to post-religious humanism.

Yet such a binary analysis may be overly hasty and simplistic.

From June 18-22, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute of Middle East Studies hosted its 15th Consultation on Middle Eastern and Islamic issues, with a focus this year on what the Bible and Jesus tell us about viewing and engaging with the “religious other.”

Ida Glaser from the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies in Oxford offered one particularly striking presentation.

An incisive interpreter of the biblical text, Glaser provided a biblical perspective on religions through a quick survey of Genesis 1-11.

Here’s the broad schema that remains with me from her survey (reference used with her permission):

God creates a beautiful world (Genesis 1-2). Humans fall into sin and away from God’s presence; God redeems them by covering their nakedness (Genesis 3). As they are cast away from God’s unobstructed presence, human beings turn to religion.

Cain and Abel each present a sacrifice; God accepts one of them and rejects the other. God knows the heart (Genesis 4).

A few chapters later, humans get into another dangerous religious venture; this time one of self-actualization, involving people, land and power, when they come together to build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

Sandwiched between our encounter of religious violence in Genesis 4 and of religious arrogance in Genesis 11 is the character of Noah, narrated over four chapters (6-9).

Noah models righteousness and is saved from divine judgment by entering the ark. God makes a new covenant with Noah.

Through a careful reading of these texts, Glaser arrives at a number of conclusions about the Bible’s view of religion, evil and humanity: Religions are “normal,” they are “mixed,” and they “can be dangerous,” including Christianity.

Religious people, too, are “normal,” they are not the “other,” they may be “seeking God,” and they are most certainly “loved by God.”

Genesis 1-11 seems to challenge the view that simply demonizes one religion at the expense of any other.

What emerges for me is rather a recognition that whereas humans are sinful, religions are more “neutral,” yet with serious capacity for evil.

The approach that vilifies one religion and magnifies another drags us into a cosmic conflict of power and peoples that will take generations to dismantle.

We should, instead, heed the warning and call to return to the fundamental message of the Bible.

Exploring the apostle Paul’s view of the “religious other,” Karen Shaw, another one of our speakers this year, put it this way, “There is no difference between me and the ‘religious other;’ we are all sinners and no one is good in God’s eyes!”

Yet God longs to show his mercy to all in Jesus Christ, without distinction (reference used with her permission).

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. Presentations from last year’s Consultation theme, “The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically Through Adversity,” have been published in a book, which is now available for purchase, either as a paperback or e-book.

Martin Accad

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.