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Religion and the War Against Evil | The Nation

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Religion and the War Against Evil

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Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war, stir up the mighty men, Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up.
         Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, "I am a warrior."
         Joel 3:9-10

About the Author

Harvey Cox
Harvey Cox, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of many books...

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In attacking “the structural causes of inequality,” he is reviving that great movement’s “preferential option for the poor.”

No, this is not an ironic misquotation of the well-known words from the prophet Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares, which are inscribed on the wall of the UN. This one comes from a later biblical prophet. I have never seen it inscribed on any church or synagogue wall. Little wonder. It is a call to arms, something of an embarrassment to those who would like to claim that although someone else's religion might inspire them to violence, ours certainly does not. And it is not an isolated text. Both the Old and New Testament are replete with similar, if even less widely quoted, ones. According to the Gospel of Matthew, even the Prince of Peace tells his disciples, "I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

In the aftermath of September 11, we all learned a lot about religion and the American psyche. Droves of people crowded into prayer and memorial services, lit candles, sang hymns many of them scarcely knew and listened, sometimes in near desperation, to readings from ancient scriptures. Of course, they were looking for sympathy and consolation. But they were also looking for something more, perhaps some intangible frame of reference that might bring a bit of meaning to their rage, fear and bewilderment. It is notable that in a society that is so famously dependent on therapies of all kinds, the therapists were not much in evidence. When the cataclysm came, what the historian Sidney Mead once called "the nation with the soul of a church" groped for something deeper but more elusive. The sheer enormity of the horror visited upon us in Manhattan suddenly made our various feel-good remedies look a bit thin. Neither New Age nostrums nor channeling can help when it comes to such an eruption of primal malice.

In his 1995 book The Death of Satan, subtitled How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco posed what has suddenly become an achingly pertinent question. Now that the classical symbols of radical evil--Satan, apocalypse, etc.--seem to have evaporated, how, he asked, would Americans respond if we ever again experienced radical evil? "I believe our culture is now in crisis," he wrote, "because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it." Some years earlier Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, asked how we could possibly regain our moral bearings "when we have a sense of evil; but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil." These are stubborn questions, and I am not sure the classical religious traditions, already so compromised by their quest for a share of the booming spirituality market, will provide the needed help. But I can understand why so many people are foraging around in them. Did Job or Augustine or Dante know something we don't know? I am quite sure, however, that President Bush's response to this symbolic vacuum--namely, that we are now waging a war against evil, and that one day there will be a clear victory--will not satisfy many people for very long.

But Americans also quickly learned something else about religion. The same people who groped for some half-forgotten religious framing for September 11 also quickly discovered that religion can be at least as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. They learned to exercise what scholars call a "hermeneutic of suspicion." First, two celebrity TV evangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, assured them that because of what gays and abortion clinics and the ACLU are up to, God removed his shield and let this happen. The Rev. Franklin Graham made his own contribution to comparative religious studies by stating that the God of Islam is "a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Then we all read those verses from the Koran the hijackers were advised to meditate on in the minutes before they snuffed out the lives of thousands of people. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists continued to look around for the next mosque they could pulverize, Christian fans of the Left Behind series smugly assured us that the Last Days were upon us and Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza pointed again to verses from the book of Joshua that say "conquer" and "settle" is their divine mandate.

Nor should the radical secularists take much "we told you so" comfort from all this. Terrorism has a long and complex genealogy. When I watched the twin towers implode on TV, the scene that flashed into my memory was some footage I had once seen of the Bolsheviks dynamiting the main cathedral of Moscow, at that time the largest church in the Orthodox world. They went on to imprison, exile and murder millions of people in the name of one of the most powerful antireligious ideologies ever concocted. During the Spanish Civil War we saw how Catholics and atheists could massacre each other with equal relish. Religion, it seems, can indeed inspire terrorist horror. But so can nonreligious and antireligious zealotries. We have now reached a point at which mutual recriminations about who has piled up the most corpses begin to sound repetitious and indecent. We are going to have religion, for blessing or for bane, and antireligion, for better or for worse, with us for the foreseeable future. We are also going to have evil with us--for a very long time indeed--and we all know that no war is going to vanquish it. So it may be time to tone down the polemics and try to understand why--after all the faith we so touchingly placed in science or human rationality or God--we keep rehearsing the same old arguments.

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