Do war stories in sacred texts provide ammunition to dehumanize, demonize the Other?

So I am almost 3/4ths of the way through the Quran, and it has been an exciting journey! I just finished reading Surah 33, called The Confederates.  It tells the story of The Battle of the Trench in Medina in 627.  The Muslims dug a trench to defend Medina from the attack of the Confederates, who were made up of Jews and pagans from various tribes.  Ultimately, the Muslims held off the attacks and Islam rose to prominance in the land.  The Quran reads, “And those of the people of the Book (Jews) who aided them–Allah took them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts, (so that) some you slew, and some you made prisoners” (33:26).  

What strikes me about this story, while I’m sure very inspirational to Muslims, a story where Allah supports them and leads them to victory, is the fact that it may have the unintentional consequence of creating negative views towards those who are non-Muslim. 

Disclaimer: I’m not singling Islam out on this one.  For Jews (Israelites), Exodus tells a similar tale of victory over Egypt and of those in Canaan.  And in Christendom, when Constantine rose to power, Christians were forced to defend the Roman Empire by force against others.  

All three Abrahamic faiths have fought wars against the ancient ancestors of our global family. And these violent battles are part of our sacred texts, part of our traditions and rituals, and many of us incorporate them into our religious identity.  

How then do we avoid dehumanizing, demonizing the objects of these battles who share that background or belief system, who are now our neighbors, coworkers, and friends?

We have a responsibility to interpret these passages, in all three religions, in context.  We have a responsibility to hold in tension the many peaceful and non-violent parts of our religious traditions with these more violent parts.  And we have a responsibility to claim that love, peace, mercy, and non-violence trumps any other part of our scriptures.  We cannot claim these stories of violence in our sacred texts as motivation and justification to enact violence on other parties.  

Most Jews, interpret the exodus of Egypt and conquest into Canaan, through a mythical and symbolic lens of overcoming difficulty, having faith in God, and coming together as a people.  But there are still those in Israel and elsewhere who use these stories as ammunition to promote violence against Palestine, Egypt, and others.  And some Christians support this through their own perverted motivations of establishing the state of Israel to influence the return of Jesus.  

Voices like Gandhi, MLK, and Eboo Patel help us trump these violent stories with loving action. We must be able to separate, as religious followers, the artistic and poetic deep truths of these violent stories (like displaying faith in God in difficult times, overcoming hardship through community, etc), from the actual literal facts of the violence against a people that are different from us.  It is in these more ‘mythos’-driven readings that the real beauty and meaning of these stories impacts our lives. 


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