Friday, November 2, 2012

Your compass points where?

     I've just come from a very provocative lecture/discussion on Religion and Violence.  The main speaker, Prof. Hector Avalos of Iowa State University, argued that religion almost necessarily produces violence.*  He believes that religion creates one of several "scarce resources" (e.g., access to sacred space or salvation), and that, then, believers control access to those resources. This controlled access to a desirable resource results in conflict and, ultimately, in violence.  He had numerous examples from texts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as contemporary issues, that he felt supported his claims.  It was a compelling argument, although the two respondents (one from Iliff School of Theology and the other from Denver Seminary) took issue with several of his claims.  I, too, found much with which to agree, as well as much with which to argue.
     What he had to say, however, shed a bit of light on some things that I've been mulling this week.  Many of us have Facebook "friends" who post things to their page that (possibly) give intriguing insights into their personality/beliefs.  And, so I've been struck, as this election cycle reaches it zenith (or nadir) by the kinds of political stuff that is passed on via the "Share" button.  Two of my "friends" have shared posts originally appearing on the Facebook pages "Christians Against Barack Obama" and "Americans Against the Tea Party" (my friends do not compose a monolithic bloc!).
      All I want to infer about my friends is that they found something in the original posts that resonated.  On the other hand, what struck me were the respective names of the Facebook pages they shared:  "So-and-so AGAINST such-and-such."  The page-names set up opposition; they set up conflict.  Ultimately, I suppose, they could set up violence.  The first case ("Christians against . . .), suggests at least a couple of scarce resources:  (1) who/what is a "Christian"; and (2) that there is an assumed "real" Christian candidate (which, of course, does not include the current incumbent).  In the second case, a similar assumption is made over the ownership of the title "American" and its agenda.  In both cases, you're either in or out, and "spoilin' for a brawl".
     But what also bothers me is that both of these groups argue about what they are "against". And lots of Facebook posts do so as well, without the reference to such antagonist Facebook pages.  And the same is true in most of our political ads this cycle; the last statistic I heard was that over 70% of political advertisements were negative.  "Don't vote for THAT Bozo!  We'll go to hell in a hand-basket if you do!"  How rare it is to see/hear an ad that says "Vote for this candidate, because she will do . . ."
     Also, this week, I was listening to a couple of conversations hosted by Krista Tippet of the radio program "OnBeing."  These were part of a series called "The Civil Conversations Project".  One of the conversations was on the institution of marriage, the other on political bridge-builders.  In both cases the conversation partners were those who "sat across the aisle" from the other on the issue at hand.  Yet, in both, they were able to identify core issues over which they agreed.  It was the centrality of the issue that united them in solving the problem, NOT the centrality of their position on the issue, nor their certainty that they were right and the other wrong.
      In one of the discussions, one of the folks spoke about the need for following a moral compass.  And I began to relate that back to the Facebook issue.  The pages to which I refer are NOT talking about following a compass toward a destination, but rather about turning away from a different direction.  Turning away from "west" does NOT mean one will turn "east"; heading "south" or "north" may not solve the problem.  My assumption (naive it may be) is that these Facebook folks ultimately want much of the same thing (less debt, adequate security, etc).  But the rhetoric they employ sets up "scarce resources" leading ton conflict and violence.
      So I have to wonder about which direction our compasses are pointing?  Are they simply pointing away from a problem, or toward a solution?  Prof. Avalos ended his talk this afternoon with some of the things that might resolve the "religion creates scarce resources creates violence"trajectory.  One of those was to expand the resource base; end the scarcity. The language we use is one way of doing that.  Checking to see if our compass works is another.


Chaplain Gary

*  To be fair, Avalos doesn't say that only religion produces violence, or that all religions always produce violence.

PS:  Vote this coming Tuesday (if you haven't already).  But vote for something/someone, not against the alternative!


  1. Sorry I couldn't attend. I had a conflicting job talk by a faculty candidate.
    I am familiar with Avalos but have not read his work. Did he just focus on the Abrahmic traditions or did he venture out to the Dharmic traditions? The Dharmic traditions have their own history of violence, but not predicated on "scarce resources."

  2. Claude, I saw you shake your head at Avalos' definition of "religion". He didn't AT ALL reference anything but Abrahamic traditions. And, of course, Buddhists would bristle at the definition he chose. I was, overall, less than taken with his analysis.