Violence, Compassion and World Religions: An interview with Karen Armstrong

In your writings on religion, you have given particular emphasis to questions of justice and peace. Do you believe these issues to be at the core of religious belief?

Justice is an aspect of compassion that is one of the subjects I write about in The Great Transformation. Justice, if you like, is the public face of compassion. You cannot have religion without justice. You can’t retreat into private meditation. You have to be concerned with society. In modern society this means what Chinese religion calls jian aiconcern for everybody. This is a global outreach to provide justice for everybody. It is a challenge to all believers because that outreach includes Palestinians, North Koreans, Iraqis and Iraniansnot just people in our own camp.


Is the commitment to justice common to all the faiths whose common origins you trace in The Great Transformation?

They all insist that religion cannot remain confined to the internal. The Buddha said you must come down from the mountaintop and return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living things. The prophets of Israel say you cannot make sacrifices to God in the temple unless you are also looking after the orphan and the widow. Beyond that we see that the bedrock message of the Koran is a message of justice, namely that it is wrong to build up a private fortune but good to share your wealth fairly. It doesn’t say equally. We are not talking about communism, but it must be fair. On the last day, the Koran says, that is what you will be questioned about.

How is it then that religions appear to lose sight of this core message?

They all differ. You see in the Bible great fluctuations between compassion and murderous hostility. Confucianism and the Chinese get that message of compassion from the start, but they come in later than others. And the Indians are way out ahead of everyone else, though all religions have blind spots. So the Indians have the caste system. While they are compassionate to everyone on the face of the earth and avoid even using violent speech against anyone else, they still are at the start of the Axial Age [800 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E.] beginning to develop the caste system, which puts some people above others. This comes out of Hinduism, not Buddhism; indeed, Buddhism right up to the present day has done a great job of going to the untouchables.

Do other faiths have similar blind spots?

Yes; usually they have to do with other people. So with the Jews it is the goyimthe Gentiles, the foreign nations. With Christianity it seems as if it is just about everyone elseeven hating other Christians, especially in the West. And Muslims, in the 20th century particularly, have started becoming anti-Semitic for the first time in their history.

Which is a break from their previous tradition of tolerance?

And appreciation. The Koran is a pluralistic document. It says that all religion comes from God. What happens is that when injustice and violence become systemic in a region, as they have in the Middle East today, then religion gets sucked into the mess. If you are growing up, for instance, as a young Muslim in the Gaza Strip, the inequity and the violence that is going on around you infect everythingyour relationships, your dreams and your religion.

How do we break such a cycle and restore the message of justice and compassion?

It has to start with the people near to you. It is sometimes much easier to feel nice about people who are far away, but showing justice and compassion to those near at hand is an essential part of the spiritual effort. People who get into the kingdom of heaven on the last day, according to the parable of the sheep and goats, are not the ones who have the right doctrine, who achieve the correct spiritual exercises or who adopt the correct sexual ethic, but those who take on board the words I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. That’s the criterioncompassion. It is a double process, because it is also the breaking down of the ego that makes you go beyond doing the things that you like or feel comfortable doing.

Many people today see religion not as a source of justice but as a cause of war.

If you look at history, you see that the experience today in Gaza and elsewhere is the latest example of something that has been going on for centuries. As I said earlier, when violence becomes endemic in a region, religion gets sucked in. You see it in the 11th century, for instance, in the Crusades. All the monotheistic religions have violent passages in their Scriptures. All need to look at these violent passages in the light of what has been happening in the world recently; but don’t just point a finger at others’ violent excesses. And for Christians that means looking, for instance, at the Book of Revelation, which is used by Christian fundamentalists to justify violence. We need to look at these texts in a critical, serious and intelligent way and see how they have been abused throughout history.

Luther wanted the Book of Revelation omitted from the New Testament. Do you agree with him?

Maybe it should be, but I feel that censorship is not a solution. It only promotes interest in what it seeks to suppress. It is serious study that we need. Why did these texts emerge when they did? What created them? What were they reflecting of the circumstances at the time? Religion is a vast amalgam of stuff. It’s just like sex. Just because sex is used in rape and pederasty, it doesn’t mean it is all bad.

Could religion play a greater role in promoting world peace than it does today?

The main task of all religions in the 21st century is not doctrinal. It is not a question of, can we bring our theology up to date to make it fit in with modern science or postmodern thought or any of that. The real question is, can we bring healing to the world? If the religions fail to use their own peaceable traditions of respect for others, respect for the stranger, if they cannot make that message a potent voice in the world, then they will have failed the test of the 21st century. And at the moment they are failing. They have been numbed and hijacked by the fact that religion has been implicated in some of the catastrophes of recent times. Christianity, for example, was implicated in the Holocaust, and we still haven’t done much work on that.

Germany recently opened its wartime archives to facilitate further study of the Holocaust. Would you like to see the Vatican follow suit with its secret archives?

You have to acknowledge and be open about past failings, otherwise you end up with institutionalized idolatry, where the institution becomes more important than justice. That has often been the besetting sin of the Catholic Church.

Isn’t what you are asking of people often counterintuitive? We are in many ways less willing than ever to show compassion to strangers.

But it has always been counterintuitive to put other people first. People instead want religion to give them a little uplift once a week so they can sing a few hymns and come back feeling good about themselves and continue with their own narrow life. We should be unable to sleep at night after we have been to church because of the injustices around us.

But we can’t all become insomniacs. How do we find a way of living with the challenge of belief?

We are inundated with dreadful images of suffering. It’s easy to think that in the face of such suffering the individual can do nothing. My feeling is that somehow you have to remain like the grain of sand in the oysterretain a source of residual unease. But you have to be realistic about what you can achieve. I remember years ago saying to one of my Palestinian friends that I would go and work in one of their refugee camps. He replied: If you want to help these people, don’t go. I would have been a complete liability. Religion engenders in us that sense of all or nothing. Too many of us think, Oh well, it will have to be nothing, because all is too much to ask.

But we must be wary. One of the most extraordinary developments in religious history must be the fact that the religion whose founder, Jesus, said, Give all you have to the poor; don’t build up treasure on earth has either given rise to or at least endorsed capitalism. It is an amazing thing. It shows how flexible the tradition is. I remember saying to members of Congress, If Christianity can do that, then for Islam to embrace democracy will be child’s play.

Karen Armstrong joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, in September 1962 in Birmingham, England. She left that community in January 1969 and later described her unhappy experience in detail in her autobiographical work Through the Narrow Gate (1983). After working as a teacher, she presented several programs on religion for British television, including a portrait of St. Paul. She now devotes herself to writing. A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; and she has followed it with a study of fundamentalism, The Battle for God, a short history of Islam, and a life of the Buddha. Her latest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, is published in the United States by Knopf. She lectures extensively - including sessions with U.S. senators and congressmen - and is currently sitting on a United Nations commission to promote religious understanding. She lives in Islington, north London, with her dog, Poppy.

For a long time, she has written of her own beliefs, I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet, in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to a the kind of transformation that, I now believe, was what I had been seeking all those years ago when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent and set off to find God.

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