What makes religion turn violent?
That’s the question Charles Kimball is trying to answer.
An ordained Baptist minister with a Th.D. in comparative religion from Harvard, Kimball has studied the intersection of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for four decades. He’s made more than three dozen trips to the Middle East, worked closely with Congress, the White House, and the U.S. State Department as an analyst of Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and of the intersection of religion and politics in the United States.
The first step toward understanding how religion goes awry, Kimball says, is to look to history.
“When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is not defined as one step forward. So take a step back and say we're at a point in time when we can look across the centuries and across the religious traditions,” Kimball says. “People who are deeply sincere and believe that they are living out what God wants them to do end up doing things that seem to be diametrically opposed to what they advocate. Ask most Christians, and they will readily tell you that Jesus taught a Gospel of love. Ask many Jews about the history of Jewish/Christian relations, and they will tell you 2,000 years of Christian love is almost more than we Jews can bear.”
Even though the main message of Islam, like that of Christianity and Judaism, is peace, this message has been warped by extremists.
“Muslims readily say ‘Islam means peace.’ And it is. That's literally what the terms means,” Kimball says. “It means submission to God and peace. But to claim that, and then see this kind of extremist behavior, albeit on the fringes of Islam, but still. The numbers are significant, and the behavior is horrific.”
Through his analysis of historical and contemporary events, Kimball has identified several warning signs of extremism.
“It's the abuse of sacred texts. It's the danger of blind obedience to charismatic leaders, situations where we see in all traditions where somebody raises up, or they identify a particular end that becomes sacrosanct,” Kimball says. “And then anything is justified to reach that end.”
The notion of Holy War is particularly prominent in Christianity and Islam. Christians justified the Crusades holy wars. In Islam, jihad is understood in a variety of ways, but it’s primarily promoted as a holy war, Kimball says.
“Surely we've reached a point where we can see that everybody has always justified their wars by ‘God wants us to do this. We have to stop laying our wars at God's feet,” Kimball says. “If you can make the case for military action, make the case on its own merits. But don't say it's because God wants us to do it.”
Read An Excerpt From Charles Kimball's Book When Religion Becomes Evil
Religion and politics are fundamentally intertwined, Kimball says. However, there is no template in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam for how to ensure that politics remain fair and that religious freedom is upheld. Throughout history the connection between religion and politics has been influenced by contemporary circumstances.
Kimball says that could change using the United States as a model.
“The United States, for all of our foibles and flaws and missteps and bad decisions under both Democratic and Republican leadership over the years, we've actually been engaged in an experiment in religious pluralism and diversity where we have tried to, fairly judiciously, separate religion and politics and provide the opportunity for freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” Kimball says. “We have really found a formula that's unique in human history, but is desperately needed in the 21st century. So hopefully we can live out our own vision better and better, and demonstrate to the world that there are ways to live together, maintain your religious identity, your deep commitments, but be respectful of diversity and respectful of people who say no to religion.”
It’s essential that the United States maintains this vision of religious pluralism, Kimball says. In order for it to flourish, everyone must work to protect it.
“I'll speak as a member of the majority community, Christianity,” Kimball says. “That we be particularly vigilant at protecting the religious rights and freedoms of minority communities in our own country, so that we are not only living up to our own ideals, that we really are practicing freedom of religion, but we also model for the rest of the world that it is possible to do this.”
KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Charles Kimball, welcome to World Views.
CHARLES KIMBALL: Good to be here, thank you.
GRILLOT: Tell us how you were drawn, why you were drawn to this topic from the very beginning.
KIMBALL: Good question. There are actually a couple different things, but I'll zero in just on two that were very important. I grew up in a fairly typical post-World War II Baby Boom family. My parents were Presbyterian/Methodist, but my grandfather on my father's side was Jewish, and his wife, my grandmother, was Presbyterian. My father and his brothers all became Christians, but had a very large extended family, mostly in the Boston area, that was Jewish. And I grew up being taught, and experiencing, that we're Christians, but it's also good to be Jewish. And when I hit a certain point in early elementary school, when I began to realize that not everybody else had such a positive view of Judaism, that raised questions. My grandfather was the most wonderful person I knew, and there was a part of me that knew if I had been born in another part of my own family, I'd be Jewish. So how do you make sense of all that? Alongside that, like a lot of other people probably who are listening, I was very involved with Young Life in high school, and for two years dated seriously a Baptist minister's daughter. So that drew me much more deeply into the dominant Protestant tradition in Oklahoma, the Baptists. So I was very much pursuing that on my own at a personal level, my own religiosity. But I still had these questions about how religion works, and how do you make sense of religious diversity. Was I just lucky to be born into the right religion, or is there something else going on? Those factors ultimately converged in a way that - and I had some great mentors as well in college and beyond in seminary, and then my doctoral program at Harvard - to really help me learn how to think about and study the various religious traditions of the world, and see where I fit in the tradition, the largest religion. But how to negotiate that, and that's something I've been fascinated with my whole life, what we would call questions of particularity and pluralism. How you see yourself in the midst of such diversity. And each of the religions has to wrestle with this. Some do it very explicitly. Some a lot less so. But that was what drew me both academically, but also very much personally and experientially down this road.
GRILLOT: Well, it's interesting that where you ended up was spending a lot of time in the Middle East, and studying Islam, and of course we turn to you now as an expert on all religions, but certainly on Islam. So how did you move in that direction? What was it that prompted you to say it's time now to look at Islam as an important religion, as one of the three dominant religions around the world?
KIMBALL: I did a minor, effectively a double major. They didn't offer a minor as an undergraduate. So I had a lot of work in biblical studies and church history and so forth. Then I went to seminary for three years, and did a great deal more with Judaism and Christianity, and some with world religions. In the doctoral program at Harvard, in comparative religion, we had what was called a two-tradition approach. You study all the major religious traditions, and have to be become proficient, but then you specialize in two. It's expected you bring one of them with you, in my case, Christianity. And I zeroed in on another. I was really fascinated by that point, my early 20s, with this intersection between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are so organically linked together historically with sacred people, sacred places, sacred events that they share. I started my doctoral program in 1975. Well you can think back very quickly the '67 war, the '73 war, Lebanon was about to erupt in '76 with what turned out to be a multi-year civil war, a multi-sided civil war. You had the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then the Iranian revolution in '79. So all those things were really happening. In '77-78, my wife and I lived in Cairo as part of the doctoral program. That really drew me in even more to contemporary Islam, because I originally was studying more Koran and early Islamic history. But I got much more intrigued and drawn into the contemporary scene. I felt firmly, and I believe very strongly now, that at the heart of these three traditions, indeed all the major traditions that have stood the test of time, is a real strong push for peace and cooperation and justice and equity. People have not lived out those values terribly well in every instance, to be sure. As we see readily all around us today. But those are the principles. Those are the virtues. As someone who is not only interested intellectually, academically, but very much experientially - and you know there's a part of me that was torn between the ministerial track and the academic track. There's very much a part of me that wants to be, trying to be constructively involved not just solving intellectual problems, but really being engaged with people and hopefully making some positive contributions in the world where religion is often a source of conflict, not healing.
GRILLOT: Well, I think it's interesting that you make a distinction there about what people believe, and then how they behave. And I think one of the interesting things that has come out of your work, as I read it, is you make this distinction about religious belief and religious expression. And highlighting or making these distinctions between corrupt and authentic forms of religion. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and is that ultimately what we're trying to understand here? Not just what people believe, but how they use those beliefs to then engage with one another, and how religion influences our relationships and our behavior in a social context.
KIMBALL: Well, in the book When Religion Becomes Evil that's a primary focus, and the premise is really after 9/11 to take a step back, as I say in the book, when you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is not defined as one step forward. So take a step back and say we're at a point in time when we can look across the centuries and across the religious traditions, can we identify some of the warning signs of religion going awry? When people who are deeply sincere and believe that they are living out what God wants them to do, end up doing things that seem to be diametrically opposed to what they advocate. Ask most Christians, and they will readily tell you that Jesus taught a Gospel of love. Ask many Jews about the history of Jewish/Christian relations, and they will tell you 2,000 years of Christian love is almost more than we Jews can bear. When you look at the history of anti-Semitism, it's horrific. Muslims readily say "Islam means peace." And it does. That's literally what the terms means. It mean submission to God and peace. But to claim that, and then see the kind of extremist behavior, albeit it's on the fringes of Islam, but still the numbers are significant, and the behavior is horrific. When you fly an airplane into a building or behead somebody that that is peace at work. But somehow people rationalize/justify that and that what I really deal with in that book. What are the warning signs? It's the abuse of sacred texts. It's the danger of blind obedience to charismatic leaders, situations where we see in all traditions where somebody raises up a particular, or they identify a particular end that becomes sacrosanct. And then anything is justified to reach that end, and we're seeing the dynamics of that obviously today as well. I talk also about the whole notion of holy war, especially in Christianity and Islam. That is one of the traditions that runs through. In Christianity you have pacifism, just war, and holy war - the Crusades. Certainly in Islam, the whole term "holy war" and the notion of jihad is understood in various ways, but it's primarily promoted, certainly via the media, as a holy war, kill anybody who gets in your way. Many, many Muslims, a vast majority of Muslims, would take exception to that, of course. But that's what gets a lot of media attention, so I deal with that too. And part of what I plea for in that book, in that chapter, is that surely we've reached a point where we can see that everybody has always justified their wars by "God wants us to do this." We have to stop laying our wars at God's feet. If you can make the case for military action, make the case on its own merits. But don't say it's because God wants us to do it.
GRILLOT: Well this leads directly to your most recent book. You were referring to When Religion Becomes Evil, but your next book was When Religion Becomes Lethal. You're talking about war, and violence, and all of these uses and abuses, misuses of religion. But in this work you talk about the explosive mix of religion and politics. And when those two come together, that's when these things happen. That it's not necessarily, as we were talking about, how religious beliefs go awry, and cause a certain behavior, but that it's when it becomes conflated with, and connected to political processes, that this is likely to happen. So why is that? Can you help us make sense of that?
KIMBALL: Sure. And some of that is When Religion Becomes Evil as well, because it does get connected to political movements and visions and so forth. But in When Religion Becomes Lethal, as you're noting, it's a very explicit effort to look at the question of the intersection of religion and politics. Historically, with contemporary examples, and with where do we go from here? What can we do? At one level, I think we have to say that religion and politics are always going to be linked somehow. Partly because we're dealing with human beings who are, the vast majority of them, perceive themselves to be religious. That's part of the dynamic. But how that is structured, how that relates, I think one of the major discoveries in the book is that when you look at the history of these three traditions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - what we find is there is actually no template for how you do this. Even though you could turn on your TV, you'd hear plenty of people who know exactly what God wants for Christian America, or they know exactly what God wants for an Islamic State, they say. Well, that's one version. That's an interpretation. But there is no template in Islam. There is no template in Christianity. There are hints and clues, and what we find historically are all kinds of experiments. And that's really what I trace out. What are the biblical bases for claiming a Christian state? Or what do the Koran and Hadith teach us, and how do Muslims actually apply that historically? What we find is that they're all over the place in all these traditions. It's always a work in progress. It's always connected to contemporary circumstances. So part of what we're looking at today, and we're in the midst of a maelstrom, obviously, at the moment, with the horrific events and upheavals in various places in the Middle East. What we're looking at are changes that have political implications and efforts to structure, in a world of nation-states - which in and of itself is a fairly new dynamic in human history - how do we organize that? You have many competing visions. Some of which are violent and extreme. Of course those are the ones that tend to get the most attention. You're hearing about the conferences where people are reflecting on how we can democratically organize a parliament and have elections and do this and that in the same sort of way as you get when you have explosive dynamics and people putting things up on social media. So the question is how do we move forward in a way, and here I argue in the end of the book, obviously I'm cutting to the chase in a very quick way here, part of what I argue is that the United States, for all of our foibles and flaws and missteps and bad decisions under both Democratic and Republican leadership over the years, we've actually been engaged in an experiment in religious pluralism and diversity where we have tried to, fairly judiciously, separate religion and politics and provide the opportunity for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. For people that is the First Amendment. America's first freedom. We have really found a formula that's unique in human history, but is desperately needed in the 21st century. So hopefully we can live out our own vision better and better, and demonstrate to the world that there are ways to live together, maintain your religious identity, your deep commitments, but be respectful of diversity and respectful of people who say no to religion. People have the freedom to do that, and still have a voice in society. That, I think, is going to be, more than anything else, the challenge of the 21st century. And I would underscore this makes it all the more important for us in the United States. And particularly, I'll speak as a member of the majority community, Christianity, that we be particularly vigilant at protecting the religious rights and freedoms of minority communities in our own country, so that we are not only living up to our own ideals, that we really are practicing freedom of religion, but we also model for the rest of the world that it is possible to do this. And indeed this is vitally important in the 21st century. So that, to me, is a place where we can be actually very constructively involved in a middle- and long-term way to live out our own values, and be the light that the rest of the world desperately needs to see.
GRILLOT; Well Charles, thank you for being here today to enhance our understanding of this important role that religion plays in society. Thank you.
KIMBALL: My pleasure, good to be with you.
Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.
KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.