Human violence takes many forms

We always have to condemn atrocities, but should make the right generalizations


Any and every religion can be and has been used to destroy or to build up. The determining factors are the people using them and the context.

I can’t say this as a completely neutral observer; I say it as an Anabaptist Christian. I certainly don’t believe that all religions describe the world equally truthfully. But I do believe that they all provide bases for good or evil action. Putting aside the good for a minute, many of the most awful evils in history have been carried out by people using the name of Jesus (albeit in clear defiance of his actual words). If I were to do as some commentators have done and cite the recent attacks in Peshawar, Nigeria, and especially Paris as proof that one name incites hatred, I’d be opening the door for the same strong but misguided criticisms against followers of my religion. And the opinions among believers in the religions often accused of promoting violence is so divided that we can rarely even reliably generalize about our counterparts. Sometimes all we can say is: My community and I read the words of this or that teacher and have made a decision about what to believe.

Part of why I bring this up to open this editorial is having watched the Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher et al debate, a sharply divisive video (judging by the saddening comments!) that many of us will find relevant for a long time. The basic paradox is: We must tolerate everyone, but what about those we deem intolerant…?

My answer to this question falls, if not quite in line with Affleck’s poorly argued points, more on his side than on the other. The whole of humanity is riddled with intolerance. Any ideology can be set up as an excuse to perpetrate violence. Yesterday the worst killers in our society used one hyperbolized adage to justify their actions, and today they use another. And we never grow up. Consider an article in The Star during the Toronto mayoral elections about the disturbing number of sexist and racist comments made on Olivia Chow’s Facebook page. These are Torontonians—us and our not-too-distant family friends. We don’t need any particular faith to create hatred. We will always invent it again. So rather than say, “This is what comes of Islam” or “This is what comes of Christianity” or “This is what comes of Hinduism”—all of which, when uprooted from a particular place, leave a void that is filled in an instant—we should say, “Here are people doing loving things, and here are ones doing hateful things; let’s encourage the former and discourage the latter on a policy level, imitate the one and avoid the other in our personal lives.”

So much for the violent tendencies of religion. But there is also the opposite, the side that incites good. On the one hand the same argument applies: that many people are naturally willing to do good and religion just provides a pretext, and hence is not an important factor in their decision. But there’s also the consideration that many people are compelled by religious convictions the same way they’re compelled by law, that is, feeling a duty to do good. We sometimes look to a religious text to reinforce a bad inclination or prejudice we already have; but we are often surprised, on reading it, to discover that it encourages a good inclination we had put out of mind but are reminded to follow. The evil done in the name of religion originates with the person more often than does the good.

This brings me to an admission I must reluctantly make as a journalist here at The Medium, who is strongly in favour of free speech: je ne suis pas vraiment Charlie. They ought to be able to print what they do without being shut down, and above all without being brutally slaughtered in a horrifying flash of extremism. But I don’t agree with their message. If Charlie Hebdo was to have been argued against (not that I would have bothered), it should have been with gentle, reasoned, carefully considered words, not guns. But recognizing the horror of the crime and sympathizing with the victim doesn’t mean we should endorse the victim’s ideas, which in this case include the crass vilification of many legitimate ways of life.

A CBC spokesperson said something just after the attacks, and for my part—despite the tone this editorial might have overall—I’m a little torn about it. They said they would not reprint Charlie Hebdo comics, as many other media outlets had done, since said comics are offensive to the beliefs of a large swathe of Canadians. This is a fairly liberal news outlet, and it’s interesting to note how differently they acted than Bill Maher, who in the infamous video I brought up earlier was starting to say that liberals ought to oppose Islam (and other religions).

Yes, CBC could be accused of people-pleasing and not sticking to their guns. But the other side will say they were respectful. For my part, I’m not in agreement with much of the religion. But my natural tendency is to avoid causing offence if it doesn’t serve a constructive end. Conversations should be had; criticisms can be made; murderous extremism should be thrown down; but mockery advances no cause. Most of the time it seems very clear to me that the person gibing doesn’t realize the sincerity and, on the whole, peaceability with which the average person of faith believes what they do, or understand how they come to believe it. And ignorance of that sort helps very little.