Why do we hate each other?
How strangely ironic it is for violence to be sanctioned in the name of religion! Throughout history, religions more often have been a positive force in promoting human culture. Think of the great advances of ethical monotheism, of the Ten Commandments and Jewish ethics and law. Consider also the stunning intellectual achievements of 12th- and 13th-century Islamic philosophers, who singlehandedly preserved and transmitted the classics of Greek thought, systematized mathematics (al-gebra is an Arabic word), and took poetic analysis to new heights. Christian theology, both on its own and in response to these Muslim intellectual initiatives, produced the very staples of Western culture. Yet again, recall the uplifting and deeply spiritual literature of Hindu epics, Confucian philosophy, and the Hebrew Bible.
American culture has been much improved by its foundation in the Bible. On a social level, biblical tradition stands behind beliefs in blind justice ("You shall have but one law for rich and poor!"); in careful and truthful examination of witnesses in court ("Justice and only justice shall you pursue!"); of punishment that fits the crime ("If the criminal deserves punishment ... he shall receive it in proportion to his crime!"). On an interpersonal level, the Bible provides the bases of our ethics ("Do not place a stumbling block before the blind!" or anyone else for that matter); laws protecting life ("You shall not murder!"); family stability ("You shall not commit adultery!"); and religious tolerance ("The stranger among you shall be as the homeborn ... for you once were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God!"). On a personal level, biblical admonitions attempt to build character, true to people's selves, desiring nothing ("You shall not covet!"), and swearing only to the truth ("You shall not bear false witness!"). Indeed, the ethical legacy of the Bible - and of all religion - is uplifting, not full of hate.
Somehow, though, the world has turned against these uplifting religious messages. Prohibitions against worshipping other gods have led to intolerance, hatred, and even destruction of those who have other religious beliefs. Biblical war legends - in context clearly meant to "grandfather" the Land of Israel for the Jews - now are taken as justification for armed struggle. The Islamic jihad (holy war) is but one example. Messianic predictions from the Bible encouraged David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers to amass a frightening arsenal of weapons, arms they all too clearly were willing to use to defend themselves against outsiders.
What lies at the root of this misuse of religion? There is a straightforward correlation between exclusivity and intolerance. When religions hold to an absolute claim on the truth, they turn inward, marking outsiders as "The Other. "If I am really right and you disagree, then you must be wrong. Notice how this rhetoric places the issue in stark, black-and-white terms. The emphasis is not on "what you believe is wrong," which allows for interesting discussion, but on "You are wrong," which brands an individual and makes value judgments explicitly personal. By contrast, when religions take a more measured and pluralistic view, they tend to turn outward, welcoming the best of each culture and its special wisdom.
It is the recent worldwide trend toward fundamentalism and absolutism that has led religions to promote hatred, or at least to sanction it in the name of a higher authority. Nowhere is this better expressed than by Tom Lehrer, a professor turned satirical songwriter, in his tune "National Brotherhood Week": "Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,/and the Catholics hate the Protestants,/and the Hindus hate the Moslems,/but everybody hates the Jews. . . ."
The song is right. Among the many ethnic and racist hatreds, anti-Semitism once again runs rampant in the world to day. Listen to these charges leveled in recent years: Jewish doctors in Chicago inject black babies with the AIDS virus in order to do away with them; Jews want abortions kept legal because they control the medical profession and make their money by providing abortions; the Jews are plotting secretly to take over the entire world. All three of these - and worse, no doubt - have made the rounds, the first two in the tabloid press and the third in Japan, where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian fabrication from the late 1800s, has made the bestseller list during the last three years.
It is important to come right out and call this type of prejudice what it is: Jew-hatred. That name is as coarse and base as the idea is - like ethnic cleansing, "anti-Semitism" somehow is too polite and antiseptic. The world can categorize (and thus minimize) anti-Semitism, but the more direct and obviously prejudicial "Jew-hatred" may shock people into realization of what is really at stake.
Of course, Jews can be haters, too. For centuries, they have been victims of religious intolerance and thus hatred; no one should think that Jews are essentially exempt from these same tendencies. I teach a course on the Holocaust at Connecticut College. One of my students, as part of a class assignment, was supposed to interview a Holocaust survivor. The student had a difficult time contacting one, but finally a rabbi took her name and promised to have an acquaintance of his, a concentration camp survivor, call my pupil. When their phone conversation began, everything went well at first. The survivor asked my student why she wanted to conduct this interview ("It's a class assignment"), how she knew the rabbi ("He lives nearby"), and why she was interested in the Holocaust. My student answered, truthfully, that, as a Catholic, she decried the Church's inaction during the Nazi years. "You are a Catholic?," the survivor demanded, then launched into a tirade about how every Catholic and every Pole should be damned to hell, and hung up.
I tell this story not to invalidate the feelings of that woman who survived the death camps - I can not judge her experiences or feelings. I simply want to point out that, for whatever reason, it is not hard to find Jews who have become resentful, even hateful toward others. Religious intolerance and hatred is not a one-way street. That kind of traffic moves back and forth all too easily.
Yet, if the goal is to come to some understanding of religious prejudice and baseless hatred, people will do well to focus on Jew-hatred. Not only is it persistent and omnipresent, but also structurally broad and encompassing. Jew-hatred has three separate bases in the 20th century - religion, nationality, and race.
Religion. Christian Jew-hatred gripped the people of Europe and operated at a theoretical level, in the assertion that Jews had killed Jesus and should therefore be despised. At a more practical level, Christians hated Jews simply because they were different.
Nationality. The rise of nation-states across Europe placed the Jews in a precarious position. They were subject to ever-increasing pressure as a nation within the state or, more precisely, as a nation without a state.
Race. "Scientific" theories at the end of the 19th century created a racial hierarchy of humanity that placed Jews - together with all non-Europeans - at the bottom.
Because of this broad foundation, careful study of Jew-hatred leads to understanding of all types of prejudice, even those with narrower causes. Anti-Semitism can serve as an example that will allow people to comprehend an entire century of hatred, and perhaps help them move beyond this hatred as a new millennium approaches.
Colleges and universities often are thought of as populated by young, open minds, eager to learn about others, yearning to explore strange new worlds intellectually. To be sure, this intellectual liberalism works against certain kinds of prejudices and hatred.
However, campuses also are places where hateful speech and action abound. Quite often, these young, open minds make use of new-found intellectual space to try on the ignorant insensitivities they have encountered throughout their lives. All too often, they wear this ignorance as a badge of pride. Here are two examples of this almost boastful prejudice:
* When I taught Judaic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, I was assigned to teach a seminar for 15 first-year students. I explained in the first class meeting that the topic of our study would be classical Jewish religious literature. I received little response for about 10 minutes. Finally, one of the students raised his hand and politely asked, "Are you a Jew?" After I told him I was, his next question almost floored me: "Well, then, where are your horns and tail?" At first, I thought this was his idea of a bad joke; but let me assure you, I was the first Jew he had met, and at some level he was unprepared for my unadorned appearance.
* Two years later, I was teaching the same course. In a rapid overview of Jewish history, from the Bible to modern times, I spent 10 minutes on 20th-century anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, ending by remarking, "Thank God the Nazis did not succeed in destroying all of European Jewry." Then one young man chimed in, "At least if they had, we wouldn't have to take this stupid class!" The bravado with which that line was delivered new has left me.
What is the first thought I had after these incidents? I left class thinking I should call the dean, who could remove the students and work with them on their attitudes. However, kicking the students out would have been a mistake. That would have left them smug in their ignorance and would have fed them intolerance.
Such students need a course in Judaica. It was fairly simple to explain the biblical mistranslation behind my student's centuries-old fallacy: "Moses came down with rays of light shining from his face" long ago had been mistranslated as " . . . with horns rising from his face. " Yet, I did have to teach him that Jews have no horns, are not demonic, and are not in league with Satan. Although we usually think of such attitudes as no longer current, here they are before our eyes.
Small tokens of success in such endeavors can be found. One of those in that first seminar, on a student course evaluation, paid me what he thought was a huge compliment: "I came to Notre Dame, an all-Catholic school, and ended up learning from a Jew what true spirituality is! "His exposure to Judaic Studies in an academic setting may have inoculated him for life against the virus of Jew-hatred.
Understanding and tolerance
If it is true that unfamiliarity contributes to exclusivism and then to intolerance, it follows that one solution to religously sponsored hatred is understanding and knowledge. Colleges and universities are positioned perfectly to provide this knowledge and familiarity. Let me briefly describe two courses I teach at Connecticut College. Each has as one of its goals cross-cultural understanding and the building of intellectual bridges from one world to another.
The first is Religious Studies 101, The Study of Religion. This team-taught course takes up some of the most important ways of understanding religion - symbolic analysis, studies of ritual, sacred time, and sacred space. These categories of understanding are run through four case studies: Hinduism, Judaism, Pueblo religion, and Christianity.
Interestingly, students do not come away thinking that all of these religions are essentially the same. Instead, they learn how analyzing a familiar tradition (e.g., the Christian Eucharist or Jewish Passover) can help them comprehend unfamiliar aspects of a strange tradition. Students who succeed in this course sometimes go on to major in Religious Studies, but many of the most successful simply take with them valuable tools and techniques for understanding other traditions on their own terms, without overly simple value judgments such as "It's different, not worth taking seriously."
A second course is brand new. I and a group of colleagues co-teach The Sage in Society, a 12-week freshman seminar spread over two semesters and sponsored by the Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts. At the heart of the course is a simple notion: deep within religious and intellectual traditions around the world resides an emphasis on education and the responsibilities of learning. The first half explores the role of education in early rabbinic Judaism, medieval Christianity and Islam, Hinduism, Confucian traditions, and the Latin classics.
My experience with this project shows that students are relatively unaware of the richness of these traditions. Rabbinic legends about dream interpretation can yield entire typologies of knowledge; Confucian meditations on knowledge point out the ultimate structural unity of self, family, society, and state; Plato, Cicero, and other classical authors construct the very foundations of the liberal arts-namely, the value of citizenship and the duties that go along with it.
The second half of Sage in Society brings these traditions into contact - and conflict - with the modern world. The question throughout again is quite simple: How do varied religious and intellectual traditions confront the challenges of an increasingly global society, such as ethical and moral decay or industrialization and environmental degradation? Students learn that virtually all religious traditions have important messages to address to a largely non-religious population. Similarly, learning about religious traditions of a divinely created world at least gives some pause to those who deem the world ours to use as we might.
The point of the course as a whole, then, is to help students see the variety of answers - indeed the variety of questions - other religious and intellectual traditions can bring to bear on the modern world. With this appreciation in hand, the hope is that they will take pride in their acquaintance with other cultures since it really is more difficult to hate what you know well.
The correlation among ignorance, religious exclusivity, and intolerance can be combated from within the curriculum and without breaking the scholar's implicit promise not to be an advocate, but a conduit of information. Professors strive not to convert their students to their own belief systems, but to challenge them to take other beliefs seriously. In that challenge and encounter lies the first step in educating against baseless prejudice and hatred.
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|Title Annotation:||religious conflicts|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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