No religion is immune from temptation to violence: Phannenhour

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I never suspected that I belonged to a violent religion until I attended a human rights conference in 1996. At that meeting, Lake Sagaris, a Canadian writer and scholar, shared the initial copies of her book on human rights in Chile called After the First Death, A Journey Through Chile, Time, Mind.

I read a chapter in which Sagaris recounted how the military junta, who took control of Chile after the 1973 coup, came to employ torture as a means of social control. Chile, at that time, had no reason to employ such a barbaric practice so no one knew much about torture methods, save for a small German Lutheran community who, to enforce discipline among its members, employed a sophisticated form of torture that left no physical scars as evidence of the suffering endured by their victims, but rather sought to sear their souls with deep and lasting emotional and psychological pain. The military turned to this community as a source of expertise in the techniques of torture. The military was able to exercise a reign of terror over Chilean society for more than 30 years thanks to the torture they had learned from the Lutherans.

Chilean torture techniques, though, are not the first instance of Lutheran complicity with extreme and calculated violence. While a significant minority of the Lutheran church provided occasionally effective resistance to the policies of Nazi Germany, the majority of Lutherans ably and unquestioningly served in that government’s apparatus of terror and murder directed against Jews and many other people. Martin Luther, the church’s founder, is on record as promoting hatred against Jews and warfare against Muslims.

For a church that claims to have mercy and grace as its core principles, Lutherans have a habit of contradicting these principles on a consistent basis in public life. Lutheran doctrine does not promote violence, although violence is permitted under certain circumstances and within strict limitations. And yet, from medieval persecutions of Anabaptists, to the Holocaust, to Chilean torture chambers, Lutherans appear to have a fatal flaw that makes them unable to resist extreme and persistent forms of violence. The Lutheran ethical framework appears to be so weak that its members are either unwilling or unable to withstand social pressure in order to defend what they say they believe.

The weakness may lie in Lutherans’ tendency, like many other people of faith, to engage in a garrison mentality. They see themselves as an extended family, standing firm against the threats to their spiritual and physical well-being posed by the outside world. A loving family offers comfort and security to those who must live in a harsh and often uncaring world. Family cares when no one else does, but family has its limitations.

Family can be used to close out the rest of the world with an attitude of suspicion. People who are outside of the family count for less as people because they are, by definition, foreign and hostile. Violence can be visited upon them with impunity of conscience because they do not share in the family experience or values. They barely share in humanity. Violence, then, is excused or even justified as necessary when the family is under threat. Lutherans, like any other faith community, do not seek violence, but they can be tempted to violence by refusing to care for those outside of the family.

A faith community, though, is more than a family. It is a public community with a public role in offering care and concern for all members of the society in which it takes its shape. Too often, faith communities are undermined in their public role by a suspicious civil society that wishes to restrict religion to the private realm of home and place of worship. Such oppression only feeds into the garrison mentality, robbing faith of its public awareness and responsibility.

Civil society can choose, instead, to encourage all faith communities to pursue healthy and fruitful public engagement. All faiths have a role to play in contributing to the shape of public life. They provide the collective and historic wisdom of tradition that enriches our cultural commonwealth.

Religiously motivated violence, as well as violence perpetrated by members of a religion in contradiction of that religion’s principles, is not overcome by the suppression of religion. A healthy public theology, in which every faith is affirmed in its contribution to the public good, encourages faith communities not only to be honest and vulnerable about their past histories of violence, but to be reflective about the continuing temptations to fall into such complicity.

No religion is purposely violent, but no religion is immune from the temptation to violence either. Honesty about each of our tendencies and temptations is the best hope for healing the scars of violence, and for finding our way from suspicion and guilt to peace.

Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.

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