Peace Islands Institute

Jan 21st
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Abraham's Table at Calvary Episcopal Church

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Calvary Episcopal Church, Summit, hosted the Peace Islands Institute (PII) in an Abraham's Table event on Wednesday February 29, 2012,. The theme was “Violence and Religion” from Christian, Jewish and Muslim Perspectives.


Rev. Charles Rush

Rabbi Avi Friedman

Dr. Mesut Sahin

Rabbi Avi Friedman:

I think that we need to be mindful as we discuss this issue. We were challenged or we were asked to discuss this issue from a sort of national perspective: violence, war, and peace.

But really this is not just a national issue, it’s an interpersonal issue. I was certainly reminded of that, and I think we were all reminded of that as we heard the news out of Ohio this week, when another disaffected young man walked into a high school and started shooting other high school students. So, this is not just about the way nations interact with one another, it’s the way we as individual human beings interact with one another.

And quite frankly it’s a complicated issue, and I wish that was easy. I wish that I could just quote a few texts and convince everybody the path which to go, but we know that essentially forever, our textual tradition has had a complicated relationship.

I want to reference from the book of Isaiah, Chapter 45. God essentially introduces the divine nature to humanity by saying, “I am the creator of light and darkness, the maker of goodness and evil.” And so, from a very early time, we recognize that there’s the potential for both of these forces in this world that God has created. And one of the ways in which that evil manifests itself is certainly the violence among human beings.

I want to talk a little bit about war and peace. From a linguistic standpoint in Hebrew, in Biblical Hebrew, the word for war is “Milkhamah” (מלחמה) which comes from the same root as the word “Lechem”, which means bread. It’s a very interesting linguistic connection. In numbers 14:9, Moses describes the tribes who lived in the land of Canaan, before the conquest. And he tried to comfort the Israelites, saying that everything was going to go okay, and he says which literally means, “They are our bread.” But it’s usually translated as, “They are our prayer.”

In other words, Milkhamah, or war, could be interpreted as the act of one side devouring the other. A lochem, a warrior, is one who eats, or devours. But perhaps another way of looking at this linguistic connection is at its most basic level, war is a battle to see who will eat. One side is attacking, in search of resources that it might need in order to survive, and the other side is protecting itself against such an attack, in order to ensure its survival. And only one side will ultimately eat its bread in victory.

On the flip side, the word for peace, Shalom, which gives the Peace Islands Institute its name, come from the same Hebrew word as “Shamlen”, which means whole, or complete. It implies wellness, or the way things ought to be. In Leviticus 26:6 God tells us exactly what is meant by Shalom. “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, untroubled by anyone, I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.” So on the one hand we have this pursuit for resources, this desire to eat or devour, but on the other hand we have this desire for everything to be calm, whole, complete, tranquil and peaceful.

So, now let’s go into some of the biblical texts, because, you would think it’s easy, that the Bible would always be in favor of peace. Yet we know the Bible records quite a few wars. So, the first war recorded in the Bible is in Genesis 14: The four kings against the five. And, not surprisingly, the early Rabbis, have a comment on this. Now the Rabbis comment or this body of literature in which the Rabbis add to, or extrapolate on the text of the Torah is called Midrash. It’s a form of exegesis on the Bible, where the Rabbis fill in missing details.

And so the Rabbis say, “Before this war, the four kings against the five, there had been no war in the world.” And God said, “You wicked ones, you have introduced the sword, let the sword enter your own heart.” And so we have this beautiful Midrash, in which God was sad that the creatures of the earth couldn’t figure out how to let one and other eat, without this strife, without this conflict. The ideal was, of course we would share the resources of the world. And of course, there are enough resources and everybody would be able to eat. But we know in reality, that’s not what happened.

We read in Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, after the destruction or the defeat of the Egyptians we have that word again, milkhamah. The Rabbis take this notion, and determine that there are two kinds of wars. There is what’s called an obligatory war, and what is called a voluntary war.

Now, an obligatory war is one in which you have been attacked, you have no choice but to respond. It is a defensive war, what we would probably call it in modern terms. And in later Rabbinic texts, Maimonides, the great medieval sage, wrote that a king may go to war, in a defensive, or obligatory war. It is a war in which the king seeks to assist Jews from a danger that threatens them. And the king does not need to obtain permission from a religious court, but goes out to war and compels the nation to go with him. Now, keep in mind, Maimonides lived in an age when there were no Jewish armies, there was no Jewish state, there was no possibility that there was a Jewish king who might lead an army off in to war. This was a purely hypothetical discussion on its part, considering ancient sources. But even at that time, we have this idea.

Now what interesting is, the second concept of war, the voluntary war, is fought against other nations, in order to expand the borders of Israel and to increase the king’s greatness and reputation; an offensive war. However, in such a war, the king does not take the nation to war without the approval of a religious court. Sort of like a War Powers Act. That king would go to a Rabbi, or a court of Rabbis, and ask for a legal interpretation as to whether a particular war was permitted. Now again, I emphasize, Maimonides did not live in an age when there was a King of Israel, a state of Israel, an Israeli army. He probably could not have even imagined the existence of such an army, in his day. But this idea that, a king did not have free reign to simply go and make war, but needed to consult with Rabbis and Rabbinic texts, and think through the consequences of such a war, is really an incredible concept.

I want to close with just one other important teaching from our tradition; it has to do with the building of the temple. We know from our biblical tradition that King David wanted to build a temple for God. And God had in fact said that David could build such a temple. But then, when actually push came to shove, God said, “No David, you yourself cannot build the temple, because you have blood on your hands. You are a man of war, but you will have a son, and that son will be a man of peace. And that son will build my house.” And of course that son’s name was Shlomo, in Hebrew, Solomon in English, which comes from the word Shalom, peace. And in fact, Solomon was that man of peace, who was given permission to build the temple.

If I had to summarize, the Jewish perspective on war, it would be that, unfortunately we human beings have not figured out a way to coexist in this world without war. Ideally we would, but we know that there are instigators of war and good people sometimes have to respond to that instigation. And it’s how we conduct ourselves in that response that determines our morality. And so Judaism does not necessarily advocate for a turning of a cheek when provoked, but rather responding in a moral fashion to preserve one’s life. There’s an ideal, but then there’s also an acceptance of reality.

Rev. Charles Rush:

I’m probably the only person on the panel that’s actually written an article on why we should use force, and actually my dissertation in many ways was on the use of force I wrote on, a deeper World War II. I can come back to that, but actually when I look at the tradition I have to argue against myself today.

We are in the part of the Christian calendar now, we just began Lent. So we look forward for the next 40 days until we walk through the last bit of Jesus’ life.

When you look at the epic mirror that makes up Christianity, it is close to being pacifist. It doesn’t really have many traditions for, spiritual traditions at least, for fighting back if you look at the life of Jesus himself. I just wanted to rehearse a couple of those in the broadest picture. Really, it’s kind of a story of a prophet who comes, bringing powerless love, confronting loveless power, in a form of the Roman Empire, and that was really why he was ultimately crucified. He is a prophet who was rejected in his own time. Did you know Christians believe he is the Messiah, but I think we can all agree that he came as a prophetic person.

And his protest was largely social, was also spiritual at the same time. Surely when he goes to Jerusalem he knew he was likely to provoke a kind of contest that would likely lead to his own death. And it’s a death that he doesn’t really try to get away from, but embraces in the end and that is really the hardest part, I think, of what Christians teach. And as you go through that week, you just have this serious assay that the surf will just keep getting narrower and narrower because people keep falling away.

The 2nd part comes from St. Paul. We don’t have a Talmud, but St. Paul in some ways, sort of translates what's the life and story of Jesus mean for the church. And he has 2 passages, in Romans 12 and 13.

And in Romans 12, you know Paul has this piece towards the end where he’s trying to summarize what does the life of Jesus mean for the way that we should live in the church today. He says in there, don’t overcome evil with evil. Don’t respond to evil with evil, but let evil be overcome with good towards other people. And wherever it is possible, live peaceably with those who are around you.

In Romans 13, kind of making the same point again, he says, “So you should submit to the earthly authorities.” Well today it’s a modern era; we think people are elected. They are certainly not necessarily appointed by God the same way that St. Paul would have seen them in. We take much more responsibility for who we have in leadership today and therefore we feel a moral obligation to do something about the contours of that leadership.

I'm going to end on a hopeful note, looking forward to resources. Because I think that we are living through an interesting time right now, and I'm relatively optimistic. Our religion, as all of us, is going to be judged in the next 30, 40 years strongly on our ability to bring about reconciliation.  Unfortunately, we have strong motives in each of our faith traditions to move in the direction of reconciliation and to lift up the texts that make for reconciliation. St. Paul in Colossians 3 tries to summarize what he thinks the Christian life is really all about, what's the spiritual life really look like.  He gives it in terms of a bunch of values and these are the values that he lists: Compassion, he says put these on, Kindness, Humility, Honesty, Patience, Forgiveness, Love, and Peace, which binds all things into a perfect harmony, and peace, which settles upon your heart shortly thereafter. And then he has this wonderful line, and cultivate a life of gratitude, which I can't think of a better way to live.

Dr. Mesut Sahin:

I guess the reason why we are here today for the most part is that there is violence in the world and it happens to be in the Muslim lands for the most part, at least for the past few decades or so. However, I think many of you, most of you, all of you, can appreciate the fact that the violence wasn’t always in the Muslim lands in the history of mankind.

We recall the two world wars, which end up killing 70 million people, and so we recall the Bolshevik Movement in Russia also a few million there, in many stages of history, Islam wasn’t the cause or the dark perpetrator of the war among people. It’s been only few, in the last few decades that we are confronting with this issue.  And hopefully, I'm not in a position of course, to make excuses here but I would just present the facts, and let you folks decide for yourself.

Does Islam promote violence? This is the question that we see in media very often. Let’s remember also the Muslim’s pain by the way. In the middle of Europe, there was this Muslim state that provided a peaceful environment for the Muslims as well as Christians and Jews for several centuries, where they lived happily after. So considering all these travesties going on in the human history, we remember the first years of Islam as being some war being fought.  And if you look at the statistics really, only 700 people were killed in those battles in all those 23 years.  Whereas, at the time of his passing, the Prophet had about a hundred thousand people, believers, around him, so he looked a whole state, a whole new nation of believers.

Let me make this point as well. When we speak about Qur’an and the Acts of Prophet, we're speaking of the 7th century. All the prophets of God, as we read the Old Testament, we see that they had to fight, as Rabbi Avi presented, for their faith.  At these ancient times, the humanity hasn’t reached to the level of the civilization that we experience today. So we need to take it from that perspective, just like Moses that had to lead his people into a war.

When Islam came with a new message into the Arabic Peninsula, it found a community that was very strong in their belief system. It was multi-idolist community that they were very strong in their faith system, and they we're not willing to give up the order.  There was almost like a caste system, there was slavery being practiced, so tribalism. The faith was almost none.  If you belong to a certain tribe, your religion was its idol, that you worship that idol, you live and die for your tribe. Changing all that system with Islam’s new message was really hard and challenging. All of a sudden the society began realizing this message was to turn this whole order of these rich people’s upside down. As to slavery was to be abolished, women’s position were elevated to a much higher or equal to men, which wasn’t at the time was acceptable to the society.

We keep hearing in the media some 20 verses like “Slaying unbelievers wherever you find them.” You can find a few verses, not many, in the Qur’an like this, which out of context sounds very violent.  However, you need to understand these early Muslims were persecuted  for so many years and they were waiting for a verse like this in order to fight back, to be able to protect themselves.  So it is a permission, not a declaration or a command encouraging them to go and attack innocent people. And also, we should note that in other verse of the Qur’an that says there is no coercion in the religion.  You cannot force somebody to become a Muslim.  Therefore, Qur’anic verses should always be understood and interpreted in their context.

In fact, if you open up a book of Islamic law today, the sections talking about war, or how to conduct yourself at a time of war, the ones that I've seen didn’t have even a chapter or a page.  You might find a few discussions but most of the time the discussion of Islamic law is about the kinds of peace. How to conduct yourself in a time of peace, how to treat your children or your neighbors, or the guests, and so on. Just like we sometimes also forget the fact that Mohammad(PBUH) was not just a leader of the community, but he was a family man.  He married to several women, from different tribes.  He had children, so he showed us an example of model Muslim, how to live for 23 years. And through his wives, who after his passing were not allowed to marry anybody else, so they became like the Master’s and the teachers of the community around them. Through his wives and their knowledge, we learned so much about the family life, and what goes on between a husband and a wife as a family. And if you look at his life, if you study his life, we see such a compassionate person with full of love and mercy to his people and to his family, to the children, and so forth, which was very unusual, by the way at the time.

So, is there violence in Islam? One thing people or I should say those violent Muslims do not really understand that only a state can declare war.  If a person, or a group of people decides to declare war on somebody else, or some other people that is called terrorism. So if some corrupted-minded minority group in some country under extreme conditions decides to do something in the name of Islam and they decide to do it violently, that’s obviously terrorism.  There is no place or room for that kind of concept in Islam.

In fact, we all know from the media that well-known concept in Islam. That is if somebody kills a human being, it is as if killing the whole humanity. Because, if you have this ability to kill one person, you can kill as well the whole humanity. Abel and Cain was the first murder story in history, which is also mentioned in the Qur’an. And God teaches us to hate Cain for what he's done.

In Islam everything begins with “Bismillahirrahmanirrahim” which means “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most gracious.” We say that hundreds of times every day and we know that the prophet has been sent over the world as a Mercy.


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