Speaking Violently: The Shifting Sands of Scripture by Karl Jechoutek

Speaking Violently: The Shifting Sands of Scripture by Karl Jechoutek


For a few weeks, Robert treated us to a stimulating series of sermons about the violence described in our scriptures. As usual, he challenged us to think laterally and to see beyond the mere text, interpreting the apparently gory scenes as transmitters of deeper meaning about life, death and faith. The bottom line, it turns out, is that words are not always what they seem to be on the surface, they contain hidden messages of symbolism and serve to emphasise points strongly.

One could be excused for thinking that Jacques Derrida, the late post-modern philosopher, and his fellow deconstructionists had a point when they claimed that all texts, be they religious or secular, are merely vehicles for a hidden agenda, not objective narratives. But this is the easy way out. If we continue along that line of thought, there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as historical fact, all is spin. If, on the other hand, we consider that there is a consistent underlying narrative that allows us to interpret it in various ways, we are suddenly able to see that different readers can view the same thing in different ways – a text that has a life of its own can be parsed, understood, twisted, misinterpreted, used and abused in the same manner in which the proverbial witnesses of an accident see it with different eyes.

This gets us into the realms of selective reading, but also into linguistics, philology and translation issues. Deliberately or inadvertently, words and narratives can be taken out of context, or endowed with meaning that was not intended by the original authors. The scriptures of the great world religions such as the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas are prime candidates for such treatment. Their very nature as ancient texts written in languages not readily recognisable today, enables readers to interpret modern versions without recourse to a deep immersion into the original languages such as old Hebrew, Aramaic, classical Arabic or Sanskrit, or into the meaning that specific words had in the historical environment of the authors. It is easy for modern literalists to hijack scriptural passages for purposes of grinding their own axe, or blackening a rival faith’s image.

This method serves those well who aspire to influence public opinion one way or another. One only needs to look at the descriptions that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists give of the other faith, using violent language in the competing scripture and its tradition of interpretation. Some Christian comment on the nature of Islam abounds in the quoting of seemingly violent Qur’anic texts and their historical use, noting the emphasis on ‘holy war’, the killing of infidels, and the description of the world outside Islam as the dar-ul-harb, the world of war. Conversely, some Muslim commentators focus on the bloody stories of invasion and sacrifice in the Christian canon, continued in the crusades. Both argue that the violent and aggressive nature of the other religion requires its suppression, a course of action justified by instructions for legitimate violence in each scripture.

A good example is the current facile bandying about of the term jihad, both by those who argue that it legitimates all violence in the name of Islam, and by those who point to it as proof that Islam is a violent creed. This double hijacking of the term by opposing sides has moved the concept far away from its original meaning, and from the interpretation it has received through centuries of Islamic scholarship. The original meaning is one of supreme personal effort to live a life pleasing to God – in fact the ‘greater jihad’ is the one conducted as internal clearing of the mind, by speech, and by righteous deed. The resort to the sword in defense of Islam is the ‘lesser jihad’, the less desirable course of action. Notwithstanding this long line of exegesis, self-appointed ‘jihadis’ with only rudimentary Islamic knowledge advocate terrorism, and impressionable Christians with even less knowledge take them at their word. As any self-respecting Islamic scholar will tell you, no true Muslim can be a terrorist, and no terrorist can be a Muslim, any more than the murderer of an abortion doctor can conceivably call himself a Christian. Islamic law states unequivocally that no individuals can wage war, that the killing of innocents is forbidden, and that reprisals in kind after suffering brutality are not allowed. This is not quite the mode of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies, but it comes close. In any case, offering the other cheek is not only meekness, but conveniently serves to humiliate your tormentor by making it impossible to hit you with the back of his hand and thus forces him to treat you as an equal.

Remarkably, the scholarly discourse over the centuries concerning the definition of ‘just war’ has been highly similar in Christianity and Islam. St Augustine’s early treatment was taken up by Islamic humanists, and in turn transferred to European scholars such as Thomas of Aquinas. In all these dispensations, the just war had to have a demonstrably legitimate cause, a rule-based conduct, a final goal to reinstate peace, and a ban on atrocities and vengeance. The very fact that this issue of the regulation of the use of violence has received such attention in both religions is evidence that it has been a deeply troubling concept for both Christians and Muslims. ‘To kill even one person is to kill all humankind’ says the Qur’an. The Abrahamic religions, considering themselves faiths of peace, should ponder this as they try to deal with misguided advocates of violence in their midst, claiming to act in their name.