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Religion As a Literal Battlefield

I am in the middle of grading student papers on our unit on Religious Oppression and Christian Hegemony. Below in the initial quotation is how one student began her essay with my response:

“I feel very fortunate to have not been raised as a member of any particular religion.”

What seems like a simple statement is so full of meaning and deep impact.

I was thinking as I read about the riots in Israel from Israeli evictions in East Jerusalem and the missiles Palestinians are dropping, and also with my understanding of all the complexity and history surrounding these events, I imagined: what if the Palestinians and Israeli Jews had been “very fortunate to have not been raised as a member of any particular religion.” Maybe instead of evictions, riots, and missiles, we might see only sunshine coming down from the sky.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

(John Lennon, “Imagine”)

On Religion and War

I gave a presentation on the topic of heterosexism and cissexism at Pace University in New York City several years ago. I talked about my own experiences as the target of harassment and abuse growing up gay and non-gender normative, and I addressed my book, Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price.

In the book I argue that everyone, regardless of their actual sexuality and gender identity and expression is hurt by heterosexism and cissexism and, therefore, it is in everyone’s self-interest to work to reduce and ultimately eliminate these very real and insidious forms of oppression.

Following my presentation, two students came up to me — one woman and one man — to continue the discussion. The young woman began by telling me:

“I’m really sad to hear about the abuse that you and others have received because you are gay or lesbian,” she began.” I am here to tell you that I have a way to prevent that from ever happening to you again. I believe that Jesus Christ can help you. If you ask Jesus and pray hard, Jesus will save you from your homosexual feelings and help you to achieve the life that is meant for you, in his service, as a happy and healthy heterosexual. This will save you from the abuse you have suffered.”

My response:

“So, let me see if I understand you,” I said. “If I accept Jesus in my life and ask him to help me become heterosexual, then I won’t suffer from homophobia any longer? So, to be supported in society, I must change who I am and conform to the dominant standards of society? So, for people like yourself to truly support me, I have to become like you? While I understand that you are offering me, in your mind, a gift, do you not see how this itself is a form of homophobia, a form of oppression? Do you not see how this perpetuates oppression?”

She responded with surprise and claimed that she knew the “truth,” and that if I accepted her truth, Jesus could grant me salvation and happiness. If I rejected this, though, I would remain in earthly and eventual eternal torment.

We continued our dialogue for more than one hour, and we ended cordially. All the while, the young man had been closely looking on and listening to the young woman and my discussion. Then the young man spoke to me. He asked:

“Professor Blumenfeld, you stated that you are a writer, that you had published a number of articles and books. Is this correct?”

“Yes,” I responded.

“Okay, then,” he continued. “You know that in the writing process, the first draft is never really complete or isn’t any good.”

“Yes, that’s often the case,” I agreed.

“Okay, then after you have had some time for reflection and you write your second draft, this is an improvement over the first draft, but still, it can be improved. So, after further reflection and writing, your third version is great. Now you can send it to your publisher.”

I said to him,

“Oh no, please don’t tell me that this is a metaphor for religious texts.”

“Yes, indeed,” he uttered. “The first draft is the Hebrew Bible — not so good. The second draft is the Christian scriptures — somewhat better, but not much. But the best version, the third, is the Quran. The real truth. The ultimate truth. The only truth.”

My response to this young man:

“As we speak, we are standing a few short blocks from the former World Trade Center towers. Utterances and understandings like yours and like the young woman I just spoke with, and by many people of any faith, that there is one and only one ultimate religious truth results in people taking it upon themselves, for example, to crash airplanes into buildings. Utterances like yours of many people of any faith give people justification to kill in the name of their interpretation of ‘God.’”

“Why,” I argued, “cannot the young woman I just spoke with realize that her understanding of God, while valid and reliable for her, may simply not be valid and reliable for me or for you, too?

“And why cannot you realize that your understanding may be great for you, but not necessarily for me and for the Christian woman? How many deaths must occur before we realize that there are many ways toward the truth, not one way for everyone when it comes to religion and spirituality?”

Recalling my conversations with these young students at Pace University, I wrote a short satirical editorial for a local newspaper in 2006 (Jewish year 5766) related to events occurring in Israel in what could be viewed as extraordinary.

There the leaders from three major monotheistic world religions that were often at odds with one another — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — joined in a united demonstration to protest and to prevent a 10-day international Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Pride festival planned for Jerusalem in August that summer.

While the Middle East has been a flash point of conflict and warfare for millennia, this coalition between orthodox religious leaders indicated that agreement, at least of sorts, was possible. In bringing these leaders together, I nominated the International LGBTQ Community for the 5766 / 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, an award well deserved for converting warring parties into allies and for reducing tensions that have traditionally separated them.

My point, though filled with irony, was simple: the prime stimulus keeping oppression toward LGBTQ people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society — on the personal/interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels — are the destructive doctrines and judgments emanating from primarily orthodox and fundamentalist religious communities.

Monotheistic Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) view the Supreme Being as without origin, for this deity was never born and will never die. This Being, viewed as perfect, exists completely independent from human beings and transcends the natural world. In part, such a Being has no sexual desire, for sexual desire, as a kind of need, is incompatible with this concept of perfection.

This accounts for the strict separation between the Creator and the created. Just as the Creator is distinct from His creation, so too are divisions between the Earthly sexes in the form of strictly defined sexes, genders, and gender roles. This distinction provides adherents to monotheistic religions a clear sense of their designated socially constructed roles: the guidelines they need to follow in connection to their God and to other human beings.

The verb “to colonize” can be described as the process of appropriating a place or domain to establish political and economic control. Throughout history, nations have invaded not only their neighbors’ lands, but also territories clear across the globe for their own use.

During the practice, the dominant nation attempts to colonize not only indigenous peoples’ domains (territorial imperialism), but also their minds, their customs, their language, in fact, their very way of life. In countries with a historical legacy of colonization, and even in those without this history, members of dominant groups have accumulated unearned privileges not accorded to others.

Though the official terms “colonization,” “colonizer,” and “colonized” may have changed somewhat, nowhere in the world have we experienced a truly post-colonial society. Imperialism remains, though at times possibly in less visible forms.

Europeans, when they invaded the North and South American continents and Africa, were surprised and offended when they came into contact with indigenous populations who did not conform to rigidly enforced gender roles including styles of dress, and sexual and gender expression.

Missionaries attempted to impose primarily Christian, and in some places Islamic, orthodoxy. For example, they oppressed two-spirit people while killing many and forcing these individuals to go underground. Europeans nearly virtually exterminated two-spirit traditions from throughout North America.

Joel Spring, in his book Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States, discusses “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and Christian cultural and religious standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”

An example of “cultural genocide” and “deculturalization” can be seen in the case of Christian European American domination over Native American Indians, whom European Americans viewed as “uncivilized,” “godless heathens,” “barbarians,” and “devil worshipers.”

White Christian European Americans deculturalized indigenous peoples through many means: confiscation of land, forced relocation, undermining of their languages, cultures, and identities, forced conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of Christian day schools and off-reservation boarding schools far away from their people, which combined constitute “settler colonialism.”

“Civilizing” Indians became a euphemism for Christian conversion. Christian missionaries throughout the United States worked vigorously to convert Indians. A mid-19th century missionary wrote:

“As tribes and nationals the Indians must perish and live only as men, [and should] fall in with Christian civilization that is destined to cover the earth.”

More ultimate questions need to be raised as the world spins around, as individuals and nations since recorded history have attempted to explain the mysteries of life, as spiritual and religious consciousness first developed and carried down through the ages, as people have come to believe their way stood as the right way, the only way, with all others as simple pretenders, which could never achieve THE truth, the certainty, the correct and right connection with the deity or deities, and as individuals and entire nations raped, pillaged, enslaved, and exterminated any “others” believing differently.

In reality, all religious doctrine stems from uncertainty and conjecture, from multiple gods, hybrid gods and humans, from Mount Olympus and before, to Earthly deities and the heavens, to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the Burning Bush, to the Covenant and the parting of the Red Sea, to the Immaculate Conception and Resurrection, to Muhammad’s rising to Heaven from the Rock, to the Golden Tablets, all beginning with the human creation of god(s).

Anyone can believe anything they wish, whether others find those beliefs laudable or offensive. When, however, the expression of those beliefs denies other individuals or groups their full human and civil rights, a critical line has been crossed, for their actions have entered the realm of oppression.

How many wars are we going to justify in the name of “God,” our “God” versus their so-called “false gods”? Someone said to me once that throughout the ages more people have been killed in the name of religion than all the people who have ever died of all diseases combined. I don’t know whether this is actually the case, but I do think it highlights a vital point, that we continually kill others and are killed by others over concepts that can never be proven.

Throughout history, Jews and Muslims have killed each other, Christians and Muslims have killed each other, Christians and Jews have killed each other, Hindus and Muslims have killed each other, Catholics and Protestants have killed each other, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims have killed each other, many faith communities have killed Atheists and Agnostics, and on and on and on.

Individuals and entire nations continue to believe that their reality fits all, and that it is proper and right to force their beliefs onto others “with God on our side.”