Not In God's Name
mahatma gandhi dalai lama tolerance in scripture
Matters of Tolerance in Scripture
Love and Compassion

God is love. - Christianity, Bible, John 4.8

The great Compassionate heart is the essence of Buddhism. - Gandavyuha Sutra

The world stands on three things: upon the law, upon worship, and upon showing kindness.
- Judaism, Mishnah Avot 1.2

My mercy embraces all things. - Islam, Qur’an 7.56

What sort of religion can it be without compassion? You need to show compassion to all living beings. Compassion is the root of all faiths. - Hinduism, Basananna, Vacana 247

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. - Judaism and Christianity, Leviticus 19.18

Consider the family of humankind one. - Jainism Jinasena, Adipurana

I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me, none dearer. - Hinduism, Bhagavad-Gita Gita 9.29

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people. - Islam, Saadi

Have benevolence toward all living beings. - Jainism, Tattvarthasutra

Division and Conflict
If every major religion in the world claims to promote love and compassion, how is it that, far too often, these same faiths have promoted bigotry and violence, fostering judgment and hatred against others?

Violence perpetuated “in the name of God” spans nearly the entire recorded history of human civilization. This article, by focusing on scriptural complexities, will look at larger, over-arching truths and trends in the hope of putting this enormous and difficult subject into context. It may also offer some insight into the highly - charged subject of violence and religion.

In nearly all traditions, the devout believe that religions were established by Divine beings that communicated sacred principles, directly or indirectly, to guide humans toward a more holy and ethical way of life. This belief in the divine origin of any particular scripture renders the teachings, themselves, divine or divinely inspired. Most of these teachings were translated and re-translated numerous times through the years into different languages and for extremely diverse populations. Through this process, what is often presented as the original teachings of any particular faith or religion is actually the result of a great mixture of cultures and traditions.

The codification of profoundly complicated teachings into any single ‘faith’ (thereby forming a ‘religion’) is one factor that can lead to conflict and violence, as each newly formed faith strives to establish its authority and power, and solidify a loyal following.

Further differences arise when followers of the same faith disagree with each other about the interpretation and implementation of their religion. Different factions can split off to form separate groups altogether, each one convinced that their particular version of the religion is the only authentic one.

As part of establishing their separate authority, they will denounce and de-legitimize the others. They will also adjust the teachings to suit their beliefs, and this can cause significant changes in the way the teachings are used and passed along.

So cultural differences, translation errors, and personal disagreements have all contributed to the many misunderstandings and conflicts about religious texts.

If the essence of the original teaching is lost over time, verses can be altered or over-simplified and taken out of context to promote a particular, biased, and often political agenda or to persecute those who do not abide by the same religious and social standards. One group turns against another.

War and Oppression
Examples of violence stemming from this kind of misappropriation and manipulation of scripture can be found throughout history and up to this very day.
Classic Religious Wars

There was deadly Anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages by Christian Crusaders. Also during The Crusades, Muslims and Christians were at war with each other. The Spanish Inquisition unleashed a reign of terror under the guise of religious authority. There are ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Jews involving land and discrimination in the Middle East. And in India, the conflict between Hindus and Muslims boiled over and led to the partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh as separate Islamic states. Millions of people were killed during this conflict, and there is still fighting over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Use of Religion to Justify Social Persecution

This violence is different from classic religious conflict because it is not one religious organization against another religious group; rather it is one group of people who use religion as a justification to try to impose their morals on others. It’s religious convictions vs. social freedom of choice. Such intolerance sets groups at odds with each other in societies throughout the world.

There are many examples of such violence. Spanish Catholic conquistadores dismantled indigenous temples and destroyed traditional cultures in South America, imposing forced conversions of Incans and Mayans. In India, Mogul conquerors ruined countless Hindu and Jain temples and built mosques in their place. Hitler and the Nazi regime annihilated six million Jews. The Taliban blew up the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Slave traders used scripture to justify African slavery prior to the Civil War in the United States.

Many pro-life protestors claim religious motivation for using violence, even murder, at abortion clinics in the United States to demonstrate their objection to a procedure they consider to be immoral. During the Salem witch hunts, people who were suspected of being involved in occult activities were burned at the stake, accused of doing the “devil’s work.” Currently, violence against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people is often grounded In an extreme fundamentalist view that their sexual behavior is depraved and against God’s will.

How is it possible that the same people who cherish and follow Holy Scripture that advocates peaceful directives and principals, act contrarily? This is a complex topic, but we can find the source of many divisions in the very history of the teachings - in terms of interpretation, translation, and context.

Although scriptural mentions of peace are abundant, it must be acknowledged that there are other writings in these very same texts that seem to promote violence towards our fellow man. How can we understand these seeming contradictions? According to The New Testament, Jesus said:
  "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.
- Matthew 10:34

This is a perfect illustration of the potential problems with scriptural interpretation. Scholars try to understand how Jesus’ essential message of love can be understood in light of this seemingly violent passage.

The imagery of the sword is a common motif throughout ancient literature. At first glance, a sword obviously conjures up an image of violence and battle. But the weapon has many other spiritual connotations as well. It is most often used as a symbol for truth and wisdom.

In fact, there is another passage in the Bible that supports this very notion, that a sword signifies the truth of Good conquering Evil.

  Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O mighty One, prosper in Thy glow and Thy majesty, ride upon the word of truth, and Thy right hand shall teach Thee wonderful things - Psalms 45:3, 4
In ancient Chinese depictions, magicians with swords drive off demons; and in Japan the sword was considered so sacred that any craftsman who made one needed to practice abstinence as a sign of personal purity.

Another source of difficulty and confusion around scriptural meaning and intent has to do with whether its text is meant to be taken literally, or as allegory or metaphor.

For example, religious Jewish scholars explain that there are 5 levels of meaning for each verse of scripture, from the literal to the esoteric. So the “true” teaching is only found through an understanding of the full range meanings.

Traditional Buddhist texts are also said to have several levels of meaning, which will not be apparent on the surface, but revealed through extremely detailed study only.

The same is true for passages in the sacred texts of many faiths, making it all too easy to misinterpret certain clauses if they are only understood superficially and taken literally.

Translating original text into other languages can also contribute to skewing of the scripture’s original intention. In most cases, one particular translation eventually becomes fixed or codified, at which point the interpretation and nuance of meaning may well have been altered or lost completely.

For example, the term generally translated as the singular ‘God’ in Genesis is really a plural term in Hebrew, a term that could be translated as gods. This is an enormously different meaning, which has been overlooked in many translations.

There is an excellent illustration of a biblical translation mistake that was assumed to be accurate. It involves Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of Moses, which depicts the prophet with horns sprouting from his head. How did this image come to be? Exodus 34:29-35 says that when Moses was coming down from Mt. Horeb, after encountering God in the Burning Bush, there were rays of light emerging around his head. The Hebrew word for a ray is ‘qaran, ’ which can be translated as "radiated (light)" or "grew horns". Jerome, in the Vulgate, had unfortunately, translated “qaran” as the latter.

This misconception, that those of Jewish descent have horns, lasted for hundreds of years in some places, and was used as one excuse to demonize and persecute Jews. This may be a very obvious example, but it illustrates the kinds of profound problems that can arise from mistranslations. Such misunderstandings can have a severely damaging effect.

Historical Considerations

Most scriptures were initially transcribed from memory, written down by fallible human beings centuries after their beloved teacher first transmitted his teachings. Such a lengthy time gap creates a great risk of mistakes and misinterpretations. For example, the collection of books we have come to know today as the plurality of the Hebrew Bible may have been written over a span of 700 years ago, according to most scholars. Numerous changes and adjustments were surely made along the way.

There is some disagreement over the Old Testament, because the various scrolls were found in many disparate places at completely separate times. The New Testament gospels written by John and Paul were likely composed about 200 years after Jesus lived and preached. With devotees relying only on their memory of stories that had been passed down from one generation to the next, it is probable that there were things lost and changed in the many years in between. This is not to say that the essence of original scripture was always transmitted inaccurately, but it is important to keep in mind that teachings are bound to be altered and shifted as they are passed along, in different ways, through the years.

Some of these misunderstandings have contributed to great conflicts among different religious groups.

Social Context
Also, social and cultural norms differ dramatically from one generation to the next as well as from region to region. Ancient teachings come from a very different society than our own. It can be difficult for us to comprehend the meaning that specific words and concepts had to people of another time, people who lived in a world of different customs and attitudes. And we may make mistakes when we try to apply their ancient terminology to our modern world without looking closely at the essence of their original intent.

Differences of translations, interpretations, and social contexts may be benign in certain instances, but conflicting interpretations can also stir up divisions and intolerance. If allowed to escalate, intolerance can lead to conflict, violence, and war.
A New Era of Peace
All the religious differences and conflicts, no matter what the origin, may feel endless and cause us to feel hopeless. But it is in everyone’s best interest to find ways to reconcile differences and bring about a more peaceful world. Can this happen?

Yes, it can. As with teachers like Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Moses, and Lau Tzu, there have been many visionaries and leaders spreading a message of peace and hope. From Martin Luther King, who led the movement of African American liberation, to Gandhi, who personified non-violence and tolerance in turbulent India, our world has had inspiring leaders spreading messages of peace.

And we continue to have such teachers to this very day. For example, The Dalai Lama leads his exiled followers while still espousing compassion for the Chinese occupiers of his homeland, Tibet. There will always be hope for peace.

There are many who believe we are heading for a new era of humanity. The Hindus say we are in the “Kali Yuga”, the Buddhists refer to it as the ‘Dharma ending period’ or the ‘last havoc’, the Mayans and Native Americans predicted a time of profound changes, as did prophets in the Old Testament, who prophesized a utopia.

Our world is weary of violence and ready for a change. There is great hope and possibility for increased understanding between our different faith traditions. Today, interfaith groups around the world are working to promote tolerance, respect and dialogue. As we come to know more about each other’s divergent religious Paths, we will recognize our many astounding similarities, and draw closer. Our greatest strength lies in our diversity, which weaves a beautiful multicultural tapestry of humankind.



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