A man dresses his little sister in a suicide vest and we throw up our hands in horror; another chases someone, sets fire to him, then devours his leg, and we react with revulsion. We know the situation in Afghanistan is complex but we look at the end result: a brutalisation so complete that a child is merely an instrument of war and revenge. We know the situation in the Central African Republic is also complex, but again we look only at the end result: a man is so inflamed by the murder of his pregnant wife that he not only kills the person responsible but shows utter contempt for him. In both cases, our Western susceptibilities are outraged: we believe children should be afforded special protection; cannibalism is off-limits; the perpetrators of these acts are vile.
It is no good blaming religion as such for either of these atrocities. It was not Islam which made that man force his sister to wear a suicide vest; nor was it Christianity which made that man kill his neighbour and devour his leg. We are very much mistaken, though, if we don’t acknowledge that religion, however much misunderstood or perversely interpreted, has played a part in allowing such things to happen because it has become a convenient peg on which to hang visceral hatreds and rivalries. That is dangerous, because it affects public perception of the religion in question, not merely of the individuals who (mis)use it as justification for their actions.
Increasingly in the West, we are seeing Islam and Christianity pitted against one another in the popular imagination. Polarisation between the two has become an explanation, we might say the explanation, of every violent or aggressive act that involves adherents of either religion. The trouble is, that kind of ‘explanation’ merely stops us examining other motives or causes and, incidentally, does a great disservice to those who genuinely try to live good and peaceable lives according to their religious beliefs. Perhaps it is time to take stock and admit that even the most loving and merciful of us are capable of ugly acts.
We may think of ourselves as kind, compassionate people, always eager to do good to others and without a mean bone in our bodies. That may be how we are born, but we quickly learn behaviours that are not so pure or generous. It is only grace that keeps us in check, and it is a grace we must earnestly desire and pray for, not presume upon.
It is easy to condemn someone who makes a walking bomb of his sister or eats his neighbour, but the intense hatred that inspired such acts didn’t begin like that. Its origins may lie in mere dislike or minor antipathy, a half-remembered grudge from ancestral times or a sense of grievance never satisfied; but it was allowed to grow until it stifled every better feeling. One of the lessons to be learned from these tragedies is that hatred is a killer — and just as likely to be found in our own heart as in the heart of another.