Seventy-one years ago today, Lutheran minister and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the conspirators who sought to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was motivated by his opposition to Hitler’s annexation of German Protestantism, but according to Philip Jenkins, these actions are often not placed in the same category as other forms of religious violence.
Jenkins, co-director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University, will discuss the necessity of historical context for understanding religious violence at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. The Week Four Interfaith Lecture theme is “The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion and Violence.”
“The fact that I’m using the Hitler example means that I’m suggesting it’s kind of a complicated picture,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes, there are kinds of violence that people actually approve of, but my main theme is how violence has a strong historical connection. Religion and violence are closely linked across the spectrum.”
Jenkins has written two books on the relationship between religion and violence, including The Great and Holy War, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. His interest in the topic came from work on the general topic of fear, he said.
“I was doing work on things like terrorism and drug panics, and I worked on [the question], ‘What are the ideas within religion that really scare people?’ ” Jenkins said. “And way back when, one of the great issues was religious cults and the idea of religious cults seducing your children. That then got into the issue of religious violence and terrorism, and the overlap between the two.”
This work led Jenkins to conclude that while certain religions might be more closely associated with violence in any given era, no tradition is immune to violent ideology or free from violent scriptures.
“The phrase goes: We don’t see things not as they are. We see things as we are,” Jenkins said. “As our ideas change, what we see, what we remember changes.
“If you look at some of the early books of the Bible, they contain passages that are extremely violent, not just because they’re describing a violent society, but because God is clearly saying, ‘Now I want you to go out and not just to fight those people, but to kill every last man, woman, child and dog.’ And those passages are actually very common.”
Though these bloody passages have led to some violence, Jenkins said such Scripture does not make a tradition inherently violent.
“Out of the Bible has come Judaism and Christianity, and both of those religions have been violent in some eras and not violent in others,” he said. “So that tells you something about the role of Scriptures. We have stereotypes of different religions, but there have been great wars in history fought by Buddhism using religious lines. If there is a religion that is immune from this, I don’t know what it is.”
To combat the stereotyping of religions and the use of Scripture to promote violence, Jenkins said unsavory texts must be recognized and understood in their historical context.
“The worst thing you can do about [violent Scriptures] is pretend they aren’t there and hope they go away, because they won’t,” Jenkins said. “If you don’t pay attention to them, then you have no real defenses when fanatics and extremists do rise up and try and invoke those Scriptures. We have centuries and millennia of experience in dealing with these texts. We should be able to come up with better solutions than that.”