Blaise Pascal once wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” How true! This has been going on since the beginning of time and is showing few signs of disappearing any time soon. We still do violence and evil and justify them in God’s name.

We see countless examples of this in history. From the time that we first gained self-consciousness, we’ve done violence in God’s name. It began by sacrificing human beings to try to attain God’s favour, and it led to everything from actively persecuting others for religious reasons, to waging war in God’s name, to burning people for heresy at the Inquisition, to practising capital punishment for religious reasons, and, not least, at one point in history, to handing Jesus over to be crucified out of a misguided religious fervour.

These are some salient historical examples; sadly not much has changed. Today, in its most gross form, we see violence done in God’s name by groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS who, whatever else might be their motivation, believe they are serving God and cleansing the world through brute terrorism and murder. The deaths of thousands of innocent people can be justified, they believe, by the fact that this is God’s cause, so sacred and urgent that it allows for the setting aside of all basic standards of humanity, decency and normal religion. When it’s for God’s cause, outright evil is rationalised.

Happily, it’s impossible for most of us to justify this kind of violence and murder in our minds and hearts. But most of us still justify this kind of sacral violence in more subtle modes. Many of us, for instance, excuse capital punishment in the name of divine justice, believing that God’s purposes demand that we kill someone. Many, too, justify abortion by an appeal to our God-given freedoms.

Not least, virtually all of us justify certain violence in our language and discourse because we feel that our cause is so special and sacred that it gives us the right to ignore some of the fundamentals of Christian charity – namely, respect and graciousness – in our dealings with those who disagree with us.

Our language, in the circles of both right and left, is rife with a violence we justify in God’s name. On the right, issues like abortion and the defence of dogma are deemed so important as to give us permission to demonise others. On the left, issues of economic and ecological injustice, because they so directly affect the poor, similarly give us permission to set aside respect and graciousness. Both sides like to justify themselves with an appeal to God’s righteous anger.

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