Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan began their ’round-the-world bicycle trip in South Africa in July of 2017. They pedaled through several countries in Africa, then through Europe, and then into central Asia.
All along the way, people followed their journey on their blog, Simply Cycling, and on their Instagram feed. Jay and Lauren spoke of the beauties of the landscape through which they traveled, of their struggles and triumphs cycling day after day and month after month, of the friendliness and kindness of so many people in so many places, and yes, of the disinterest or outright meanness of a few.
However, in July, 2018, as they were climbing the mountain passes of the old Silk Road through Tajikistan, their posts and updates abruptly stopped mid-story. Sad news came of an attack in which religious extremists killed Jay, Lauren, and two other cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands. You can read about their journey and its heartbreaking end here:
- American Cyclists Killed by ISIS In Tajikistan
- Two Bikers Killed By ISIS Militants A World Away. They Were My Friends
Whether or not the killers were actually affiliated with ISIS is hard to know for sure. Regardless, the attackers believed that they were doing a good deed by killing infidel unbelievers. The Tajik authorities did an efficient job of tracking down those responsible for these senseless killings. But the four cyclists remain just as dead.
And the question remains: How has religion become a justification for murder?
What leads religious people to murder?
Jay and Lauren were not engaging in any acts against Islam, or any acts at all that deserved death. They were simply cycling peacefully, with no ill will toward anyone.
The men who killed them were murderers, pure and simple.
But . . . maybe it isn’t quite so simple. Those men likely believed that they were doing God’s will in killing infidels—enemies of the faith.
So what leads religious people to become murderers in the name of religion? Here are a few reasons:
- Taking Scriptures out of context
- Living in areas torn by violence
- Racism and xenophobia
- Taking Scriptures too literally
Let’s look at these one at a time.
1. Taking Scriptures out of context
In the Qur’an, in Surah 9, “Repentance” (at-Tawbah), verse 5, we read:
Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, and take them captive or besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every likely place.
This passage is among those quoted by militant Muslims to support their war against “infidels” (non-Muslims), and, ironically, also by opponents of Islam who wish to paint Islam as an intrinsically violent religion.
There’s only one problem: Using this verse (and similar ones elsewhere in the Qur’an) to justify general slaughter of non-Muslims is taking it completely out of context.
First of all, this statement was made in the context of war, during a time when the new religion of Islam was just beginning to establish itself. Naturally, the existing non-Muslim powers were not pleased about this. They engaged in a fierce, sustained, and bloody battle against Muhammad and his followers.
It was in this context that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, stated that “idolaters”—i.e., non-Muslims—must be sought out and killed. In other words, Muhammad was commanding his followers to seek out and kill people who were engaged in active warfare against them.
Meanwhile, if you read the statement in context, you will see that any non-Muslim who had a treaty with the Muslims, and was honoring that treaty, was exempt from the kill order. Further, any non-Muslim who sought protection from Muslims, or agreed to pay the required tax to the Muslim authorities, or in general who ceased hostilities against Muslims, was also exempt from the order.
The simple fact of the matter is that there is no order in the Qur’an to kill all non-Muslims. Only to kill those who have taken up arms against the Muslim community, and are actively attacking it. In general, Islam is a religion of peace, just as its more moderate adherents regularly say. But it is not a pacifist religion. It does allow for self-defense, including the right of armies to defend their communities and nations against hostile invaders.
In this, it is no different than most of the other major religions of humanity. Most Christians have a similar belief: that if their communities and countries are attacked by hostile forces, they have a right to defend themselves, including by the use of deadly force, until the attackers are defeated and turned back.
Similar to the teachings of Islam, most Christians believe that it is wrong to attack and kill anyone who is not engaging in hostile actions against them, and who is living in a peaceful and respectful manner. This is true even though like the Qur’an, the Bible contains various commands to kill enemies, such as this especially brutal one:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:2–3)
Christians as a body don’t take various orders in the Bible to kill enemies, made in specific circumstances, to mean that Christians should systematically kill all non-Christians. Neither do Muslims as a body take various orders in the Qur’an to kill enemies, made in specific circumstances, to mean that Muslims should systematically kill all non-Muslims. Historically, Islamic nations have commonly allowed non-Muslim communities such as Christians and Jews to live peacefully in their midst, just as Christian nations have commonly allowed non-Christian communities to live peacefully in their midst.
In short, just as mainstream Christians recognize that orders in the Bible to attack and kill enemies do not mean that Christians should systematically kill all non-Christians, mainstream Muslims recognize that orders in the Qur’an to attack and kill enemies do not mean that Muslims should systematically kill all non-Muslims.
Such statements in the Qur’an, like similar statements in the Bible, must be read in their scriptural and historical context, not ripped out of context and used as a justification for indiscriminate murder of the sort that those militants committed against cyclists who were peacefully touring the countryside.
For a good contemporary article on this subject from a Muslim perspective, see: “Does the Quran Really Sanction Violence Against ‘Unbelievers’?” by Kabir Helminski.
2. Living in areas torn by violence
When one of Jesus’ followers sought to defend him by force, Jesus said:
Put your sword back into its place; for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
In a more recent phrasing: Violence begets violence.
It’s just human nature. Most people, when attacked, will fight back. In areas of the world torn by violence, even normally peaceful people will commonly resort to violence to defend themselves—and yes, to seek vengeance against those who have attacked and killed their relatives and friends. This leads to a spiral of violence that can be very difficult to stop.
Unfortunately, significant parts of the Muslim world are now torn by ongoing violence.
Does this mean that Islam is an especially violent religion, as its detractors claim?
No objective view of the recent history of that region could support such a claim. Outside powers from Europe and North America have repeatedly invaded the Middle East for a century or more, partitioning it and colonizing it through military force, and later attacking and destabilizing the now-independent nations there.
While the violence of Islamic militants cannot be condoned or excused, a fair reading of the past and present history of the region shows that not only Muslims, but also Christians and Jews have engaged in extensive violence in the Middle East. However justified the people of the various religions who are engaging in this violence may think their violence is, the reality is that all of this violence has not led to peace in the region. It has only led to more violence.
More to the point of this article, it has led to a radicalizing of the various religious adherents in the region. Among others, it has led many young Muslims who would otherwise live peacefully to embrace a militant version of their faith and take up arms against the “infidels.”
But really, they are taking up arms against the people whom they see violently attacking them and destroying their communities. Most people simply want to live in peace “under their vine and fig tree,” to use a biblical phrase. But if they live in the midst of violence, they will themselves become violent as well.
Violence begets violence.
The idea that we can fight our way to peace in the Middle East—or anywhere else in the world—keeps getting proven wrong over and over again. Living in an area torn by violence will turn otherwise peaceful people toward violence and even murder. Unfortunately, they will quote their Scriptures to support this violence. But it is violence itself that is causing more and more violence.
Only when the people involved in these ongoing conflicts finally decide to “put their sword back into its place” will there be any hope for peace.
3. Racism and xenophobia
We humans start out in life engrossed almost entirely in ourselves and our own wants and needs. As infants, we’re all about letting people know when we’re not happy. If we’re hungry or thirsty or uncomfortable in any way, we’ll make a fuss, then a bigger fuss, then a bigger fuss until someone takes care of our needs.
Soon we become identified with our family, which becomes an extension of ourselves. Then our friends, or our neighborhood, or our town, or our state or province, or our nation becomes an extension of ourselves. And of course, people who look like us become the “us” as compared to the “them” who live somewhere else, and don’t look like us.
This is how racism and xenophobia are born.
At their root, racism and xenophobia are simply an extension of our natural, inborn self-absorption. We naturally think of our own wants and needs first, and think that others should serve our wants and needs. That’s just where we start out in life.
As adults, we’re supposed to grow out of this, and broaden our horizons. And many people do. But far too many people remain stuck in the childish state of thinking that my needs, and my people’s needs, are the most important, and everyone who doesn’t serve our needs is at best irrelevant, and at worst an enemy.
When this lack of emotional and spiritual maturity gets mixed in with religious belief, it turns the people of one religion against the people of other religions. Every decent religion has a commandment not to kill. But when the people of any religion fail to grow up spiritually, they ignore the commandments of their own religion and engage in murder and warfare against people of other religions, races, and nations.
And so, once again, religion becomes a justification for murder.
I am not going to solve the problem of racism and xenophobia in this short section. But I will offer a picture of how I believe God intended the various races and nations to relate to one another.
Think of the world, and all its nations and peoples, as being like a vast human body. Every cell in the body has the same DNA. As human beings, we all have the same range of intelligence, the same emotions, the same basic capabilities.
And yet, though we all share that common human DNA, we each apply it differently. The human body has many different parts, each with its own character, function, and contribution to the whole.
- Bones provide structure and integrity to the body.
- The skin provides protection and sensory information to the body.
- The cardiovascular system provides nutrition and waste extraction to the body.
- The lungs provide oxygen to and extract carbon dioxide from the body.
- The nervous system provides coordination and order to the body.
- The legs and feet provide the body with mobility.
- The arms and hands carry out the body’s wishes.
Every part, organ, and cell makes its own unique contribution to the functioning of the body based on its own unique character. Together, all of these very different parts make a constructive and harmonious whole. If any part is missing, the health and effectiveness of the whole body suffers.
This, I believe, is why instead of making everyone the same as everyone else, God made each person, group, race, and nation uniquely different. Our differences are not meant to be a source of conflict. Rather, every individual, and every group, race, and nation, is meant to make its own unique contribution to the whole body of humanity, based on its own unique character.
If we think of the various peoples and nations of the world in this way, there is no need for conflict, war, and murder based on race, nationality, and religion. Instead, we can celebrate both our own unique character and contributions and the uniquely different character and contributions of every other person, group, race, and nation on the face of the planet.
Further, though we humans may create hierarchies, and may believe we are meant to rule over one another, God has made us all brothers and sisters. Only God is to rule over us. Jesus said:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25–28)
4. Taking Scriptures too literally
The Bible, the Qur’an, and many other holy books are full of wars and conflicts. Many religious people have used this as a justification for violence, murder, and war. Many non-religious people have seen this as a reason to reject those Scriptures, and to reject religion altogether.
I would suggest that both responses are a result of taking the Scriptures too literally.
Certainly there are many things in the various sacred books of humanity that are meant to be taken literally. For example, the commandments not to kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, and so on—commandments that are found in various forms in the Scriptures of all the major religions.
But what about all of the killing that does go on in those Scriptures? What about the commandments in the Qur’an to seek out and kill people who are actively fighting against Islam and its people? What about all of those wars that are described in the Bible, as the ancient Israelites conquer their enemies, slaughter them wholesale, and dispossess them of their land?
Skeptics have pointed out that all of those God-sanctioned wars in the Bible flatly contradict the Bible’s own commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And if we take everything in the Bible literally, it’s hard to refute that charge.
But what if the Bible, and the other sacred books of humanity, were never meant by God to condone and encourage physical violence and killing against one another? What if, instead, these Scriptures are using war and killing as metaphors for the spiritual battle that we humans are constantly fighting, both individually and collectively? What if the real wars God wants us to fight are the battles of good against evil, of justice against injustice, of compassion against inhumanity?
What if, instead of reading the stories of war, conflict, violence, and murder in the Bible and the other Scriptures of humanity as commandments to take up literal swords against literal human enemies, we read them as commandments to take up the spiritual sword of truth and justice against the spiritual enemies of untruth and injustice?
The apostle Paul said:
God . . . has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5–6)
And Jesus said:
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)
What if, instead of paying attention to the letter that kills, with all of its wars of people against people, we paid attention to the spirit that gives life? What if we all put our literal swords—and knives, and guns, and bombs—back into their place, and instead took up the spiritual fight against all of the real enemies of humankind, such as racism, xenophobia, anger, jealousy, greed, and lust for power?
If, instead of continuing with our never-ending literal wars full of violence and murder, we take up the true metaphorical and spiritual meaning of the Bible, the Qur’an, and other sacred literature, we will instead fight a battle against war, violence, and murder themselves. And as we win this war, the prophecy of Micah will finally come true:
In the days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
For further reading: