The holy wars that aren't

Or, why are we so mean?

So I sprained my ankle in Valencia (not to fret, it's minor; I'll still be able to hobble around Madrid just fine on the final leg of my trip). While I was laying in my hotel room resting up, I watched this YouTube video showing a panel of women discussing the state of feminism in America.

As I watched, one thing became increasingly (and frustratingly) clear to me: almost every single person in the video was intolerant and mean. There were some arguments and ideas that were interesting with me and some that I found less agreeable, but almost every single one of them was made less as an effort to have a discussion and more as an attempt to "dunk" on each panelist's political opponents.

It was less a dialogue and more a holy war.

And what better place to discuss the concept of a holy war than in Spain, the site of La Reconquista, the 770-year-long effort by the brave Christian soldiers to retake the Iberian peninsula from the heathen Muslim scum?

Wait, did that last sentence sound a bit... harsh? I hope it did! But to be clear, it didn't sound the least bit problematic to the generations of holy warriors on either side of the fight over Iberia. This was a holy war, after all!

Holy wars are brutal

Historically speaking, one of (if not the) core components of a holy war has been the disagreement between its belligerents about which religion the inhabitants of a certain land should follow. Christian or Muslim? Sunni or Shia? And due to the sheer severity of the subject (the eternal life or damnation of an entire population!), holy wars have historically been some of the most passionate and brutal conflicts in recorded history.

Often, the victors didn't simply occupy their newly-won territories; they burned religious buildings to the ground, tortured the opposing clergy to death, and raped and pillaged their way through the scores of citizens who dared follow a different creed.

Holy wars have become secular

Holy wars, crusades, and the like were regular occurrences throughout most of recorded history, at least up until the last few centuries. With the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, and the advent of trade, religious tolerance became more fashionable among ruling powers.

But lets be clear: this did not mean that diverse populations could suddenly coexist. No, the wars continued, but they took on a less religious (and often more racial) bent. Notably, while the subjects and conditions of wars became less focused around religion over time, the religious fervor and zealous hatred for one's opponents often remained.

We see this in George Washington's statement at the Constitutional Convention that the successful creation of a United States of America would "demonstrate as visibly the finger of Providence as any possible event in the course of human affairs can ever designate it." And we see it in the Prussian/German use of the phrase "Gott mit uns" (God with us) from the Hapsburgs to the Nazis.

Regardless of substance or justness of a war, leaders on either side and their propagandists will invoke religious symbolism to create a perception that our side is just and Godly while the other side is full of evil, demonic non-humans better to be wiped off the map. Invoking religious symbolism makes it easy to promote cohesion among a group going to battle. But it also makes it easy to dehumanize the enemy. And this all makes it very, very easy to commit horrible atrocities in the name of "justice".

Holy wars are every day now

Following World War II, war between nations has mostly dissipated (although there are certain elements in Eurasia seeking to subvert this reality). But holy wars have remained. With no outlet for our tribalism, these often manifest in our daily lives. The fans of the opposing football team are horrible jerks who deserve to lose every game. The people in rural/urban America are ignorant about what it's like to live in urban/rural America and deserve to feel pain. The people who voted for the other candidate are evil and want women to die/want to let pedophiles groom children.

Notably, in America it seems to me that the loudest voices espousing this lunacy are the Christian ones. After all, it's easy to claim biblical correctness with phrases like "God smote Sodom for a reason" or "Jesus was a socialist" depending on your ideological bent.

And it makes sense! Just like the holy wars of the past, we are so scared of being ruled by the vile, heartless pagans that make up the other side of the topic du jour that we quickly scramble for the nearest religious symbolism we can find in order to prove that we're the good guys here and they're the evil ones.

We're all casualties in holy wars

But the same way that religious symbolism could so easily lead an army of "righteous crusaders" to rape and pillage their way through a town of defenseless women and children, our modern religious symbolism makes it so incredibly easy for us to say horrible, atrocious things to one another.

Let's go back to the YouTube video I mentioned above. Among the participants of this panel:

  • one has called other panelists fascists who don't deserve to have a voice

  • two have called the transgender participants "confused about what they are" and argued that this means they shouldn't be allowed to speak about current topics

  • one has stated that overweight people have a character flaw and regularly calls overweight women "whales" in one breath while discussing the love of Jesus in another

  • one has said that they "don't give a fuck about anything" that some other panelists have to say because of the color of their skin

All from a panel that was meant to find common ground!

Holy wars are not holy

What's most stunning to me, however, is the sheer lack of biblical foundation in most holy wars (especially those involving Christians and/or Muslims). It is fundamental in the teachings of Christ, and proven by the actions of the early church, that political power is absolutely not necessary to live a Godly life or share the word of God.

Did Christ ever call for a toppling of the Roman empire? Did the early church foment insurrections against their oppressors? No! They lived in a time where the very act of being a Christian was a death sentence. And they persisted in this manner for hundreds of years in the Roman Empire and thousands of years more under the rule of various caliphs and kings. And yet the winsome vision of a Christian faith has persisted through the stories we tell about the soldiers, kings, clergy, and laypeople who resisted the language and violence of holy wars and consistently and vocally recommitted themselves to following Christ instead of the authorities that be.

Now, this is not to say that Christians have always been kind up until recent years. The very city I just left, Valencia, was built before Christ and saw the persecution of Jews, then the persecution of Christians, then the rise of Christianity and persecution of Muslims, the dominance of Islam and persecution of Christians, and finally the dominance of Christianity once again. And throughout the world, Christian voices who stood up to the hatred against/persecution of the outgroup were themselves jailed, tortured, and killed.

The cost of doing the right thing has never been lower

But let's think for a moment about that last point. Christians used to be punished for standing up to the Church when it partook in violence and dehumanization of non-believers. I would ponder a guess that Muslims and Sikhs and atheists have also been punished for doing the same.

When's the last time you heard of a person being punished in America for daring to suggest not being violent to the other side? Malcom X, maybe? Either way, I can find nothing recent that compares even remotely to the scale of risk that members of the in-group took on when defending the humanity and dignity of the out-group.

Simply put, the costs of being kind to one another despite our differences have never been lower. Nobody is going to hang me for being kind to an anti-vaxxer. Nobody is going to murder an LGBT person for daring to sit down with a religious conservative and seek common ground.

And yet people (myself included) so often take online disagreement as an opportunity to dehumanize, denigrate, and "dunk on" those we disagree with.

If the costs of kindness are so low, what the heck's stopping us?

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