Violence in the Name of the Sacred

Review By: Julia Tyack


I dreamed, and in my dream there was a tribe who lived happily together in the rainforest. They were like one big happy family who worked, played and sang together under the stars.

One day an evil messenger arrived declaring that their great Creator had a plan to give eternal life to all who worshipped him and put his service above every other consideration, even care of family and friends in the tribe. They were told that their great Savior had set aside the beautiful white sandstone rock of the cliffs beside their river as a sacred symbol and reminder of his promise. Every home in the village was to set up an un-carved slab of this rock before each house as the sign of being God’s chosen people.

At first it made the tribe very happy to think they had this sacrament of the great One’s love among them. And they dedicated themselves to his praise and service.

After the passage of time, someone discovered that there were two distinct kinds of sandstone rock that could be hewn from the great cliffs that rose up beside the river that flowed through their village. One had a yellow tinge and contained tiny flecks of metal. The other sandstone was off-white with a light grey tinge.

An argument developed in the village about who had the true rock and who had the counterfeit rock, for some people had one kind, and some another.  Whilst some changed their rocks, others clung tenaciously to either their grey rock or their yellowish rock.  In their zeal to honor the great One, some began to denounce those who had the wrong kind of rock and demanded that they should be expelled from the village.

Still later, it was discovered that not all the yellowish or the greyish sandstone was the same, but there was at least a dozen different kinds of sandstone rock identified.  The village was divided according to how many kinds of sacred rocks were identified.  The more dedicated the people were to the great One, it seemed the more divided they became over the issue of the right kind of rock to use as the symbol of the great One’s pledge of eternal life.  Discord over this issue led to strife, endless arguments, mutual hostility, exclusion from fellowship of those judged to have the wrong kind of rock, and in some cases it even came to bloodshed.

Because their zeal to honor the great One was done in the great One’s name, no one felt guilty about persecuting their own tribes-people like this. They were simply putting the great One first, making their sacred obligation take precedence over all human relationships.  Every group claimed that they alone had the true sacrament of the great One’s presence whilst the others were either deluded or disobedient to the heavenly vision.  The once happy people were racked with bitter divisions and hatreds over this issue of identifying and distinguishing what was supposed to be sacred and what was supposed to be common.  That which was supposed to unite them only succeeded in dividing them.

I dreamed again, and lo, all over the earth I saw that people were divided by a multitude of sacred things.  Some had sacred rocks; others had sacred animals; still others had sacred places.  Then there were sacred times; sacred food; sacred water; sacred ceremonies; sacred garments; sacred books; sacred dogma; sacred mediators; sacred institutions.  All this great diversity of sacred things was regarded as symbols or sacraments of the Transcendent One.

All over the earth people were condemning, despising, banishing, imprisoning and killing other people whose sacred things were different.  It seemed that the more devout people were, the more they mistreated others deemed to have the wrong rocks, animals, places, times, water, food, garments, dogma, books and what have you.  And all this inhumanity, of course, was done in the name and for the honor and glory of their Transcendent One.  It seemed that those who were religiously committed were not civil, and those who were civil were no longer religiously committed.

Then there arose a sage of obscure parentage from an obscure village in an obscure province. He was a very ordinary man, and refused any title of honour except to be called ben Adam, the son of [ordinary] humanity.  He began teaching a strange new message. He called it ‘the good news of the kingdom of God,’ and he invited anybody and nobodies to celebrate its arrival with eating and drinking and without distinction of creed, class or colour.  In this new fellowship, no one would hold anything against anybody on the grounds of anything, especially in regard to silly or trivial distinctions between things sacred and profane, clean and unclean. He said that people alone were the bearers of the divine image and Presence, but especially people who were sick, poor, ignorant, despised, lonely, forsaken, cast out, oppressed and needing any kind of human help.  The only way anyone can love, honor, serve or reverence the Unseen Abba was to unconditionally love, forgive, accept, honor and reverence ordinary people as the bearers of the sacred Image and Presence.

The teaching of this sage was deemed to be dangerous by both the religious and civil authorities.  He was therefore executed for blasphemy and sedition, and died in failure and disgrace.  His spirit lived on, however, and soon a movement and a great institution called the Church set out to honour his name and to magnify his greatness.  First they said he was the Messiah of the Jews. Then when the movement spread to the Gentile world, he was said to be ‘the son of God’ (the title of the Roman Emperors), and even virgin born like Augustus, Alexander the Great and all the great heroes of Greek mythology.  By the fourth century he was said to be God Almighty in the absolute and highest sense.

The Church’s creeds and dogmas were totally focused on honouring and worshipping this man. The Church did not carry on the message of this man, but its message was wholly about the man himself. Very soon the Church was condemning, banishing, flogging, burning and killing millions of people all over Christendom in his name with pogroms, burnings, Crusades and Inquisitions.  It set up more sacred things in his name than ever. There were sacred books, dogmas, garments, ceremonies, water, meals, institutions, sacraments, times, places, relics, traditions and myths. These were imposed on millions of people on pain of guilt, temporal punishments and eternal damnation.

Could there be anything more antithetical to this very humble and ordinary man, (because that was all he ever was or claimed to be), than this hierarchical Institution that was chock full of so many venerated things?

We live in an age when all the myths created to honor this man are being swept away. Nothing remains but an ordinary man teaching us that the domain of the Transcendent Reality called God is not with the so-called sacred and holy things, but with common humanity who bear God’s image and presence as they do the truly human thing to and for each other in the ordinary things of human existence.


Abou ben Adam (may his tribe increase!)

awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight of his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

an angel, writing in a book of of gold.

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adam bold,

And to the Prescence in the room he said:

“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,

And, with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

“And is mine one?”said Abou, “Nay, not so,”

Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still, and said, “I pray thee, then,

Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again, with a great awakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blest,

And lo! Ben adam’s name led all the rest.

Leigh Hunt


Extracts on Religious Violence( Taken from

The Scandal of Joshua ben Adam,

No God Above and Essay 2A, The Divinity of Jesus, April 200l

God can be a Dangerous Idea

 The idea of God as a non-human, vertical, authority is the most destructive weapon ever let loose on the earth. In God’s name the worst tyrannies and inhumanities are legitimized by becoming sacralized.

Let the idea of God being a vertical authority above us be accepted, let the idea that this relationship takes precedence over human relationships be accepted, then the door is wide open for every human atrocity, tyranny, deprivation of liberty and destruction of human rights.  This is how a sensitive human being like Saul of Tarsus got caught up dragging Christians in chains before the authorities.  He put devotion to his God before human obligations. In the same way good men got involved in torturing people in the Inquisition or carrying out Pogroms against the Jews. For sure they were human enough to hurt as they kicked against the goads of their own human consciousness, but the higher authority called God made them do these inhuman things.

Calvin agonized over burning Servetus at the stake. This bloody intolerance was not behaviour true to Calvin’s own human nature. For sure he had to violate his own human sensitivities to do it, but allegiance to a higher authority which he worshipped as God made him do it.  As long as a vertical authority called God is separated from our horizontal relationships to our fellow humans the agony of doing inhuman things in God’s name will be repeated.

“For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19)

Millions have been slain and continue to be slain in God’s name.  At this very moment somewhere on earth someone is being hacked up or blown up in God’s name.

God is absolutely the most destructive idea let loose on this planet.  This idea has caused more war, bloodshed, misunderstandings, strife, tyranny and terror than anything else. Nothing has held people in so much darkness, bondage or blocked human progress so much as the idea of God.

Christians have thought the world was in darkness through want of the Christian God.  So they have gone out to convert the world to the God of original sin, hell and blood atonement.  A God of blood savagery and total vindictive revenge, dressed up in garments of love and mercy, produced a totalitarian system which has survived the collapse of every other totalitarian system.  Why?  It sacralized its rule and kept people captive with the idea of God.

Anyone who can’t see that the idea of God is dangerous, hasn’t read any history and doesn’t realize the appalling amount of crimes against humanity done in his name.  These crimes continue.  The world today is a powder keg because there is an idea of God between the ears of millions of people that’s more dangerous than all the explosives you could muster in this world.

The fact that many people want to dress this idea of God up in a benevolent guise makes no difference.  It may be worse because, in the guise of ‘God is Love’, the idea becomes more seductively dangerous to human freedom and existence.  It is safer to believe in no God at all than to believe in this God above, that is, in this God of the vertical dimension.

Of course, we are dumb fools if we fail to acknowledge the source of all this inhumanity done in God’s name.  It is because God is made to be an authoritarian, non-human reality.  This always works to take away our freedom, destroy the possibility of loving others and turns us into the image and likeness of beasts.

Joshua ben Adam laid the axe at the roots of the vertical order with a new doctrine which put a supremely human God on the human level of freedom and love.  His image and likeness is not seen anywhere else.

If God is not an authoritarian figure above the human horizontal line, then nothing else is above that line to demand from us blind obedience, submission and loss of human freedom. There is no Bible, Creed, hierarchy or religious laws that can exercise an authoritarian rule over us.  Whatever is human may stand on the line of equality with us, but every other icon must be placed beneath our feet. (Psalms 8:3-6)

God in Solidarity with Us

Joshua’s new vision of God was all about his solidarity with people.  It went beyond anything taught before him.  It is a vision urgently needed in a world rocked by religious violence.

No Serving God apart from People

God and people are is such solidarity that it is no longer legitimate to say, “God comes first”.  The worst inhumanities to man crawl under the wretched cover of ‘putting God first’.  Under this cover they are still spreading mayhem and murder from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, from Bosnia to Northern Ireland.

The God which is not in solidarity with people is a God of the vertical order, a non-human Abstraction and a dangerous idol of the imagination.  Millions will rush into battle for this Abstraction – a God isolated from people- and they will give up their lives or slaughter others to defend him.  Yet it is all a total delusion because a God in isolation from people does not exist.


Every quest or claim to know God-in-himself is a religious delusion.  For God-in-himself is unsearchable, unimaginable, incomprehensible, unthinkable, unfathomable, unknowable, and as the Hebrews used to say about his name, unpronounceable.


The religious burden of trying to conjure up love for God-in-himself is a crushing burden that humanity has never been able to carry.  Devotion to this unknowable, abstract God out there or up there has driven people crazy enough to resent, neglect, abuse, hate, persecute and slaughter millions of people.  There is no violence on earth as bad as religious violence.


When Jesus (Joshua ben Adam) replaced devotion to a God-in-himself with devotion to a God-with-humanity, he conflated the two great commandments of the Law – love of God and love of neighbour – into one. There is now no higher commandment than love of fellow man.  The so-called golden rule “is the Law and prophets.”


This explains the mysterious absence of any emphasis on the so-called “higher” or “first” great commandment in the teachings of Jesus.  Rather than repeat the tired old religious cliché about putting God first, Jesus even said that we ought to put reconciliation with our brother before the worship of God.


As Sheehan puts it, Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women.  Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate: He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there.  The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour.  Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity. (Ibid.)


The idea that there is some sort of vertical authority out there or up there, that takes precedence over love of neighbour has caused more divisions, hatreds and blood-letting than anything else in the history of mankind. This is what drove Saul of Tarsus to persecute the early Christians.  It caused the Church to banish or burn Jews and heretics.  It drove Calvin to execute Servetus and the Puritans to flog the Quakers. It still drives the religious extremists in our day to burn, bomb, or shoot up others out of devotion to a God who takes precedence over humanity.  But by conflating the two great commandments into one, Jesus laid the axe at the root of all religiously inspired acts of inhumanity.

We observed earlier that the notion of a God-in-himself, out there or up there, combined with the idea that devotion to this kind of God must take precedence over any human considerations, is the most dangerous and destructive idea that has ever been let loose on this planet.  Fired with religious devotion for this abstract God, there is nothing humans will not do to de-humanize and crush one another. Christianity has proved that it is no exception when it comes to religiously inspired violence.