Power to Destroy and Save

The world was shocked, but not surprised, by the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last week. Once again, violence invaded the sacred space of a place of worship. It is a story we have sadly told over and over the last few years.

Religious violence is not new. The Bible refers to holy war that the Israelites must fight against certain enemies. Muslims fought wars which spread Islam from its point of origin in the Arabian Peninsula. Later, the Crusades saw Christian armies conquer the Land of Israel in the name of faith, and massacre Jews along the way.

The holiday of Purim, which we celebrate today, is filled with violence. The evil Haman aims to destroy the Jews of Persia, and his grudge seems to be just the latest stage of a cycle of vengeance going back at least to the time of the Exodus, when his ancestor Amalek attacked the Israelites.

Even the seemingly light-hearted parts of the Purim story can be disturbing. People assume that Esther entered a beauty contest to become Ahasuerus’ queen, but the text doesn’t exactly describe it that way. Instead the Book of Esther tells us that she “was taken into the king’s palace,” without any indication that Esther consented.

One way to read the story is that the king kidnapped many women from his kingdom and brought them into his harem to do with as he pleased. In fact, the Rabbis of the Talmud infer that Esther was raped by Ahasuerus, which certainly provides perspective on her reluctance to risk intervening with the king to save the Jews.

Purim is often considered a kids’ holiday, so we ignore these disturbing details. We don’t mention that the Jews killed 75,000 people with the consent of the king. Some find these aspects of the story deeply troubling and are reluctant to celebrate the holiday.

Violence has always be a part of religion; the question is whether faith leads humans to commit shameful acts or shameful acts are committed in the name of religion because we are human. I don’t think there is an easy or satisfying answer to this question.

On Purim we celebrate a miraculous redemption from an evil fate, but the Book of Esther famously does not mention God’s name. It wasn’t the divine that saved the Jews, rather the courage of Mordecai and Esther. We human beings have tremendous power, both to destroy and to save. The religion I promote encourages the latter.

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