The Sin of Sanctity

Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.

The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.

In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”

When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.

Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.

So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on February 9, 2015, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Political Conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It’s interesting to read this essay alongside a book by Corman, Tretheway and Goodall (2008, Lang) entitled Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communication to Combat Violent Extremism. Both draw upon communication theory, maintaining that better communication can overcome differences and win over contested audiences. Corman et al. claim that “violent extremism” is less controversial–hence more appealing to those in the middle–than “war on terrorism.” They argue further that traditional communication theory (think Berlo) is counterproductive. Key concepts are systems thinking, better and worse narratives, and framings.
    I came away unimpressed. Our stories fail the test of perceived fairness in a Muslim world raised on narratives of crusades, colonialism, then invasions and unwelcome occupations, buttressed by ideologies of superiority, as expressed, for example, in British, Israeli-Jewish, and American-Christian exceptionalism.
    Entertain this hypothesis: that ISIS is the blowback effect of Western communication (in the broad sense inclusive of actions taken as well as speech).

  2. So ISIS is our fault? I don’t think so

  3. I am not sure what media you are talking about. But it now seems that both sides complain of a skewed media. But if tge story is being tilted why did the story if the Gaza invasion begin with the kudnapping of the three Israelis and not the killing of two young Palestinians the week before. And why did the NY Times have a cover article last week about the killing of the Israeli soldiers but no cover article about the Israeli attack the week before. My cynical take is that the bottom line is not truth but sales. Your article would be bolstered by some factual evidence.

  4. You are confused about something. The blog post you reference, “the sin of sanctity” is not about media. The word media never even occurs in the posting. So frankly I don’t know what you’re talking about in terms of actual evidence. It was an opinion statement with a point or an argument. Were you referring to another post?

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