Modern psychology sheds light on age-old religious strife

April 05, 2004

(Kingston, ON) - Drawing on modern psychological concepts like post-traumatic stress disorder, a Queen's University researcher concludes that today's religious strife may have a direct link to the violence of the Easter story and the crucifixion.

The traditional Christian interpretation of the violent death of Jesus on the cross contains an unresolved conflict that has inflamed anti-Semitism in the past, and may be contributing to religious hostility today, says Queen's Religious Studies Professor William Morrow, a specialist in biblical literature with research interests in violence and religion.

Dr. Morrow analyzes ancient biblical texts in light of contemporary concepts about the effects of violence, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and vicarious trauma.

"There are distinct risks when the violence of the Easter story is emphasized, as it is in Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ," says Dr. Morrow. "It is naïve to think that a focus on the brutality of the crucifixion will have no negative effects on a culture that is still basically shaped by the Christian myth." In fact, some recent expressions of anti-Semitism in North America can be associated with Gibson's film, he notes.

Violent trauma alters a person's self-perception and world view in negative ways. A common characteristic of persons suffering from PTSD is a conflicted interpretation of their trauma. They believe that the violence they experienced was unfair and undeserved, yet at the same time they attempt to justify it (for example, by identifying with the perpetrator).

Developments and changes in beliefs, ritual practices, and mythology in various world religions can be traced to the effects of violence, Dr. Morrow contends. In an article to be published this fall as part of a collection of essays on "Psychology and the Bible: A New Way to Read the Scriptures" he uses the theory of PTSD as a way to interpret the famous and disputed passage about the "suffering servant" in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 53, from the Jewish Bible/Christian Old Testament.

The biblical passage is a message from an unnamed prophet that was delivered to dispirited Israelites whose families had been deported when Babylonians destroyed their homes in Judah and Jerusalem a generation earlier. Through the story of the suffering servant, the prophet attempts to alleviate and re-frame the Israelites' feelings of shame and helplessness. For the first time, Dr. Morrow's theory applies ideas surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder to the interpretation of this key biblical passage.

A goal in contemporary PTSD therapy is to help victims of violence recover by eliminating the idea that the violence they experienced was somehow deserved.

"That's exactly what does not happen in Isaiah 53, because a conflicted interpretation of traumatic suffering was not resolved," says Dr. Morrow. "The people addressed by the prophet are told that although they don't deserve their present suffering, the destruction of Jerusalem in the previous generation was a just punishment by God." But the suffering of the exiled generation was supposed to have a vicarious value, in that future generations would not have to experience the same punishment (violence) deserved by their ancestors.

The same contradiction applies when Jesus' death is interpreted in light of Isaiah 53, the Religious Studies professor suggests. "The message is that this violence [of the crucifixion] was invalid because Jesus was innocent, but at the same time was valid because He took on the punishment that the human race deserves. This is where an anti-Semitic potential lies, which is frequently unnoticed."

While the most obvious potentially anti-Semitic message in the crucifixion story stems from a downplaying of the Roman government's responsibility, readers of the Gospels may also become conflicted when they interpret Jesus' death in terms of the suffering servant story, Dr. Morrow continues. "The violence is bad, but the violence is also good. When the violence of the cross is emphasized, the conflict becomes more severe. One way out is to discharge the conflict by scapegoating - and the story makes the Jews a ready target."

There is an historic relationship between Good Friday services emphasizing the brutality of the crucifixion and Easter progroms (organized massacres) that have occurred in some eastern European peasant cultures, he notes. People have deflected their guilt and fear about being implicated in the violent death of Jesus.

"We need an interpretation of the cross from another perspective, which is 100 per cent against violence," says Dr. Morrow. "I don't think we get that if we concentrate on Jesus as 'suffering servant' in the conventional sacrificial interpretation of the crucifixion
Additional Contact:
Lorinda Peterson, Queen's News & Media Services, 613.533.3234

Queen's University

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