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June 27, 2016

The prayer Jesuit Father Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered at a prayer vigil for the victims of the mass murder at a gay nightclub was straightforward.

Conroy called for peace and an end to "violence against populations of people who are identifiable for who they are, whom they love, what they believe or what race they belong to." He also called on God to give us the grace to "build a world where no person needs to fear violence."

Mass murderers do not always target members of identifiable minorities, but often they do. Indeed, the singling out of groups who are "other," who one identifies as somehow different, is an essential step toward resentment, exclusion, hatred and finally war. The violence within the soul can explode into murderous violence when there is easy access to assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons. Such access may not be the root cause of mass murder, but it is surely the means enabling it to take place.

All major religions are religions of peace. One can look into the holy books of religions and find exceptions to that rule - the Qu'ran for Islam and the Bible for Christians. The book of Joshua, for example, was an extended murderous rampage for the purpose of receiving God's gift of a promised land.

Christian history is marred, for starters, by the blood-thirsty Crusades, the Inquisition, the so-called religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the conquest of the Americas. Such events included efforts by some to exterminate the heathens and make the world right for God.

To be sure, Jesus' teachings provide not a shred of support for murder. Yet, if some Christians want to point the finger at Islam for provoking violence, they ought to first examine the sordid history of our own fellow religionists.

Fortunately, murder is not the last word - or even a central characteristic - of any religion. However, for those intent on wiping out "the other" - whether they be pagans, Jews or people who were different in other ways - religious faith can be distorted into an ideology which rationalizes violence against the "other."

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., went further in discussing the Orlando carnage: "Sadly, it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people."

Secular Western society has not eliminated hatred for "the other." If anything, the phenomenon has grown in the absence of a shared belief that all are created in God's image. It is the task of people of every faith to spread the good news that God's love is universal, that he calls us not to obliterate others, but to understand and even love those who are different - those who too often are despised as our "enemies."