Redeeming Our Religion

Religion has been a source of great human good, a deep reservoir of hope and grace. But we should face up to the dark side as well. Religion is being used for profoundly evil purposes. Bad religion is making our world more dangerous--from Tehran to Norway to Gaza, people are maiming and killing and plotting evil deeds in the name of God and Allah and Yahweh. The killing fields of devout believers are ablaze.

Furthermore, our efforts to preserve our humanity cannot be left solely to political power or military might. Developing smarter and more powerful and more lethal weapons will not be enough. We should learn that more efficiency in killing will not lead us toward more effectiveness in living.

Our faiths, all of them from Confucius to Mohammed, from Abraham to Jesus, would teach us that it will ultimately take more than killing to stop the killing. It will take more than war to end wars. Yet contrary to those spiritual leaders we claim to follow, we are using religion to sponsor wars and to inspire killing. True believers are fanning the flames of hatred and anger. Our religions, especially Judaism and Christianity and Islam, have been hi-jacked by the myth of violence, believing that violence is our best road to the promised land. So our question is this: How can we redeem our religions from this path of evil, where our faiths are being used to ignite the fires of conflict.

Two powerful forces are fueling hyper-religious partisanship and stymieing our efforts to take the first steps toward achieving interfaith understanding. Those forces are fear and ignorance.

When religion is hijacked by fear, the result is some radical brand of religious fundamentalism, which spews out absolutism and exclusivity and hostility toward people of other faiths. Fundamentalists are usually convinced that they alone possess God's truth and they possess it absolutely. Virtually all of the world's major religions today have fallen victim to this self-serving, self-righteous and uncompromising belief system. While it is less true of Chinese religions and Buddhists, Christianity and Judaism and Islam have emerged as the world's most angry religions. For us Christians, I believe that such anger and hostility is contrary to the spirit, to the character, and to the word embodied by Jesus.

Christian fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism, in particular, are making it far more difficult to open compassionate conversations with other faiths; but all fundamentalism, whether it be Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Hindu, is woven from the same fabric. There is not a dime's worth of difference between Christian and Muslin or Jewish fundamentalism. It is born of the same religious instincts, and the consequences are all too often tragically evil.

A religion of fear inevitably leads us toward a religion of violence. Throughout the world people are drowning in fear. It is fear, not faith, that lies at the root of terrorism. It is fear, not faith, that acts with arrogance and bitterness toward other believers. It is fear, not faith, that proclaims doctrinal absolutes and moral certainty in our uncertain world. It is fear, not faith, that trusts violence and hatred more than compassion and grace.

The other force which we must overcome if we are to establish interfaith dialogue is the crippling shackles of ignorance.

It is ignorance, not faith, that teaches creationism as legitimate science. It is ignorance, not faith, that wants us to believe that the Bible is inerrant or infallible. It is ignorance, not faith, that claims that God is the exclusive possession of either Christians or Jews or Muslims.

For those of us who claim to be Christian, we should also acknowledge that the practice of the Christian religion throughout the world often appears to have little in common with the mind and the spirit and the character of Jesus. I recall Mahatma Gandhi, who said, "I would have been a Christian had it not been for Christians."

Jesus set out, I believe, to enable people to see the light of God that had been partially eclipsed by established religion, with all of its doctrines and systems and regulatory rhetoric. Jesus' faith was closer to the street, and on those streets he bumped into the learned, the blind, and the beggars. He crossed paths with the rich and powerful, with outcasts and adulterers. He socialized with young friends and a whole crowd of people who were willing to sit on a hillside to hear what he had to say. The fact is that Jesus was not very discriminating. He embraced tax collectors, Samaritans, and thieves. The word from God which Jesus taught and lived on the streets of Nazareth and Damascus and Jerusalem was this: We are called to relate as God relates to us, to forgive, to become makers of peace, to be instruments of grace, in short, to embrace a new way of living together in the world, including living with those who are committed to diverse religious traditions.

As the centuries have gone by, we have constructed a giant religious corporation called the Christian religion with all of its sub corps called the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, to name a few. Each believes that it offers the best way to protect and to preserve the light from God. I believe Jesus would say to us that God's forgiveness is not conditioned on anybody's religion.

Rather, Jesus simply introduced his disciples and us to a startling new way of being together in the world. It is a way that lifts people up instead of puts people down. It is a way that forgives instead of condemns. It is a way that sits alongside the dispirited and that loves with no expectation of being loved in return. It is a way that says boldly in the face of hatred that love will prevail over hatred. It is a way that says in the face of evil's injuries that goodness will prevail over evil. It is a way that says in the face of senseless killing that life will prevail over death. That light has pointed us toward a better way and has changed our center of gravity for understanding what on earth we are doing here.

Each of the religions of mankind is, I believe, seeking to preserve the light of God's presence in the world; yet our good intentions to preserve God's light through our religious institutions often become platforms for self-indulgent religious arrogance.

The truth of our tradition does not depend upon the untruth of another. What unholy arrogance prompts us to say that the way, the truth and the life has been communicated only to us? We simply have no place to stand to make a judgment on behalf of God on the authenticity of the light by which others live.

Remarkably, some believers cannot seem to trust their own faith unless they can be sure that everybody else is wrong. The claim to possess absolute truth and to be the exclusive ones within God's embrace is saying far more than we know. It leads us toward unseemly prejudice and highhanded religious bigotry.

If we want to build a more peaceable world, we will have to learn that earnest, committed believing does not require hateful and mean-spirited rhetoric. It is misguided, wrong headed, treacherous, to think that respecting another's confession of faith represents disloyalty to our own. It is religious narcissism at its worst. You and I are neither wise enough not good enough to judge the faith of another.

Most of us, not all, are Christians because we grew up in the Christian tradition. Most Muslims, not all, are Muslims because they grew up in the Muslim tradition. Most Jews are Jewish because they grew up in the Jewish tradition. Most Hindus are Hindus because they grew up in that tradition, so most of us, after all, are children of our religious traditions. If we claim to be the children of God, we have to become more willing to embrace our neighbors who confess other faiths while we talk sanely and thoughtfully about our differences. The truth is that self-serving, egocentric religion is morally no better than self-serving, egocentric behavior.

All our religions, including our own, are broken vessels, perhaps born of life but molded by human hands. These human vessels are chipped and scarred from centuries of abuse and misuse. We must take these broken and cracked and scarred vessels and mend them as best we can into instruments of peace and hope in our muddled world. We cannot afford for our religions simply to be used to inspire acts of destruction. We can embody a better way.

I believe that we must begin to reach out in friendship and compassion to earnest believers of other faiths. That surely does not mean that we should be silent when people use their religious faith to justify vengeance and meanness. Holy meanness is still meanness. Muslims must speak out against the perversion of Islam by the Jihadists. Christians must speak out against the atrocities committed by individuals who claim to be the Christian army of God. Jews must speak out against those who understand the promise of God to be simply about the possession of land rather than living as the people of God.

Our religions have to be re-imagined and reclaimed. It is our obligation, I believe, to save our religions from these tragic episodes of partisan abuse. Hans Kung was right: "There will be no peace in the world until there is peace among religions."

Surely, we understand that our religions cannot resolve every human conflict. We cannot eliminate every dark episode of human injustice, but we can do this. You and I can become a vigilant voice for a better way. We in good faith as people of faith from across the world can reach out to become a voice for peace instead of war. We can stop conferring holiness on our violent episodes of revenge. We can begin to replace incendiary rhetoric with reason and respect. Our religious gatherings can become forums for achieving hope and understanding instead of being used as preachments for conflict and alienation.

In the end, all of us should be buoyed by this realization. Our ultimate hope rests solely in God. Our hope rests in God's grace and God's presence with us, not in our frail and flawed religious institutions, shaped by human hands that sometimes run aground.

To my fellow Christians and to my Muslim and Jewish friends and to those who look at us Christians with a wary eye, I wish to say that I believe that our hope will not rest in some presumed facts that we believe in the right God. If there is hope for humankind, if there is hope for each of us, any hope at all, it lies in the prospect that the God who stands above all our small claims to have corralled the truth, that the God who stands above all our trivial claims to have captured God in our fragmented religious systems, if there is any hope at all, it lies in this: that the God who is not a Christian, that the God who is not a Jew, that the God who is not a Muslim, believes in us and lifts us up above our partisan divides, that the God above all our little gods loves and embraces us without condition. I believe God yearns to set us free, free from our warring ways. God yearns to set us free, free from our haughty condescension toward other believers, free from our addiction to violence, so that one day, so that one day as a new dawn breaks, we can embrace one another as children of God.