When Religion Becomes Evil – Part One

November 16, 2003



When Religion Becomes Evil – Part One (11/16/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Charles Kimball is a professor of religion at Wake Forest University. He received his doctorate in comparative religion from Harvard, and his specialization is the study of Islam. In 1979, when Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 53 Americans hostage, Charles Kimball was drawn into that amazing 444 day ordeal. The Iranian government refused to deal with anybody other than religious leaders, and in December of 1979, he was one of seven people invited to Iran to discuss the hostage situation. Over the 18-months of negotiations, Kimball was warmly received by both the militant students, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Speaker of the Parliament Rafsanjani. As you know, that terrible ordeal ended happily, with the hostages being released unharmed.

Before becoming a professor, Kimball served the National Council of Churches as director of its Middle East office. I mention all this not to relive history, but only to establish the fact that Charles Kimball has excellent credentials when it comes to religion and the world situation; and to explain why I was thrilled to see a new book by Charles Kimball entitled, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs.

I was reading this book when American Lt. General William Boykin made his absurd and ill-timed comments about the God of Islam being a false idol, the United States being a Christian nation, and the enemy of the United States being Satan. I’ve never been more relived than when our president promptly rejected those remarks and distanced himself from General Boykin; and I’ve never been more disappointed than when a handful of congressman came rushing to Boykin’s defense.

We are facing a grave situation in the world today, and the volatility of the political climate is being fueled by religious extremism—on all sides. Charles Kimball’s book could not have arrived at a better time.

Kimball says that the Middle East of today serves as a microcosm of the whole world tomorrow. We must find a way to make peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arabs, because that situation is poised to play out on a worldwide scale. One thing is clear, and should be of overwhelming concern to those of us who live in the United States: Israel’s vast military superiority has not been able to maintain the peace.

Military might cannot create an enduring peace. Now, Kimball is not a pacifist. He understands that there are times when people and nations are forced into war. But he also recognizes that we have only two choices. We can either give up and say, there will always be war fueled by religious fervor, and there is nothing we can do about it; or we can look to the peaceful roots in all of our religions, and vow to stand against intolerance in each of our religions.

So this week and next, I will examine the “five warning signs” that religion is becoming evil. In his book, Kimball is very even-handed. Nobody gets off the hook. He gives examples of times when virtually every major religion has been corrupted. I too will try to be even-handed, although I will speak mostly of Christianity and Islam, since those are the two faiths that seem to be on a cataclysmic collision course.

Kimball insists that religion is not the problem. It is the corruption of religion that is the problem. We cannot do away with religion. It is hardwired into the very essence of humanity. He cites Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which says there are two major poles that attract and sustain human beings. The Lexus is the symbol of wealth, and represents the economic and technological aspects of our lives. The olive tree represents our roots, the most powerful of these roots being religion. Religion is part of who we are.

Kimball says that the same principle lies at the heart of all religion: love of God and neighbor. And while it may not always be easy to recognize when a religion is becoming corrupted, there is a sure way of knowing when the corruption has already occurred. Whenever religion is used as a justification for violence, or for destructive behavior toward others, that religion has been corrupted. Religion cannot cause suffering and remain true to its heart. No religion is founded on the principle of causing pain to others. No religion advocates killing. But the history of religion is in many ways the history of religious war. How does this happen?
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Kimball identifies five warning signs that a religion is being corrupted: Absolute truth claims; blind obedience; establishing the “ideal” time; the end justifies any means; and declaring holy war. Today we will concentrate on the disastrous tendency of religions to make absolute truth claims.

In many ways, religion is the search for truth. No human being sets out to think incorrectly about how and why we exist. Nobody tires to conceive of God in the wrong way. The very nature of religion is to make truth claims. In every single religion, there are some basic assumptions—some basic truth claims—that establish the foundation upon which the entire religious structure is built.

The problem begins when people fail to realize that human beings are limited in their ability to comprehend the truth. Authentic religious truth cannot be stated without flexibility. Some of my most powerful memories of seminary are of the many people who began seminary, and left disillusioned within a single semester. People arrive filled with inspiration, and high hopes; but they are told to take everything they believe, and set it out on the table for examination. Each piece of one’s faith is scrutinized—tested against 2000 years of theological arguments. It is humbling, because you soon realize that the truth is not as tidy as you might wish. And many people, unable to accept the ambiguity inherent in the faithful search for truth, leave—often with crushed spirits—after only a month or two.

I bring this up because the author, Charles Kimball, relates a similar experience. Some of his seminary studies took place under Dale Moody, a famous conservative theologian. He was studying the Doctrine of the Atonement. I will quote from Kimball’s book:

What could be more basic or central to Christianity than Jesus’ death and resurrection? Throughout the course we studied biblical materials and read extensively from the writings of leading Christian thinkers—from early church leaders Iranaeus (ira-NAY-us), Origen, and Augustine to Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, as well as several major contemporary theologians. By the end of the semester I had an A in the course and far more questions than concrete answers about the central truth of the world’s largest religion. Why was Jesus’ self-sacrifice necessary? Why do the four gospels differ significantly in the recounting of this sacred story? What exactly happened on Good Friday, during the next two days, and on Easter Sunday morning? What was accomplished and how? Does everyone benefit or only the ones God has chosen? Does Jesus sacrifice have significance for anyone who doesn’t know anything about him or it, such as small children living in remote corners of the world? If so, how? If not, why not?

Kimball says that he learned a valuable lesson in that first year of seminary: even the most basic religious truth requires interpretation.

Christians make the claim that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The central claim of Islam is equally simple: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God. The first part of the claim—there is no God but God—not only rejects the belief in multiple gods, it warns against the false idols of wealth, fame and power. The second half—Muhammad is the messenger of God—claims that Muhammad is the final great prophet of God, who provided humanity with God’s greatest divine revelation: the Quran.

The problems arise when the people of a religion decide the truth claims of their faith make false the truth claims of other faiths. The problems arise when people believe their truth claims are absolute. There is a simple fact that we would all be wise to remember: pure knowledge of God is impossible. There are many ways of knowing God, but nobody, and no religion, has the final say.

How can we know God? Most religions agree that God can be partially known in many ways—for example, experience, reason, intuition, and revelation. Another area of agreement between devout theologians from every religion is that religious language is symbolic. Whatever it is that we experience, or understand, or intuit, when we apprehend the divine—the eternal—whatever it is that we grasp—it can be communicated to others only by way of symbols.

Image that you are deaf, and that you have been deaf since birth. Imagine somebody putting the score—the sheet music—to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in front of you. Now imagine that the person beside you is moving ecstatically to the sounds of the symphony. And he points to the printed music, and smiles, and says, “Isn’t it beautiful!? Isn’t it amazing?” And you look at the paper, and the dots of ink splashed across the pages…and you just don’t get it. You see the symbols for the music, but you do not hear the music.

Our religions are like those pages of music. They are not God—they are not the symphony. They are the symbols that point toward the symphony, the symbols that help us understand the symphony. But making absolute truth claims about a particular religion would be like holding up the score to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and saying, “This is it! This paper is the absolute and total glory of Beethoven’s 5th. If you have seen the score, you have experienced the symphony in its totality.”

In the aftermath of September 11th, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham each declared that Allah was a false god. Each of these evangelists believe that Christianity is the only true faith, and that worshipping God in any way other than through Jesus Christ is a sure-fire ticket to hell. Further, Falwell and Robertson claimed that the Christian God had allowed the attack to happen as a way of punishing America for its tolerance of abortionists, pagans, feminists, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and gays and lesbians.

We must remember, when we look on in horrified disbelief at those who twist the Islamic faith into something ugly, that Christianity has more than its share of people who take the teachings of the one who said, “Do not return evil for evil, “ as justify war in his name; people who, in the name of the one who said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” claim that most of the world is bound for hell because they don’t practice religion the right way. That is the ultimate judgment. Judging another human being as standing outside the grace of God is the most heinous judgment a person can make.

What is the world to think of the Christian faith when Bailey Smith, then the president of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States—the Southern Baptist Convention—says that God—the God of the Bible—does not hear the prayers of Jews. When asked to explain why God would refuse to hear the prayers of the Chosen People of the Bible, Smith explained that God would like to hear the prayers of the Jews, but he can’t. Prayers uttered in anything other than the name of Jesus simply cannot make it through to God.

The abuse of sacred texts is another area where absolute truth claims defile religion. Because the Quran says that those who die “striving in the way of God” go immediately to paradise, instead of the intermediate state that normally awaits a person between death and the final judgment, extremist leaders in Hezbollah have declared that any attack against Israelis that results in death merits heaven. The fact is, there are isolated parts of the Quran that some extremists use to justify horrible acts, just like there are isolated parts of the Bible that can be used to justify war, slavery, and the abasement of women and children. But it takes a very selective reading of the Quran to produce such an interpretation. Not only does the Quran strictly forbid suicide, it prohibits the killing of women, children and noncombatants, even in the midst of war.

It is impossible to honestly envision Muhammad sneaking a bomb onto a bus in Tel Aviv, just as it is impossible to envision Jesus piloting an F-16 and dropping bombs on the West Bank. Neither of those men could stand the idea of innocent people being killed in warfare. We’ll talk more about that next week when we discuss another corruption of religion—holy war.

But for now let’s return to this notion of absolute truth claims. There is a reason that Christianity and Islam seem to be on a collision course. They are both missionary religions. Think about it. Can you recall a single time when a Jew has asked you to renounce your religion and convert to Judaism? When was the last time somebody asked you if you had devoted your life to Buddha? How often have you been approached by some Hindu who wanted to pray for the release of your soul from the karmic wheel of rebirth?

Christianity and Islam are the missionary religions. Followers of each of those religions are expected to carry either the Good News, or the Islamic call to faith, to the entire world. The irony is obvious. Both of these religions are religions of peace; but a narrow understanding of their religious missions has been combined with self-righteousness and military power. The result is a massive corruption of both faiths that destroys the very core of both religions. What was meant to be a witness to God’s love and mercy becomes an excuse for violence.

I have spent a fair bit of time this morning on this idea of absolute truth claims. Of the five warning signs that religion is becoming evil, absolute truth claims lay at the foundation of the other four, which we’ll cover next week.

First, however, we should note a few important commonalities between Christianity and Islam. First, the truly faithful of both religions believe in peace and justice. Second, there are extremists in both faiths who twist their religion for political reasons. Third, while the faithful of each religion are expected to tell others about God’s love and mercy, conversion is left up to God. The Quran specifically states, “There can be no compulsion in matters of religion.” And as anybody who reads the gospels knows, Jesus never forced anybody to do anything.

And the most important commonality between Christianity and Islam may be this: both traditions teach that human beings are accountable for what they do on earth. They both teach that there will be a judgment. Interestingly, in the stories of the final judgment from each religion’s holy scriptures, neither religion seems to be all that concerned with the actual practice of worship. Neither religion seems to be overly concerned with “right belief.”

According to the Quran, when a person stands before God on the Day of Judgment, those who (quote) “were not careful to feed the poor…have no advocate on this day.” Similarly, we all know the scene of the final judgment from Matthew, as Jesus separates the sheep and the goats. The separation is not based on religious belief; it is based solely on how people treated those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison.

As we will see next week, it is pretty difficult to reconcile the heart of either faith with blind obedience. And it’s not just the puppets of the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah who fall under this spell. We mustn’t forget people like Jim Jones and David Koresh. There are plenty of modern examples of what happens when in the name of religion, people stop thinking, and allow somebody else to establish the absolute truth for them. Even a great deal of relatively mainstream Christianity seems to be based on blind obedience to absolute truth claims—supposedly unquestionable answers, to what are actually unanswerable questions.

We’ll pick up from there next week. In the meantime, let us remember that our grasp on the truth is always limited. And let us always anchor our practice of religion, and our attitude toward others, not on judgment, but on love. After all, it is surely our hope—and our conviction—that God’s ultimate attitude toward us will be based not on judgment, but on love.