When Religion Becomes Evil—Part Two

November 23, 2003



When Religion Becomes Evil—Part Two (11/23/03)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Last week we looked at a book by Charles Kimball entitled When Religion Becomes Evil. In this book, Kimball looks at the times the world’s religions have strayed from their original purposes. Every religion known to humanity has gone through periods when its adherents acted in shameful ways—ways that would bring tears to the eyes of the religion’s founder.

Kimball then identifies five signs that a religion is being corrupted. We spent last week talking about the first of those five signs—absolute truth claims. Whenever a group of religious people start claiming they have an exclusive and absolute truth denied to people of other faiths, the core message of love, justice and peace that form the foundation of all great religions has been corrupted.

We spent a great deal of time on this notion of absolute truth claims, because it lies at the root of the other four corruptions of religion, which we will review this morning. Those other four signs that religion is becoming evil are: blind obedience; establishing an ideal time; the end justifies any means; and declaring holy war.

Let’s first consider blind obedience. This is one I never have to worry about around this place. There is something about Congregationalists—they like to think for themselves. And while you have always been willing to listen to—and tolerate—just about anything I have to say, I have never seen any danger that you would suddenly stop thinking for yourselves and blindly follow me down some misguided path.

And that’s good! Because time and again, people have been willing to turn off their brains, close their eyes to the obvious truth, close their ears to the voice of reason, close their hearts to the voice of love, and follow some religious leader who claims to be in possession of the absolute truth.

It’s easy to point toward the powerful leaders of a few radical Islamic groups—groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad—and see how their suicidal followers are under the spell of blind obedience, as they slaughter innocents in the conviction this will earn them a place in paradise. But blind obedience is a curse that has tainted all religions. The fact is, authentic religion challenges people to wrestle with the mystery of life and death, and asks them to seek ways to build a peaceful and loving world. There is no place for blind obedience in authentic religion.

James Warren Jones was born in Indiana in 1931, and was heavily influenced by the call for social justice and racial equality. He started a Pentecostal-style church called the People’s Temple, which grew at an astounding pace under his charismatic leadership. His commitment to social justice led the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to grant him ordination in 1960—a decision they regret to this day.
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In the early 60’s, Jones and his church was a powerful voice for the civil rights movement. He preached human freedom, equality and love. In the mid-sixties the congregation moved to California, where it continued to grow. They formed a communal society, and each member gave all of his or her assets to the Temple to be shared by everyone.

The media scrutiny of Jones and the People’s Temple was intense. There were charges of corruption. In 1974 Jones acquired a tract of land in Guyana, and moved to the South American jungle with a few close associates. He remained in communication with—and in control of—the Temple in California. The South American Temple was named Jonestown, and it started with only 50 people in 1974.

Jim Jones insisted on absolute obedience. His words were never to be questioned. He taught that a nuclear holocaust was imminent. He spoke of the necessity of the saved being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice with “revolutionary suicide.”

At the request of family members of people caught up in Jones’ People’s Temple, California congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to see what was going on with this strange cult. In November of 1977, the congressman and his delegation were murdered as they tried to leave Jonestown. Eyewitnesses who escaped the ensuing carnage report that Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Those who protested were shot by armed guards. When investigators arrived at the scene, there were 914 people from the People’s Temple —including 276 children—who lay on the ground, victims of mass suicide-murder.

At the heart of this tragedy—at the root of this strange mix of absolute truth claims and blind obedience—lies an authority figure claiming the end of the world is near. And this is a common element of corrupted religion. The followers of Asahara Shoko in Japan found no moral problem with filling the subways of Tokyo with poison gas. After all, according to their leader, the end of the world was near anyway. They were on a mission from God.

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Koresh claimed he had been sent by God to open the seven seals as prophesied in Revelation. He said the apocalypse would occur not in the Middle East, but in the United States. Husbands willingly stopped having marital relationships with their wives so Koresh could take the women as “spiritual wives,” keeping the seed of God in its purest form.

We all know how that situation ended. Many Americans who have no good feelings for David Koresh believe our government handled that situation poorly. In his book, however, Charles Kimball uses the followers of Koresh as an example of blind obedience, and for good reason. Sexual license for a charismatic leader is a recurring theme in many cults. We saw this occur with David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Asahara Shoko.

Let’s move from blind obedience to the third sign a religion has become evil: establishing the ideal time. The most obvious place we see this corruption of religion is in modern Israel, where fundamental elements of both Judaism and Christianity, who agree on almost nothing, have agreed that the third Temple must be built in Jerusalem. Listen carefully to this little story, because if this were written in the form of a novel, nobody would publish it because it sounds too absurd—too far-fetched to be believable. But it’s true.

First, a short history lesson is necessary. King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem about 1000 years before the life of Jesus. In 587 B.C., that Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews were exiled to Babylon in what is called the Babylonian Captivity. They returned to the Holy Land about 50 years later. Soon, a second Temple was built on the site of Solomon’s original Temple. It stood until just after the time of Jesus, and then, in the year 70 A.D., it was destroyed by the Romans. And so, for almost 2000 years, faithful Hebrew people have awaited the building of a third Temple on that same cite.

Oddly, fundamental Christians also very much want for that third Temple to be built. Both the fundamental Jews and the fundamental Christians agree that once the third Temple is built, God’s “ideal time” will be established on the earth. But they have differing notions of what that ideal time will be like—different dreams of what will happen once the third Temple is constructed. The Jewish belief is that once the Temple is built, the true Messiah will appear on earth. The awaited one, which Christians mistakenly identified as Jesus, will finally come to reestablish the glory of Israel, and to take his place in the Temple as the High Priest and ruler of Israel.

And the fundamental Christians think the Jews are right—up to a point. However, it is their contention that the person the Jews put in the Temple—the person the Jews think is the Messiah—will actually be the antichrist. Why is this good news? Because according to those Christian fundamentalists, once the antichrist has appeared, and the Jews have placed him in the Temple, Jesus will finally return to lead the forces of goodness in the Battle of Armageddon. He will defeat the antichrist, Satan will finally and ultimately be conquered, and the world we know will come to an end.

Seriously, if you wrote a book with this plot, nobody would believe it. But here you have extremists from two religions working together to bring about the ideal time. Never mind that they have entirely different views of what will happen once they get together and set the stage for this amazing event. Oh, and there’s one other little detail I left out of this story—a detail I’m sure you are all aware of. The Temple Mount, where the third Temple is to be built—there’s an Islamic mosque there right now. The only thing that seems certain is that if the radical factions of these faiths have their way, there will indeed be a battle to end all battles.

Let’s move to Charles Kimball’s 4th sign that religion has become evil: the end justifies any means. Staying in the Middle East situation for a moment, Ariel Sharon ignited that always simmering political and religious stew when, in September of 2000, he and his followers took a walk across the Temple Mount, parading past that controversial Mosque. Sharon was not Prime Minister at that time—he was the leader of the Likud Party. His stroll across the Temple Mount was a blatant misuse of religion for the purpose of political gain. And it had the desired effect. It strengthened his position among Israeli hard-liners, and it inflamed the Palestinians. Violence escalated, and Sharon was elected Prime Minister.

And politically speaking, it’s hard to find the good guys in this non-stop killing that the powers in Israel and Palestine are inflicting on their people. Charles Kimball states it as well as I’ve heard it said: “When people are called on to do violence to their neighbor in the service of a righteous cause, they should know that something is dreadfully wrong.”

Consider that nuclear powder-keg called Kashmir, where India and Pakistan meet. In February of 2002, a group of zealous Hindus, after building a Temple on the site of the birthplace of a Hindu god, were returning home on a train. Muslim extremists set the train ablaze, and 58 of the Hindus died. In the next few days, 600 Muslims were slaughtered in towns throughout the area. We do not have the time to enter the depths of the Hindu faith, but killing a human being violates the immutable laws of karma. To do such a thing is similar to knowingly and willingly damning yourself. And yet, in this case, the end justified the means. There was no time to let the karmic cycle of life and death bring forth justice.

Ethnic Cleansing is the primary example of “the end justifies the means” thinking. There are plenty of times this has happened, but unfortunately, Christians have a pretty poor track record in this regard. In the 4th century, many Christian theologians took exception to the way some followers of Jesus were accepting of the Jews as friends and neighbors. John Chrysostom (kris-AHS-tum) wrote:

I know that many people hold a high regard for the Jew, and consider their way of life worthy of respect at the present time. This is why I am hurrying to pull up this fatal notion by the roots… A synagogue is not only a whorehouse…it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals.

This sentiment haunted the church for centuries, and came to ugly light when Pope Innocent III put forth the guidelines for persecuting heretics in 1215. Thus began the Inquisition. To be found guilty of heresy meant one was to be burned at the stake—slowly. The whole point was for it to be horrific in every way. It was almost 300 years later that the Inquisition reached its heights, in Spain. In 1492—the same year Columbus set sail for America—King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle decided it was time to cleanse Spain of all Jews. The end justified the means—Spain was to be a Christian country. Jews either converted to Christianity, left Spain, or were killed.

The horrors of the Third Reich have been well-documented, and there is no reason to re-live them this morning. But we should never forget that it was Christians who committed those atrocities. And it was Christian churches, in Germany, that looked the other way during holocaust. And it was Christian people, whose devotion to their government was more important to them than their devotion to their faith, that allowed themselves to be convinced that the dropping of bombs and the death of innocent people was not in conflict with their Christian faith. (As an aside, I would highly recommend the movie Amen, which is out on video, to anybody who has an interest in the way both the Protestant and Catholic Churches were complicit in the holocaust.)

The 5th and final sign that religion is becoming evil is “the declaring of holy war.” To me, this is the most frightening part of Kimball’s book, because we have a world that is teetering on the brink of holy war. Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine. Mulsims and Hindus in Pakistan and India. Christians and Muslims in Nigeria and the Philippines. If the third Temple is somehow built, Christians and Jews in Israel. We cannot escape the fact that wars—and potential wars—all over the world are being framed in a religious context.

But to wage war in a religious context is a distortion of the very religion the warrior claims to be defending. There are three religious approaches to war: pacifism, just war doctrine, and the Crusade. Speaking from the Christian perspective, which is the only perspective I am educated enough to speak on with any sort of expertise, most agree that Jesus was a pacifist. But the followers of Jesus are not themselves Jesus. There are records of Christians serving in the military as early as the year 170 A.D.—about one-and-a-half centuries after the death of Jesus. And ever since the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have served in the military.

I would love to tell you that I am a pacifist, but I’m not. I admit that if somebody I love is in danger from another person, I will do whatever it takes to protect my loved one. But I won’t make my stand in the name of Jesus. Likewise, I believe there are times when a nation must take extraordinary measures to protect its people. But again, I hope a nation never does that in the name of Jesus.

Opposite pacifism is the Crusade, and we don’t need to say too much about that. A crusade is a holy war waged for the purpose of spreading one’s religion. It has happened throughout history, and it has never been right.

And that leaves the just war theory. There are several versions of it, and most people agree that nations should always attempt to live up to the basic tenets of the just war theory; it must have right intention; it must advance the greater good; it must not be vengeful; the innocent must not suffer; it must be a last resort; and so on.

St. Augustine, who originally came up with the just war theory, knew that when a war was approaching, people would always disagree about whether or not it would be justifiable to go to war; but he said there was one way to know, after the fact, whether or not you had fought a just war, or an unjust war. If a nation was forced into a just war, they will have fought the war with tears in their eyes, asking for God’s forgiveness. But if they fought with pride in their might, claiming that their weapons were the very swords of God’s justice, they will have fought an unjust war, and they will have corrupted their faith.

Well, that is a brief summary of the five signs that religion is becoming evil: absolute truth claims; blind obedience; establishing the ideal time; the end justifies any means; and declaring holy war. It is easily corrupted, but religion is still a good thing. Religion is what anchors us on our spiritual journeys. Religion is the way we embrace the mystery of being, and give thanks for the opportunity to share life with others.

And despite their different approaches, all religions are in agreement about a few basic ideas. First, human beings are responsible, as individuals, for their behavior in this world. And second, what a person does in his or her lifetime is somehow connected to a larger understanding of the universe. How we live matters. We should always remember that regardless of our religious convictions, our personal understanding of the truth cannot begin to exhaust all the possibilities. And I think it would serve us all well to consider that when the final curtain falls, it is hard to imagine God judging us harshly for having angered too slowly, forgiven too quickly, or loved too recklessly.