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Sermon for October 18, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Religion, Violence, and Evil
Luke 9:51-5; 1 Samuel 15:3-8
Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.” So Saul mobilized his army at Telaim. There were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 men from Judah. Then Saul and his army went to a town of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. Saul sent this warning to the Kenites: “Move away from where the Amalekites live, or you will die with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites packed up and left. Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt. He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else.
What an ugly passage. It is a word from God for the King of Israel to wipe out an entire people. In our holy of scriptures, we hear a command to commit genocide. And it’s not our only terrifying text. Read the Bible closely and you will see stories that endorse punishing the children and grandchildren, of a sinner (Exodus 20:5-6), using torture against captives (2 Samuel 12:26-31), legal rape of female prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18; Deuteronomy 21:11-14), slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Colossians 4:1), religious intolerance, and transferring punishment of sin from the guilty to the innocent (Gen. 3:5-6, Genesis 6:5-13; Leviticus 16:8-34). Our Christian Scriptures are not exempt, as we hear in our reading from Luke. As Jesus preaches peace, his disciples are ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy their enemies. In Christian history, texts have been found to “prove” that Jews are Christ killers. What is going on here? We need a way to deal with these stories, these texts of terror. In a world where there are those who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we need to be explicit about how we handle these passages of Scripture. How does one argue with a Divine command to wipe out a people?

The fact is some people don’t ague. They think that their religious texts give them permission to do evil and call it good. Most of us have some to believe that Islam is this kind of religion, especially after 9/11. The most distressing feature of terrorism by Islamic extremists is that that the perpetrators believe that they have the right to murder people in order to achieve religious and political goals. The religiously motivated bombings and attacks by terrorist Muslim groups are too numerous to be listed. Among them are:
• 2005: Delhi bombing
• 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh bombing
• 2005: London Underground bombing
• 2004: Beslan school occupation by Chechens
• 2004: Madrid trains bombing
• 2002: Bali nightclub bombing
• 2001: World Trade Center and Pentagon crashes
• 1998: U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania bombings
• 1988: Lockerbie crash
A significant percentage of North Americans blame all Muslims and/or all Arabs for terrorist acts. Others blame all fundamentalists within Islam. But in fact, the responsibility rests with extreme, radical, violent, fundamentalist Muslims; a numerically small group among the world’s approximately 1.2 billion Muslims.

Islam is not the only religion that has committed acts of violence in the name of God. Jewish terrorist actions are performed on a much smaller scale, and are limited to the Near East. Among the best known cases of Jewish terrorism is the 1994 machine-gunning of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the town of Hebron. A single terrorist killed 29 people and wounded about 150 before being killed himself. The killer, Baruch Goldstein, was an American medical doctor. He became a hero to the extremists, and the marble plaque on his grave reads: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the Nation of Israel”.

And yes, Christians do it, too. While religiously motivated terrorist actions by Christians are relatively rare in the West, verbal expressions of intolerance are far more widespread. Consider the following pronouncements by various Christian leaders: In 1980, Bailey Smith, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., made national news by announcing that “God does not hear the prayers of a Jew.” At the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Vines denounced Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” He also condemned religious diversity as a major problem in America. There is a recent movement in Protestant Christianity called The Recontructionist movement. It claims that the coming reign of Jesus will abolish democracy, the separation of church and state, abortion, religious freedom, federal welfare programs, and many other features of modern society.

There are many additional examples of violence committed by religious people all over the world. For example: The assassination of Sri Lanka’s prime minister by a Buddhist monk. Buddhism strictly prohibits killing of any sentient life form, by the way. How about the bomb that destroyed an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic, killing all 329 people abroad? Both Sikh and Kashmiri terrorists were blamed (although these attacks were probably motivated by political reasons and not by religion).

Whether ancient or modern, violence in God’s name knows no boundaries. All religions have engaged in sacred terror, including widow burning, child sacrifice, caste systems, mass suicide, female genital mutilation, witch hunts, ritual abuse, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, and apartheid—the list is depressingly long. Christians killed thousands in the Crusades and Inquisitions, defended slavery, were complicit in the Holocaust that killed six million Jews, ravaged the Native American peoples, and have murdered abortion doctors and gays, and their actions were somewhat based on their interpretation of selected biblical texts. What do we do with these texts? How do wee handle these “hard passages” in the Bible that appear to conflict with today’s moral consensus? There are some profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in the Bible when it’s compared to today’s secular and religious ethical systems. These passages cast religion in a bad light. They cause many people to reject religion, and may contribute to the legitimization of violence throughout the culture.

Is Religion Dangerous? Do we need to edit our Bibles and eliminate texts of terror? Let’s just get to the point. Religion is not bad. Religion is not evil. Religion is not dangerous. However, people can be bad, evil and dangerous. They can use religion as a way to support what they want to do. Any Muslim who cites the Qur’an or Hadith to support their view that Islam should forcibly convert the world to Islam, stands in direct opposition to every scholarly tradition of Islam. The term jihad, which means “striving”, is primarily meant to mean the heart’s striving to obey God. Jihad as violent force is a secondary meaning. Most Muslim scholars say that violent jihad is confined to the defense of Islam against unjust attack.

Any Jew who calls for the conquest of Egypt, Syria and Iraq by Israel would be regarded as demented by virtually all Rabbis. The biblical command to take care of foreigners who live in the Holy Land far outweighs any texts about holy war or conquest.

The vast majority of Christian churches regret Crusades and pogroms. Most of us interpret these as misunderstandings of Jesus’ command to love enemies and seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.

Religious Scriptures can be misused. When we do that, we ignore the weightier matters of our Holy Books – the love of God and neighbor, the search for compassion and mercy. In other words, there are violent texts that can be found and used by those who are filled with rage and hatred. Using violent texts to justify hatred ignores the historical scholarly interpretations in all of our traditions. By selectively choosing certain texts that support their aims, evil people choose hatred and intolerance over debate and dialogue. Religion does not cause intolerance. I think it’s quite the opposite. Intolerance uses religion to give alleged “moral support” to hatred.

We need to learn the warning signs that religion has become evil and evil has become religious. Here are some warning signs:

Fanatical claims of absolute truth. This includes:
  • Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Identifying and rationalizing “end times” scenarios in the name of religion.
  • Justifying religious ends by dubious means.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy,
Another sign is demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, and claiming that God is on your side alone.

We should judge religions by their most authentic examples rather than by their worst corruptions. Sacred terror is almost always complex and bound up with other causes (social, historical, economic, cultural, political, etc). But at the end of the day, we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is justified with a specifically religious rationale. We should commit ourselves to do whatever we can to stop it.

What do we do? We hold each other accountable. We speak up when our own religions dehumanize and marginalize others, or when, in the name of religion, certain groups are targeted for exclusion. When fight for justice when governments suppress religious activity through harassment or prolonged detention. We pray. We pray for religions to follow the generous spirits of their founders. We pray that we will be people of peace. We pray and work for a loving, compassionate, just and generous world in which religion brings out the best of who we are, not the worst.

We dialogue and explore our differences, respectfully and courageously. We come together here to deepen our spiritual lives and to increase our understandings. This work then enables us to be healthier and more whole people. And it equips and inspires us to do the daily work of building a better world.

Sources:
http://www.fvuuf.org/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=380&Itemid=127
(http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060619JJ.shtml)
http://www.religioustolerance.org/relhateex.htm
Is Religion Dangerous, 36-38.

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