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Sermon for October 25, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Religion and War
Mark 13:1-31

Onward, Christian Paintball Soldiers! Did you know there is a group called the Christian Paintball Players Association? One of the Association’s most famous paint ball fields is called Promised Land Paintball in Trevor, Wisconsin. Promised Land Paintball Park has special rates for church youth groups, scouts, and others. Promised Land Park brings the Gospel to the paintball community, becoming a living example of God’s word as you being non-Christian friends and share your faith in Jesus with on the paintball field. If you really want to make a statement, make sure to buy some Christian paintball t-shirts through Lion’s Pride Christian paintball gear. It’s popular for paintball teams to post pictures and descriptions of their gear online. Christian paintball teams do the same thing. Take, for instance, “Neplusultra” whose skull-capped logo features a team motto from the book of Psalms: Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle (Ps 144:1).

Promised Land Paintball Park is also a Department of Defense Contractor. Visiting military troops are completely outfitted with all required paintball equipment and given a comprehensive “Troop Briefing” that explains the missions. Here’s how a typical special game day might look: In addition to good ol’ Capture the Flag games, you can play unusual scenario games with a plot and a mission! Scenario 1: Outlaw Island. The year is 2008 and the public is tired of paying for an out of control prison system. The answer . . . Outlaw Island where you and your fellow inmates fight for some of the most disgusting food on the planet! Scenario 2 : The Nuke. The “bad guys” want to nuke the area with a suitcase Nuclear Bomb. The bomb has a count-down timer visible from the outside so you can see how long you have to disarm it - just like the movies! Your Mission: Disarm “The Nuke” before you’re all vaporized! Yes, Promised Land Paintball actually have a “Nuke Simulator” complete with a big electronic count down timer! Scenario3: Command & Conquer. Seven Flag Stations and huge hills and valleys on an enormous field make this the biggest and most challenging game of them all!. Capture and defend strongholds - lowering as many enemy flags as you can and raising your own in victory! And the best part of Promised Land Paintball? Pastors, youth pastors, and their wives, get to play totally free of charge (I guess woman pastors aren’t allowed).

Hey, I have a scenario for you. Someone sneaks a video camera to a paintball fight at Promised Land Paintball. The camera captures pictures of children in urban combat gear and facemasks, shooting at each other as their religious leaders give instructions, and look on the scene with approving smiles. Imagine that the video gets sent to Al Jazeera, who plays the clip for the entire Muslim world to see. Can you imagine the lead story? "Look at the American Christians, training their kids for war." The Muslim world is already convinced that America is trying to take them over. What more “proof” would they need?

Picture another scenario. Most of us know the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” It is an innocent, beloved hymn, right? What would happen if Americans heard Muslims singing that song with only one word change: “Onward Muslim soldiers, marching as to war”? Doesn’t sound so innocent anymore, does it?

Is religion dangerous? Do religions cause wars?

Christianity is not without its dangerous doctrines. From time to time, these doctrines give rise to violence and wars. Actually, there is no religious system without potential dangers. Religions have tortured and killed those who have “wrong” beliefs. Religions discriminate against outsiders, regarding them as enemies of God. At times, some religions have imposed their beliefs on entire societies, repressing all other forms of worship. There have been religious wars, persecutions, and hatreds. Whether we are conservative or liberal, these outbursts of religious violence should fill us with horror. There is no denying that they happened. They are inexcusable. How could a faith like Christianity, which appears to be pacifistic in its origins, become a religion of warrior knights and inquisitors?

We must admit that there are many pages in the Bible that drip with blood. Hundreds of verses pertain to killing, violence or war. Our own scriptures portray God as a Divine Warrior. God is the first warrior. By the power of God victory is accomplished. God calls the people and guides them to battle (Judg. 20:18; 1 Sam. 6:8-10; 14:6-10; 30:6-20; 2Sam. 5:17-25). The decision to go to war is not simply left to the discretion of the king or leaders of the land. God decides when the time for war has come. In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about a cosmic battle -- wars and rumors of wars, en end-time apocalypse with images to send even the bravest souls to bed with nightmares. Jesus’ words indict the violence of the Imperial Roman war machine that confined the hopes of his people through military occupation.

Even though the pages of Scripture are often bloody, there are also words filled with longing for peace. There are visions of peace, promised by God. Jesus worked nonviolently as he called people into his community of disciples and taught them to ready themselves to walk in his way. Throughout his life he battled evil but never entered the battle with a force of arms. He fought with the word of truth, the power of love and the signs and wonders of God. He called his followers to prepare themselves, not to kill or destroy in the name of their opposition to evil, but to endure suffering as they sought to serve his cause and be like him. From Luke Jesus is reported as saying:
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:27-36).
What do we do with these mixed messages? Is religion dangerous? Does religion cause wars?

Actually, most wars in human history have not been religious wars. For instance, look at WWI and WWII. These wars involved desire for territory, national pride, and aspirations to extend imperial control. Religion was used to call people to national duty, but these wars were not about supporting religious doctrine. Let’s look at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both have strong religious dimensions. But the wars are a so about ethnicity, identity, power struggles, oil, inequality and oppression as the root causes of violence. Religion is used in support when possible, but these are not really holy wars. There’s a group called the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank focused on international security. The IISS has named over 260 armed non-state groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only a minority of them have religious ideals.

My point is, religion can play a part in violent conflict. And while many Western media seem obsessed with religious threats, it turns out that genuine religious wars are few. Where religion is a factor, it is called upon to give support to other causes of conflict. Religions don’t usually cause wars. People cause wars, and they use religion was a justification for their actions. It’s important for religious groups to become aware of their potential to be used for violent ends. Religious groups need to understand that they can be used to inflame conflict.

We need to ask another question. Can religion be a force for peace? Religions need to find ways to encourage the central messages of their faiths that call for peace and reconciliation. Without religion, there will still be wars and violence on earth. With religion, we at least have a chance that the generous voices of our best founders can be heard with greater clarity. With religion, there is at least a chance that goodness may flourish on earth.

War is contrary to the will of God. While the use of violent force may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, Christ pronounces his blessing on the peacemakers. God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation. We need to reject policies that lead communities to hopelessness. We proclaim that God created us for each other, and so our security depends on the well being of our global neighbors. Instead of warfare as a solution to conflict, God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society. Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth. The earth itself belongs to God and is intrinsically good. We have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers. to heal the sick, and to enjoy right relationship with each other.

Good people, religious people do harmful things. However, peace is the will of God for all creation. The disruption of peace was the result of the fragmentation of right relations. I am convinced that, from a religious perspective, war is wrong. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. Our religious traditions require that when we exercise power, we reflect deeply on the consequences of our actions and the true source of peace and security.

Chiseled into the walls at United Nations headquarters in New York are words taken from the Hebrew prophet Micah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That is our vision. More than ever, we need to be dedicated to making it a reality.

A Prayer:
God, we pray for our world, a world in need of paths to peace. We pray for a world in which we might learn that differences of faith, of race, of nation, need not separate us. We pray that this world, which may be further divided by this war, can become one where there is less hatred and more understanding. There is only one destiny on this small blue planet, and there are no other hands but ours. So let us, as one people, pray, finally, for the courage and the wisdom to find a path that leads to both peace and justice.

Ward, Keith. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 56-54
Allen, Jospeh. War: A Primer for Christians. Nashville: Abingdom, 1991.


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