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Sermon for Nov. 15, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? The Harm and Good of Religion
Nov. 15, 2009

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible . . . So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:8-21

On Tuesday, I was attacked by moths. Moths rule the parsonage, especially the downstairs bathroom. As I walked into that bathroom, moths attacked me. OK, they fluttered at me. But I was really surprised. I’ve never known them to attack before. But here they were, flying around me like I was a new spotlight in an otherwise dreary neighborhood. I had to defend myself, right? I swatted them away -- all except for one persistent assailant that would not leave me alone. The more I swiped at it, the more it returned. At that moment, I had no sense of the strength and power of my left hand, up against a little moth on my right hand. I swatted away, expecting that the moth would fly away as other bugs had. This time, though, I swatted too hard. The moth fell to the ground, lifeless, before my feet. No big deal right? Even thought others in my family are accomplished moth killers, it’s not my thing. I’m more of a catch and release moth hunter. I saw the moth lying on the floor. “Maybe it just landed upside down,” I hoped. But no, I had killed it. I hadn’t meant to. I just was completely inattentive to my own strength and power.

This brief collision between man and beast got me thinking about some other predators, like predator drones — those pilotless weapons of death our government flies into the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our strength and power, our mastery of the skies, must feel a lot like my hand on that little moth to the rural family celebrating a wedding in Pakistan or the laborer in the fields of Afghanistan, hearing that dreaded sound.

I thought about those who have left the church or lost their faith due to significant wounding in the church. The people who rejected them, marginalized them, judged them, or ignored them — those who failed to offer compassion in a moment of crisis — did they know the strength and power of love withheld? Did they have any idea that their actions could lead someone to leave a community of faith?

I also thought about the saints in my life, those who are still living and those who have gone before me. They were not intoxicated with their own strength and power. They used their power for good, for God, for reconciliation, redemption, and release. Our text from Ephesians describes them well: For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.

Religions live within this dual reality. The world’s religions are rich. They have known power and strength. They have had the authority to give and to take away. It has been said that religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. Hatred, violence, intolerance, and bigotry are sustained and inflamed by religions. The reputation of Christianity was shattered long ago by crusades and inquisitions. The reputation of Islam has been shattered by terrorism around the globe. Even Hinduism, once thought to be universally tolerant, destroys mosques and murders non-Hindus in the name of its own religious culture. At the same time, religions are filled with various believers who work for peace. They offer hope of a better world. They strive to radiate the light. Is religion dangerous? Can religion do more good than harm?

We hear this question more and more. To get to the heart of the matter, let’s consider a parallel case. It could also be said that one of the most destructive forces in human life is politics. In Russian and Cambodia, millions of people have been killed in the name of socialist politics. In Latin America, millions of people disappeared in ruthless campaigns of violence. Deception, hypocrisy and deceit are common in political life. Would we be better off in a world without politics?

We might say, “No, of course, not.” We know that humans need some sort of social organization. We know politics are corruptible, but we reluctantly agree that politics and governments do more good than harm. We can think about religion in the same way. Some religious expressions are harmful, just as some political ideologies cause harm. But it seems pointless to condemn religion just because religion causes hatred and violence. Religion can be used to arouse hatred, but it can also be used to inspire love, and commitment. The world would be much poorer without Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa, without Bach or Michelangelo, without St. Francis, Siddhartha Gautama, or Jesus.

How about all the differences in world religions? Do our differences cause harm? Do religious differences lead to conflict? We need to remember that religions exist because humans are imperfect. We live in wicked days. People do evil routinely. Humans are trapped in cycles of hatred, greed and selfishness. Since religions are invented and practiced by imperfect people, religious beliefs will become corrupted. We will see intolerance and repression, irrationality and fear of outsiders. Many of the conflicts between religions are not caused by religious beliefs, but by imperfect believers.

Honestly, some degree of conflict will always exist between religions. Human beings find it hard to live with differences. There will be issues that we will not agree on. Our disagreements will be complicated by the fact that human ignorance, greed, and hatred are just part of the deal. However, religions also contribute to the common good.

When I walked into our old church building early this morning, the radiators were cooking — spreading heat into the sanctuary. The radiators provide a good reason to be an usher on Sunday morning. Pass out bulletins, greet people, and get the prime spot next to the heater on a cold day. It’s a great place to stand, believe me!

At their best, religions are radiators. They send out warmth, and comfort. They draw people in. They radiate God’s light. But we can do better. What would it take for religions to become efficient and beneficial radiators?

1. Religions need to focus on experience over intellect. Religion is not about agreeing to doctrines. Religions, at their best, transform human thought into compassionate action. I recently read about a group called The Compassionate Action Network. They unveiled a charter last Thursday. The Charter has been affirmed by the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, by religious thinkers and leaders from across the religious and secular spectrum. The Charter for Compassion calls people to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. They call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion and to insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. They realize that if part of our human family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy.

2. Another goal of religion should be a commitment to the flourishing of humanity, and the flourishing of all life. We need to ask our religion: Do you bring more goodness, compassion, and understanding into the world, or more prejudice, division, discord and hatred? Genuine respect means realizing that others have the right to make their own decisions about ultimate reality. Religions need to accept that their teachings represent one of many individual paths to a fulfilling relationship with God. Religions should never force people into thinking and behaving in certain ways. If we learn to value the different ways people see things, as well as the different values they celebrate, there can be the possibility of cooperation between faiths.

Following our religions should bring joy. The author of Ephesians gives readers a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” He tells Christians what to radiate, and what not to radiate. But it is all in the context of living a happy life. Do live in the light and develop a lifestyle befitting of the light. Do harvest goodness, truth, and justice. Do live in wisdom. Do make the most of your time and opportunities. Do seek to discover the will of God for your life. Do drink deeply of the Spirit. Do overflow with songs of praise in your hearts to the Lord.

Can religions take this step? There are some that already have. Those who hold religion back are those who think that their view is the only right, true, unchanging, unquestionable, and absolutely certain view, while everybody’s else’s beliefs and experiences are false. It is that lack of humility – that lack of awareness – that limits our understanding. When our goal is to be supreme, we are unable to see the good in others.

We cannot eliminate religions. They are here to stay. So, let’s make sure religion is a positive force for good in human life. Is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. At best, religion — the search for supreme goodness and a life lived for the sake of good alone — promotes the welfare of all life on this planet. We are radiators. Religion is the compassionate heart that might warm a cold and heartless world. If we live on this earth, our lives radiate something—and what we radiate becomes a teacher to those around us. In a world where anger, despair, and a loss of significance are all around, religion can give us a sense of hope, and peace, and well-being.

• Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward, pp. 179-200
• Mary Hammond, “The Measure of our Days” at ?paged=2


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