When Religion Becomes Good | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

When Religion Becomes Good

In the spring of 1995, I journeyed on an interfaith tour to Israel, during that brief and hopeful interlude when an achievable Middle East peace seemed to be just over the horizon, when tourists could travel in that area without worrying much about being blown to smithereens. Sixty fellow Mississippians comprised our traveling group: 20 from Northminster Baptist, 20 from St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral and 20 from the Beth Israel Congregation.

For a year preceding our journey, our group, led by clergy from each of the congregations, came together monthly to study historical, religious and cultural issues that would allow us to understand more about what we would experience in Israel. We built community within our group with times of interfaith worship. We also participated in a practice honored in most every religious tradition—sharing meals. As a result, a warm spirit of fellowship and friendship suffused our group during our entire journey.

Thus bonded, together we visited both Jewish and Christian sites throughout Israel. Moments shared there with those friends still linger in my memory. A contemplative morning spent on a boat, riding the Sea of Galilee's peaceful swells. Our view from Mt. Scopus, overlooking Jerusalem's Old City walls, with the Dome of the Rock gleaming in the midday sunlight. The Western Wall at midnight, bathed in the glow of a full moon.

For me, though, our trip's most hopeful moment came in a hotel dining room. There we listened to a young Israeli, a member of one of the working groups responsible for implementation of the 1993 Oslo Accords to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He spoke to us with quiet optimism about progress the parties had already made and additional developments he expected to occur in the near future.

Six months after our return, an assassin cut short Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's life and blew apart all those hopes. That bullet was fired by a fellow Jew who believed that the very concept of a Israeli-Palestinian accord, with its accompanying land-for-peace plan, constituted a betrayal of his religion. In the eight years since Rabin's death, Israelis and Palestinians have lurched from crisis to crisis, through carnage and destruction, causing shock waves felt worldwide, with no end in sight.

Here in the U.S., we too have had firsthand exposure to colossal acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. We wonder how and why religion, which is intended to bring ultimate meaning to one's life, instead has so often become the justification for killing and mayhem. We agonize over, and lash out at, the Problem of Evil, however our own religious heritage or other personal worldview may define it.

Earlier this year, seeking insight on such questions, I attended a conference led by Dr. Charles Kimball, author of the recent book "When Religion Becomes Evil" (HarperSanFrancisco 2002, $13.95). Kimball, who chairs the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University, is a nationally recognized expert and frequent commentator on Muslim-Christian relations, a field in which he has extensive experience through personal involvement and interaction. He also brings to his writing particular sensitivities gained from his own family of origin—while raised as a Baptist in Oklahoma, he had a Jewish paternal grandfather who had immigrated to the United States from Poland and Russia.

Kimball's thought-provoking work tackles the urgent question of why people commit unspeakably evil acts of violence in the name of religion. His book, filled with numerous and diverse illustrative examples drawn from throughout human history up through very current events, is organized around five warning signs of what Kimball terms "corrupted religion":

Absolute Truth Claims – groups that assert rigid truth claims about God and demonize and dehumanize those who differ with those claims.

Blind Obedience – groups, often segregated and withdrawn from society, in which the thinking and critical decisions reside with one or a few people, particularly where apocalyptic teaching is involved.

Establishing the "Ideal" Time – groups that narrowly define an ideal temporal structure for government and determine that they are God's agents to establish a theocracy to achieve it.

The End Justifies Any Means – groups that call for violence to be done to their neighbors in the service of a religious cause they deem righteous.

Declaring Holy War – groups that use appeals to religion and religious language to advocate, cloak, and justify use of force or military action.

With such a sobering catalogue of religious impulses run amok, how might religion remain faithful to its authentic sources and become a force for positive change?

As a starting point, Kimball emphasizes education to develop an appreciation for religious diversity. A broad background of such knowledge will help one defuse religious ignorance and prejudice that arises from the media, from politicians, even from friends and family.

Next, observing that people do not have to come to theological agreement in order to do good deeds together, Kimball encourages people of faith to work hand-in-hand with people of other religious traditions to address common problems facing our communities and our world, such as addressing the needs of the poor. He advocates openness to new possibilities of interfaith dialogue and cooperation, quoting Albert Einstein: "The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Here in our community, organizations such as Stewpot Community Services, Habitat for Humanity and Operation Shoestring are vehicles for solving significant human problems with a different level of thinking. Each offers creative ways for persons with widely varying theological views to cooperate, both personally and financially, in the betterment of the lives of those less fortunate. Volunteers need not agree on the particular nature of God to work together in feeding a homeless man, shingling an elderly woman's roof or tutoring a disadvantaged child.

Humankind can no longer afford the arrogance that posits that one's own personal religious experience represents the totality of how God might relate to everyone else. In this vein, Kimball concludes his book with a striking passage from the Koran:

"If God had so willed, God would have made all of you one community, but [God has not done so] so that God may test you in what God has given you; so compete with one another in good works. To God you shall all return and God will tell you the truth about that which you have been disputing." (Qur'an 5:48).

Throughout religious history, much has been written about "the Problem of Evil." In our time the more urgent questions for religion to address are the Problems of Good, through the basic acts of feeding, sheltering, healing, educating and reconciling. Humanity's great religious traditions, local communities of faith, and peace-seeking individuals all must recommit themselves to join in common ventures which bring us together, despite our diverse approaches to spirituality, in performing deeds of hope and compassion—instead of blowing each other apart.
Mark Wiggs is an attorney and writer who lives in Belhaven.

Previous Comments


Qur'an eh? Blah Blah Blah blow up infidels with big bomb, get virgins. Bible, huh? For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in big business, tort reform, making money, nationalism, no gun control, shall not go to hell . . . Torah, why you little . . . ? Budda, huh? Wimp!!! Hindus, pick a god and stick with it. Confusious say: man with one leg never win ass kicking contest. If I missed anyone, Iapologize.


You missed (at least) the atheists and the agnostics, who are probably duly offended at being left off your equal opportunity bashing. They, too, have the right to be bashed. :-) Then there are the Zoroastrians, who will say they *knew* (past tense) you were going to leave them off the list but vow not to hold it against you. Then there are the ascetics, who will say that you used WAY too many words to make your point--and that you could have used smaller, plainer words. If I missed anyone, I apologize.


On a serious note, this essay cuts to the heart of everything that is wrong with the way we approach religion these days. Our various spiritual experiences should be about building community, not building walls. Recently, the pastor of my church gave a sermon about the Good Samaritan and what it meant to be a good neighbor. Jesus asked his disciples which of the travelers along that road had been a good neighbor and they of course replied the Samaritan. The key, my pastor pointed out, is making such a determination is in how you define "neighbor." Too many of us define it by a process of elimination rather than inclusion.


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