God Forgive Us

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There is danger in religious extremism.  But there’s also danger in irreligious extremism and a story out of North Carolina another tragic reminder:

“Washington (AFP) – A North Carolina man espousing anti-religious views has been charged with the murders of three Muslim students, including a husband and wife, who were shot dead in the university town of Chapel Hill, police said Wednesday.”

My heart aches.

Murder, no matter the motive, is a horrible and immoral act, but to kill other peaceable people over ideology (or a parking dispute) seems somehow worse.  There is no defense for man that executes three innocent people.

The damage extends beyond the three killed, it effects those who lost their loved ones and ripples out into the world.  Violence begats more violence and this murder could soon be used to justify reprisals just as irrational.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Jesus Christ)

God forgive us for our murderous hearts and give us a heart of love for all people.  May we love in extreme, lay down our own lives for the good of others and leave vengeance to you.

We need a love that overcomes evil with good.  We need the love that was found in Jesus or we too may succumb to this mindless cycle of violence.

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Religions of Peace and of Violence

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Okay, I’m breaking a rule here, I’m going to mention a political figure and have tried to avoid politics on this blog.  Still, I do feel inclined to weigh in on a recent furor over something President Obama recently said:

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The President continued on to talk about religious violence in India.  (Click here for the transcript)  But, it is the remarks highlighted in bold above that are the center of controversy, it has offended some of my Christian friends and initially annoyed me for various reasons.  Obama has this propensity for lecturing or condescension and I’m not sure he’s earned the right to speak about high horses.  However, on second thought, after reading some of the commentary in response and what seems to be either ignorance or denial of history, I am reconsidering my first impression.

There is, among my Christian friends, widespread denial or downplaying of violence done in the name of Christ.  That alone would be excusable, but that coupled with harsh judgments against Muslims and demands they denounce terrorism, seems a bit hypocritical.  Many Americans do not want themselves to be associated with the foreign policy of present and past US Presidential Administrations, let alone told they themselves need to apologize personally for every misdeed an American has done.  So why do we ask others to do what we don’t do?

What is the/a religion of peace?

One of those litmus test questions I see frequently asked as it pertains to terrorism and Islam, is “do you think Islam is a religion of peace?”  The phrase “religion of peace” is also often used sarcastically or to parody government leaders who use that phrase as part of trying to distinguish between terrorists and other Muslims.  But one place I don’t see that question asked is as it pertains to Christian history and Biblical religion.  Would Christianity pass the same test and be considered a “religion of peace” to an objective observer?  The answer might change depending on perspective.

Is Christianity a religion of peace?

Many Christians will claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority.  But then I have to wonder if they have ever actually read their Bibles when they recoil in horror at the mention of Sharia law.  The Christian Bible is full of bloodshed in the name of God.  There are instructions to kill every inhabitant of conquered lands, specifically every man, woman, child, sometimes even the livestock, and often times sparing the virgin women as war brides.  You can read this for yourself in the books of Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15.  By Biblical law disobedience to parents, picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, adultery and blasphemy merited a death sentence by stoning. 

I can anticipate, because of prior experience in discussions, that the paragraph above could elicit howls of protest and that Jesus marked a change.  Yet, if we look at Christian history after Christ, it is evident many did not get the memo and the it is hard to even know where to begin.  History like the Salem witch trials, Gnadenhutten massacre, Manifest destiny, Jewish persecution, Anabaptist persecution, countless bloody wars between Christian people groups and many other examples besides the Crusades and the Inquisition or slavery and Jim Crow could be cited as Christian violence.  Much of it, from slavery to antisemitism, justified by Biblical passages and perspectives.

For those who would argue this use of Scripture is wrong and that Jesus taught peace rather the sword, that too could be questioned.  Christian theology is not very tolerant of unbelievers.  The Gospels teach that one must repent of sin, they must accept Jesus as Savior and Lord or they will be condemned for eternity.  Beyond that, consider Matthew 10:34 where he says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  That doesn’t sound very peaceable. 

If the Bible and Christian history is so awful, why be a Christian?

I think that would be the next good question after all I just described.  After all, if I value woman’s rights, oppose genocide and slavery, shouldn’t I be looking elsewhere for my answers?  The simple answer is that I do look elsewhere.  I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, in that I do not see the Bible as the ultimate authority and instead look to the Spirit of God that was found in Jesus.  It is true, Jesus, as I quoted, did not promise peace on earth, but Jesus did set a different example to be followed:

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  (John 18:36 NIV)

Jesus gave a different kind of leadership model to his followers:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)

Jesus did not just build off of existing traditions or reform Hebrew religion, he changed the entire paradigm of faith and turned the established system upside down.  He supersedes the law of Moses with a standard radically different, in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ he goes beyond retributive “eye for an eye” justice of Biblical law and totally rewrites the script:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48 NIV)

This was not just an amendment, it was a radical departure from the law of Moses and the establishing of a completely new system.  Christianity was never intended to be built on institutions, hierarchies of men or religious texts and any other form of top down power.  It was to be defined by grace, forgiveness, servant leadership and respect for all people, as Paul explains:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  (Romans 12:14-18 NIV)

And goes further…

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

In light of everything else Jesus said and did, I doubt his comment “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” was to inspire Christian use of the sword. He was sharing a message that was a threat to the order of the day. His message split Judaism into two and changed the world.

Why did Christianity become so violent?

“There is a history of Christianity: the first three centuries of Christianity; it was a radical pacifist religion, which is why it was persecuted, it was the religion of the poor and the suffering, and Jesus was the symbol of the poor and the suffering…” (Noam Chomsky)

My faith is simple.  History is complex.  Christianity started as “a religion of women, children and slaves,” according to an early critic, but somewhere along the way it was corrupted (or “hijacked” in the words of the President) and became another excuse for violence.  To me the corruption begins whenever the leading of Jesus through the Spirit is replaced by anything, be that a charismatic leader, a dogma, a committee, and even the books of the Bible themselves.  If Jesus (what he represents) is not the center of Christian faith, then what is left is nothing but a ritual, a dead religion and a reasoning that soon becomes an excuse for violence.

So, President Obama, while I disagree with him on many things, does make a legitimate point and it would be biased for him to exempt those who have corrupted Christianity for their own “murderous ends” from his critique.  I am not personally offended, because my own faith is not violent and therefore I know those who used the name of Christ as their justification do not represent me. 

I likewise do not judge Muslim individuals by what others do in the name of their religion.  It is not my job to judge, it is my job to show the true way of Jesus and bring forgiveness and love to all people.

For the Love of Truth

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“Truth does not need a bodyguard”  (Rhonda Strite)

The news out of Paris today (read here) is a reminder again of the power of ideas.  Twelve people are dead and apparently in killed defense of something deemed sacred.  Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper that showed less than flattering images of the prophet Muhammad, was the target of assassins today who apparently yelled “we have avenged the prophet” and fled the scene.

I do not believe these murderers speak for all Muslims nor even for the one they claim to have avenged and who should all be left to speak for themselves.  However, what the violence does speak for is the power of ideas.  It is obvious those responsible have been influenced to believe that prophets of God need to be honored by spilling of blood.  It is an idea that ‘truth’ must be defended by violence.

Defending the Image of Our God

This idea of violence in the name of honor isn’t exclusively religious territory either.  In fact, it is a quite common theme in personal romances gone sour.  I don’t even know where to start a list of popular songs about the angry and jilted person taking out their wrath on the vehicle of the a former lover who insulted their dignity by choosing to be intimately involved with someone else.  It is the same sentiment that leads a man to kill his wife and her new boyfriend in a fit of rage.  It is a defense of honor. It is an idea that the other person did damage to you or the reputation of what you value and now deserves to be harmed in return. But this kind of behavior does beg a question about character and specifically the character of a person who thinks violence is their right when insulted.

Since I am not an expert on Islamic teachings, I will leave that analysis to those who are and stick to what I do know.  What I do know well are teachings of another man who is recognized as a prophet by Muslims and that is the man named Jesus. The one who is called both “word” and “truth” in the Bible:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know  my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  (John 14:6-7)

We, in this age of democracy and freedom of the press, can easily forget history. But there was a time not too long ago when insulting a king could cost a person their head.  Throughout human history leaders have demanded, upon penalty of death, that their image be honored and even worshipped. In the time Jesus lived and his followers after it was no exception.  There is speculation that the last book of the Bible was written in response to imperial cult in Rome to encourage believers who had to choose between faith and physical life.

A Different Image of God

Jesus was also referred to as a “king” or “lord” in scripture and yet one quite different from others in example.  He was was the king who served in the lowliest capacity and in a way that even confounded his most loyal followers.  He claimed a different type of leadership, a leadership by example and a radical idea even today in a day of competing individual rights:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

It is really an impossible standard in human terms.  Even self-proclaimed Christians are seemingly not able to live out this standard.  I am often caused to wonder about this commitment when I see outrage expressed over a song being played that openly calls religion a lie and overt concern with individual rights among those claiming to be of Christian faith.  It would appear the image of Jesus some claim to defend with their anger is more like the prophet Muhammad than the man described as being stripped naked, beaten mercilessly without a word, humiliated and killed like a common criminal.

Killing as a response to blasphemy is not unique to Islamists and was taught as part of the law of Moses in the Bible.  This Biblical law was enforced in ‘Christian’ United Kingdom (fully up until 1697 and in part until 1921) before falling out of favor.  We could blame religion for this idea of killing to honor or defend a person and idea, but that would be ignorant of the many examples of those who killed only because they themselves felt disrespected.  People have killed in the name of ideas ranging from defense of the Constitution of the United States to Imperialism and Marxism.

Does real truth need to be defended by killing those who dishonor it?

I believe an idea that needs us to kill to defend it is a weakling idea.  A god established on the blood of those who offend is a puny god indeed.  Unfortunately people like little gods and that includes many “people of the book” who confuse Bible for God and their own ideas for truth.  They confine God to the understanding of their own mind and the work of their own hands.  These are the fundamentalists who take offense on behalf of ‘truth’ and kill to defend it.  But I believe in a truth greater than my own mind, one that frees me of need to kill others to defend it and is personified in our following the ultimate example of self-sacrifice:

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:31-32)

Many have killed in the name of Jesus.  Many feel God is honored in their defense of prophets or books.  Many study the scripture diligently without ever finding the word of God despite their best efforts and that is in fact recorded in the Christian scripture in John 5:16-47.  But there is another way to live.  I believe in a “way” a “truth” and “life” that is bigger than mere human knowledge.  I believe in an advocate that is beyond my own efforts to religiously memorize texts or methods.  The truth is a spiritual person and teacher, not a book or religion:

“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be  in you. […] But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  (John 14:15-17, 26)

A Different Defense and Truth

The bigger view is that God can speak for himself and real truth does not need murder to protect it.  Silencing the voices that oppose us is a weak defense.  Do not kill the messenger and think you are defending truth.  Instead, speak the truth with love, because God is love.  There are many ideas that people use as justification to kill, but just one that is worth dying for and that is love.

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”  (Luke 12:11-12)

The law brings judgement, but the Spirit brings love and life. That should be our source and guide to all truth.