An article came out today about the difficulties that Iraqi Christians face. Rather than stay in Mosul and face pressures to convert, Christians are leaving the city. On a recent radio broadcast, travel expert Rick Steves advised those of the Baha'i faith not to travel to Iran because the religion is outlawed. Earlier this year, Tibetan monks engaged in severe conflict with Chinese authorities. And, of course, we hear a good bit about the prejudices of people who still believe that Barrack Obama is a "secret Muslim" - whatever that means. Unfortunately, religious oppression is alive and well in the world. This month Bill Maher's movie "Religulous" sets out to show the inherent insanity in all religions - and it would seem that perhaps he has a point: If religion demands that one leave critical thinking at the door and incites within that person a hatred of "others," then why tolerate religion at all? Especially during a time of economic and financial crises when people are apt to regress, retreat, and revert to their most own kind, succumbing to their prejudices, isn't this the time for religion to shut up and sit down?
No. I don't think so. While religion can certainly be used to scare, oppress, demean, and diminish, so can any powerful philosophy, social structure, or world view. Religion is dangerous because it is powerful. And, power is neither good nor bad - it simply is. It's how we understand power and how we use power that reveals the worth of any person or any power structure. Jesus redefined power as life poured out for many. He set forth a program for the world that challenged the production-consumption society of his time, that looked the might of Rome's military in the eye and declared it impotent over him and his God, that told the people to seek a new power, born of the Spirit.
As religions begin to slide into their worst selves during this time of world unrest and financial crisis, there exists an incredible opportunity for the Church to witness to Jesus-power. Too often the Church has stepped away from the Jesus we claim to follow and we have embraced systems and structures of coercion, exclusion, and oppression. Even as early as twenty years after Jesus' death, churches became embroiled in battles over purity, inclusion, and identity. These conflicts gave rise to the letters of Paul. We have a two thousand year history that includes horrible acts of violence against Jews and Muslims, humanists, and animists. It seems that whenever a religion finds itself in ascendancy, it inflicts harm on the weak, the outcast, and the other. Christianity has no monopoly on this behavior, but it is to Christians that I write since I myself am a Christian.
In this time of upheaval, the Church and those of us who are part of the Body of Christ have before us a choice. We can slide into old ways of being, into old arguments, fighting old fight or we can become our best selves. My heart aches for the Christians fleeing Mosul who face death because they won't convert to Islam. How can we support these people in their quest to live whole and joyful lives free of persecution and oppression? How can we tend this part of the body that is hurting and wounded? Additionally, we can speak up for Tibetans persecuted by China. We can welcome our American Muslim brothers and sisters, challenging the prejudices held by too many Americans against them. We can pray for peace in the Middle East between Jews and Palestinians and between Israel and Iran.
Christianity is a powerful belief system. Our local churches need to teach a gospel of love and care. Too many churches teaches hate and intolerance. We allow ignorance to flourish; too often we promote ignorance among our communities. A faithful Christianity cannot allow vitriol to take hold, set down roots, and grow among us. We have a gospel to share and at its core is a message of love, grace, and peace. It is also a message of impatience in the face of intolerance, hatred, and violence. We have opportunities - as individual Christians, in our local congregations, and in our larger assemblies.
This year our church's ecumenical Thanksgiving service is changing into an interfaith service. Bill Maher is right - religion is dangerous. He is also wrong - it should not be abandoned. When our congregation worships with Muslims, Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Buddhists, we will be declaring to the world the religious oppression is not inherent to any of our world views - not a part of our God - not a part of who we are. As a matter of fact, violence encouraged by religion is a perversion of any world faith. Religious oppression is the use of powerful and meaningful symbols in a perverted way to forward the unjust agenda of those who are unfaithful.
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