That last post has got me thinking/percolating/mulling about religion in general. Religion fascinates me because, with perhaps the exception of ethnicity or tribal loyalties, it is the single most powerful force for both good and evil on the face of the earth. Some people might argue that religion is also wrapped up in the issues of ethnicity and tribal loyalty too, making them but two sides of the same coin.
When I think about religion in the way God may have intended it I think about those people who rise to a difficult task in the service of a greater good, whether they were "religious" or not. Moses, Gandhi, Queen Esther (yeah, I gotta plug my namesake), Oskar Schindler, and all of the others that mean the most to you and your faith.
[I'm being careful to word that so it's clear that I have no earthly idea what "God intended" by any of his works; the cockroach, that vertical ridge between your nose and top lip, male nipples and Yanni being perfect examples of His wondrous creative inscrutability).
Anyway, maybe because I'm a politically-minded person, a lover of great oratory, or just a DC denizen who walks past the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool weekly, I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. who peacefully changed centuries of institutionalized racism through his deep faith and active religious belief. He personifies Faith In Action, which to me means the exact opposite of public, self-conscious, stiff-necked observance to some set of biblical or oral principles; it means actually living the teachings of your faith rather than talking about how good you are for believing the teachings of your faith. Maybe that is why even today, in 2004, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear him speak from a .wav file:
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, and rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight,and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together...When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
In the same measure, I could provide a litany of quotes that demonstrate the evil and divisive use of religion. But that would be tedious and depressing to catalog, not to mention for you to read. Besides, I think we all know by now how truly dangerous humans are when they start to believe that God is "on their side": Crusades, Jihad, Inquisition, Blood Libel, Nazism, you name it. We all know the terrible costs on a macro scale of humans co-opting (or demonizing) a religion for their own purposes, so I'll ask you to forgive me for not detailing it here. I'll just give you a nugget from Mark Twain, who sums it all up nicely:
Man is the religious animal. He is the only religious animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion –- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven.
What saddens me more than the large-scale, human-tragedy, genocidal type of results from religious practice, are the smaller-scale, everyday mini-tragedies that come from one person believing that he or she has "the answer" and that you are somehow "less than" because you don't happen to share that "answer."
Think about Moses who said when God called him, "I am not eloquent or a man of words...for I am slow of speech and have a heavy and awkward tongue." Or Jeremiah who said to paraphrase, "Can't help you, God, I'm just a youth." Or Esther, who didn't know if she had it in her to save her people, had to be told, "Who knows but that you were brought to your position for just this reason and just this time?" What these people had in common was an immediate feeling that they were not up to the task, that they were lowly, humble, defective humans who couldn't imagine how they would be of any use to God or his children.
Now compare them to the Most Religious Person you know. Whether it's on TV, like my personal favorites Jack and Rexella Van Impe (cable access, always preaching Revelation and Armageddon, bless their little brimstone hearts), or in your own church, temple or house. Name the key difference. Yep. "Religious" people always feel uniquely qualified to tell you what you are doing wrong, to take issue with your particular religious practice, and to make a big show of their own piety and observance, never noticing your etiquette in reserving judgment of THEM. We have all worked, lived with and sometimes been raised by these dear souls. We have a love/hate connection with them, don't we? We love them as people but find them insufferable on more than a few levels. We intentionally talk around certain topics so as not to enter into a debate to the death on some small point of theology over a nice dinner. We allow them to "share" their beliefs with us, and never once ask that they allow us to share ours with them. For "religious" people, it is always a one-way dialogue. J and I had to stop hanging out with one particular friend who could not stop himself from "sharing" the gospel of Jesus Christ with us every time we saw him. A couple of times, hey, he's just excited about his beliefs. A couple more times, and you realize that that person sees you as an empty vessel into which he feels compelled to channel his religious fervor. Um, no thanks. We have plenty of friends who like us just the way we are, thank you.
Anyway, I need to get back to work, so let me end this magnum opus with this: if your religion separates you from those who love you, if it causes you to judge people you used to love unconditionally, if it makes you feel superior to others--either in your own religion or in another, if it seeks to ever-so-innocuously reduce the circumference of your life until you can associate only with people just like you, I would say the following (on behalf of Thomas Jefferson):
"I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged."
Can I get an AMEN!!???