Religious Right

“Fundamentalist Movements Distort the Tradition”

Through her much experience, study and writing about religion and religious ideas and leaders, Karen Armstrong has come to this conclusion:

I discovered that in all three of the religions of Abraham [Judaism, Christianity, Islam], fundamentalist movements distort the tradition they are trying to defend by emphasizing the belligerent elements in their tradition and overlooking the insistent and crucial demand for compassion.

(The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness Knopf, 2004, p295)

It seems to me that “the belligerent elements” often rely a great deal on statements of allegiance to certain ideas or to certain power centers in the religion. Unfortunately, as Jesus very well knew, one can maintain intense loyalty to an idea, or to some powerful religious leaders, without actually getting around to practicing the idea or honoring the religion’s founder. The Jesus we find in the Bible tended to bristle and get very uncomplimentary in the presence of such behavior.

Calling Jesus “Lord” is a very major theological and personal statement – unfortunately it is in many cases the last we hear of Jesus’ personality or teachings being dominant in one’s life.

Honoring – by actually practicing – the moral priorities of Jesus, is a much more significant act. That’s not just me talking, and it’s NOT a way of avoiding the issue. It is precisely the issue. Jesus himself dealt with this problem by asking, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I say?”

People getting belligerent about their Christian faith is often a sign that the faith is not really being practiced. Jesus and the apostles deliberately were not very belligerent people. It’s not possible to be close followers if we are characterized by a spirit of self-righteous hatefulness, a spirit so diametrically opposed to how He lived and taught.

Karen Armstrong wonders:

But did that mean we could think what we liked about God? No. Here again the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion ….

But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology ….

In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God [for example], the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval.

It bears repeating. Strong affirmations of loyalty to Jesus or to his teachings ARE NOT the same as trusting him enough to actually begin to live as he lived, and as he clearly and repeatedly asked us to live.

“The second commandment is like unto it; You must love your neighbor as yourself.”

8 Comments

  • Corrected version:
    Larry and Connie,
    As I indicated in an earlier post in this thread I am just finishing up Karen Armstrong’s “History of God.” Less that 10 pages from the end I came across this; it seems so germane to this thread and your “Profound Silence” thread.

    Initially Armstrong is addressing remarks made by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the fundamental Zionist “..It is not surprising that people who hear this kind of profanity, which makes ‘God’ deny other people’s human rights, think that the sooner we relinquish him the better.
    Yet, as we saw in the last chapter, this type of religiosity is actually a retreat from God. To make such human historical phenomena as Christian “Family Values,” “Islam”or “the Holy Land” the focus of religious devotion is a new form of idolatry. This type of belligerent righteousness has been a constant temptation to monotheists throughout the long history of God. It must be rejected as inauthentic. The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims got off to an unfortunate start, since the tribal deity Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people. Latter-day crusaders who return to this primitive ethos are elevating the values of the tribe to an unacceptably high status and substituting man-made ideals for the transcendent which should challenge our own prejudices. They are also denying a crucial monotheistic theme. Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of the monotheists has promoted the ideal of compassion.

    …The prophets insisted that cult and worship were useless unless society as a whole adopted a more just and compassionate ethos. These insights were developed by Jesus, Paul and the Rabbis, who all shared the same Jewish ideals and suggested major changes in Judaism in order to implement them. The Koran made the creation of a compassionate and just society the essence of the reformed religion of Al-Lah. Compassion is a particularly difficult virtue. It demands that we go beyond the limitations of our egotism, insecurity and inherited prejudice. Not surprisingly, there have been times when all three of the God-religions have failed to achieve these high standards. During the eighteenth century, deists rejected traditional Western Christianity largely because it had become so conspicuously cruel and intolerant. The same will hold today. All too often conventional believers, who are not fundamentalists, share their aggressive righteousness. They use ‘God’ to prop up their own loves and hates, which they attribute to God himself. But Jews, Christians and Muslims who punctiliously attend divine services yet denigrate people who belong to different ethnic and ideological camps deny one of the basic truths of their religions. It is equally inappropriate for people who call themselves Jews, Christians and Muslims to condone an inequitable social system. The God of historical monotheism demands mercy not sacrifice, compassion rather than decorous liturgy.(pp. 391-392)

  • Wow! What an insightful essay, W. Harper! These are precisely the things that bother me regarding our president’s lack of compassion – unlike the pain that Abraham Lincoln felt as he mourned the loss of his fallen soldiers… pain that kept him up at night and drained his very own body… pain that stirred in him the great speeches… because a true shepherd feels pain with those for whom he is responsible.

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