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Home arrow Religion & Faith arrow RELIGION RUN AMOK by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
RELIGION RUN AMOK by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell PDF Print E-mail
May 22, 2015

The three Abrahamic faiths have much in common.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all honor the Hebrew scriptures alongside other texts that they regard as authoritative.  All three proclaim the importance of devotion to God or Allah and concern for the neighbor.  All three reverence Abraham, the patriarch, Moses, the law-giver, and many of the same prophets.  Islam honors Jesus as a prophet and takes some of his story more literally than do many Christians.

All three also have differing and competing versions of their faith, each characterized by its own interpretation of the texts, and some within each household are quite similar to and affirming of the authenticity of others.  Some of the differences are the result of accidents of history: different national traditions, or controversies that once seemed crucial but are now seen as irrelevant.  Unfortunately, each also has fundamentalist expressions: deeply invested believers who adhere fanatically to literal understandings of a select set of their sacred texts.

The fact that all three of these world religions have fundamentalist wings does not, in any way imply equivalency -- far from it.  Their key texts are different, their aims are very different and mutually opposed, and the present context is dramatically different for each.  Yet, there is a strange similarity to their purposes and their respective visions of the future.  

Though the fundamentalist wing in each religion has many sects and expressions, each and all of those sects, have one thing in common: they envision the rise of a holy nation, righteous, invincible and dominant, and their triumphant visions involve the figure of a messiah.  Plus, in all three, a period of corruption, apostasy and conflict are expected to precede the Messiah, and in many versions, a cataclysmic war will follow, in which the righteous will be victorious and the nation will be established.  

Fundamentalist Jewish Messianism, while vague and allegorical for many Jews, and seen as irrelevant by others, is a lively expectation by the most militant fundamentalists.  While most Jewish people envision the establishment by the Messiah of a "peaceable kingdom," the fundamentalist sects long for the establishment of a powerful, unassailable Holy Land from the Tigris and Euphrates in the north to the Nile, to be established by force if necessary.  Other nations and peoples will flock to Jerusalem because it will be clearly the true, righteous people of God.

Fundamentalist Islamic Messianism is also focused on a worldly dominion, the re-establishment of the ancient Caliphate, which will stretch over the entire Muslim world.  It will be, however, a constantly expanding Caliphate as more and more peoples are brought into acceptance of, or submission to, Islam.  The new Caliph will arise from within, will draw all true Muslims to his banner, will sweep all opposition before him, recognizing no national borders or other creeds as legitimate.  Of course, the Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists are talking, in part, about some of the same land!

Fundamentalist Christian Messianism builds on the Jewish Messianic tradition, but anticipates the return of Jesus as the Messiah from the heavens, with a host of angels, to establish the Kingdom of God.  Following their literalist reading of select passages of scripture, this event will take place after Israel has regained dominance in the Holy Land and the temple has been rebuilt on Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  But, oddly, for Christian nationalists, America is to be the righteous nation!  It is seen as a nation founded by their Evangelical forebears and stolen from them by modernism and culturally depraved secularism.  America is seen as the bastion against Godless communism and socialism, and now must aid Israel in conquering the Holy Land and building the temple so that Jesus can return.  In this vision, all who are not born-again, fundamentalist Christians will be converted or destroyed, leaving America as the Holy and dominant nation.

Again, many of these strains in the fundamentalist wing of all three religions envision the rise of a messiah, the establishment of a holy nation, and an apocalyptic conflict in which all but the righteous, like themselves, of course, are vanquished.  The inspiration for all three religions' versions of fundamentalism is a literal reading of selective ancient texts.   Further, each of these apocalyptic visions is very dangerous in a variety of ways, but taken together, they pose an extraordinary threat to any hope of peace, justice and stability, as current events so graphically demonstrate.

It is, in each case, religion run amuck.  So, is religion itself the problem?  World history is replete with wars, persecutions and pogroms, all in the name of religion.  Yet, the three faiths that trace their origins to Abraham, extol peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness and the common good in their sacred texts, and each has exemplified those virtues in countless ways in every generation.  So, what is the disconnect?  What is the problem at the heart of religion that causes this fundamentalist distortion and so much conflict and senseless slaughter?  
At its heart, the real culprit is hubris, pride, believing oneself, one's religion, one's race or culture to be superior to all others and ordained by God/Allah to dominate.  There are passages in each religion which, taken out of context, and constantly emphasized from an exclusionary perspective, can be twisted to promote hatred of any and all others, and to justify suppressing them.  It is the human problem.  But, when mixed with any version of literal, inerrant, religious fundamentalism, this arrogance can be understood as a divine mandate.  The inevitable  result is conflict and the attempt to dominate.

One response is to reclaim the humility and love that is proclaimed by each religion.  But, that love cannot remain silent or inactive in the face of the oppression, much less the slaughter, of innocent people.  Indeed, it demands that we cherish and protect our neighbors no matter who they are.  Christian theologians from Augustine to Niebuhr have pondered this question and proposed rationales for a "just war," the conditions that require peace-loving people to resist oppression through armed response, and the limitations on that response.  But responding in kind to brutal tyranny, no matter how judiciously, still perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Historically, the one lasting protection for everyone is the separation of religion and government so that the civil means of coercion and authorized violence will not be in the hands of any one religious persuasion, much less an aggressive, fundamentalist one.  The genius of the American experiment in constitutional democracy was and is the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, particularly, the separation of church and state.  Thereby, every religion is free to worship, to propagate its faith and to contribute to human flourishing, and none has a means to coerce anyone else.  This critical "wall of separation" must be guarded against all current attempts to undermine it.

The current situation strains this critical safeguard against violence and chaos.  In the case of Jewish Messianic fundamentalism the structures of governance in Israel are democratic in theory, but a dominant coalition of fundamentalist and conservative factions all but controls national policy making.  Islamic states do not even pretend to separate religion and government, and when a radical fundamentalist uprising like ISIS occurs, though it is a minority opinion among Muslims, it sweeps many into its net and conquers without mercy. America is unique in having a long historic commitment to the separation of church and state, but its Christian fundamentalist movement seeks to undermine that critical separation as it proclaims a triumphalist "American exceptionalism."

Ironically, one of the cornerstones of America's exceptional character is that "wall of separation between church and state."  All real patriots will continue guarding and building that wall and proclaiming its necessity.     

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