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Religion: a Source of Solidarity or Division?

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Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

Religion is commonly seen as a positive force, and it is for countless people.  As a hospital chaplain, I witnessed many people whose faith provided comfort, strength and connectedness in the face of illness, injury and death.  Religious belief is certainly a source of empowerment and community for all kinds of people.

But much of religion is also divisive.  It separates people into believers and non-believers.   Catholics and non-Catholics.  Baptists and non-Baptists.  Christians and non-Christians.  Jews and non-Jews.  Muslims and non-Muslims.   Whose beliefs are naturally different and culturally conditioned.  But beliefs often become absolute and used to divide people into superior and inferior.  Sheep and goats.  Godly and ungodly.  Worshipers and infidels.  Saved and unsaved.  Redeemed and rejected.  Resurrected and damned.   Much of Christianity itself gives human beings and the world a split personality: Sacred versus secular.  Pious versus profane.  Godliness versus worldliness.  Agape versus Eros.  Human nature versus original sin.  Heaven versus hell.

At my Westminster Theological Seminary (now renamed Wesley), some 65 years ago, we Methodist theological students were taught that the Jews were God’s original “Chosen People.”  God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Led them to a Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and the Jebusites.” (Exodus 3: 7, 8)

But the Israelites lacked faith in God’s guidance to conqueror the inhabitants of the Promised Land.    Because some went to spy on the land and reported back, “The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls to the sky.” (Deuteronomy 1: 28)  That was enough for the Israelites to lose faith in God and give up.  God’s response was to drive them into the wilderness for 40 years.  Until the faithless died off.  Then Joshua and Caleb, who always believed in God’s promise of victory, led the next generation, and they conquered the inhabitants and possessed the land. (Numbers 32: 11-12)  The moral of the story for us seminarians was that of faithfulness to God whatever the struggle.

We seminarians were not encouraged to get into the morality of the story.  Like this God plays favorites, and thus piety can inspire plunder. Where God says to the Israelites, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you .”  We did not moralize about: “And when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.”  Nor about:  “Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7: 1-6) We did not identify with the Canaanites and the other groups of human beings who were the indiginous inhabitants of the Promised Land.  They became The Other, and oblivious to us.  We were content to theologize about, and get right, what was in The Bible: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”    

Unfortunately, our seminary professor was not biblical scholar Fr. Michael Prior, C.M., Ph.D.  Fr. Prior was “concerned about the use of the Bible as a legitimization for colonialism and its consequences.”   He witnessed the dispossession, dispersion and humiliation of the Palestinians, and saw addressing that injustice as “a moral imperative.”  While sensitive to the horrific oppression of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany, Fr. Prior said, “It is a dubious moral principle to regard the barbaric treatment of the Jews by the Third Reich as constituting a right to establish a Jewish state at the expense of an innocent third party.  Until Israelis acknowledge their having displaced another people and make some reparation and accommodation, there will be no future for the state.” He concluded, “It is high time that biblical scholars, church people, and Western intellectuals read the biblical narratives of the promise of land ‘with the eyes of the Canaanites.’ ”   (“Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing In Palestine,”  By. Michael Prior, C.M.,Bint Jbeil, taken from the Dec. 2000 issue of The Link, publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding)

We seminarians were taught not to see the Promised Land “with the eyes of the Canaanites.”  We were studying up on how Christians had replaced the Jews as God’s “treasured possession,“ because of the Jews’ assumed eventual unfaithfulness.  God formed a new covenant by sending his only Son Jesus into the world to save the Jews – and everyone else – from their sins.  But the Jews rejected Jesus’ claim to be God’s Messianic Son and savior of the world.  In fact, The New Testament records that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion – never mind that their country was occupied by Rome and they had no power.  As the Gospel records, after Jesus’ arrest, and during the trial in front of Roman governor Pilate, the Jews were quoted as repeatedly shouting, “Crucify him!”   “All the people” were even quoted as saying with one voice, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’ ” (Matthew 27: 23, 25)

Talk about fake news!  Here’s an example of Christian-invented fake news that has had devastating consequences setting up the Jews for their own persecution down through the ages as “Christ killers.”

The fake news about the Jews culpability for Jesus’ death spread throughout Christianity.  A glaring case in point is the revered leading Protestant reformer Martin Luther.  He challenged the Catholic Church’s Biblical claim of having “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” thus determining who gets in and who doesn’t – this claim based on Jesus recorded as saying to his disciple Peter (assumed to be the first Pope), “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16: 13-19)  The abuse of such power over peoples’ lives led Luther to come up with his own biblical authority for belief in salvation: “justification by faith” in Jesus Christ alone, which offers everyone direct access to God, without any controlling and exploitive mediator, hence “the priesthood of all believers.” (Hebrews 7: 23-28)

Martin Luther’s motivation was fundamentally the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church: both used biblical authority to gain power over and control people.  He merely substituted the authority of biblical belief in “justification by faith” for that of biblical belief in the Roman Catholic Church as the gatekeeper of salvation.  Luther opened the door to direct personal access to God, liberating people from dependency on the Catholic Church for their salvation.  Except for the Jews, whom Luther judged to be a divinely despised — not “Chosen” — people, and beyond redemption.

Martin Luther offers an example of just how doctrinaire, divisive and destructive religious belief can become.  Luther’s lethal hatred of the Jews is spelled out in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies.  He reminded everyone that Jesus “did not call them Abraham’s children but a ‘brood of vipers.’ [Matt 3:7]”

Luther had his own choice words for the Jews: “miserable, blind and senseless people . . . den of devils . . . thieves and robbers.”  He urged Germany’s rulers “to exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people.”  Meaning: “Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish.  . . . If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs.”  Thus the Jews should be ejected “forever from this country.  For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little.  Therefore, in any case, away with them!”  It was about practicing “sharp mercy” toward the Jews “to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames.” (Ibid)

All this virulent hatred of the Jews from the professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg.   An  example of selective morality.

Hitler is reported to have been “a Christian and Catholic in good standing,“ who “openly admired” Martin Luther and considered him “a brilliant reformer.” (“The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis,” By Gregory Paul, Free Inquiry Magazine, churchandstate.org.uk, Oct. 11, 2003)   Luther’s “sharp mercy” toward the Jews, legitimized by fake biblical news about the Jews as “Christ killers,” helped condition Germany’s Protestant and Catholic Christian status quo to accommodate the horrible holocaust perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis against the Jews and other minorities.  A master religion that helped to breed a “master” race.

That religion still needs a heavy dose of self-scrutiny and soul-searching, which, today, would be timely.  October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Catholic monk Martin Luther nailing 95 theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, triggering the Protestant Reformation and the split from the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther and the Reformation are being celebrated throughout Protestantism with special services, festivals, exhibitions, and pilgrimages to Germany church sites where Luther “was baptized . . . ordained and “nailed the 95 theses.” (“Luther 2017,” www.germany.travel/luther )

My alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary, now located in Washington D.C. on the campus of American University, is joining in the celebration of “Luther at 500.”  Wesley has announced that, starting August 30, certain professors will collaborate “in a unique course” on “Luther: Theologian, Musician, Preacher, Changemaker .“ (“Only at Wesley this Fall: Luther and the Reformation at 500 Years,” www.wesleytheologicalseminary.edu)  Leading the course is professor of preaching and worship Dr. Lucy Hogan.  The course is inspired by her visits to the churches in Germany where Martin Luther preached.  In those sanctuaries, she envisioned “Luther in the pulpit, one hand on the Bible and the other pointing to Jesus on the cross.  ‘There it is,’ ” she says, “ ‘the theology and preaching of Martin Luther.’ ” (Ibid)

The reported focus of the professors joining Dr. Hogan in teaching the course?  One says. “God used Luther to remind the Church of its biblical foundation, calling it back to its first love.”  Another professor underlines Luther’s “own spiritual struggle to perceive God as gracious,” seen in his “profound liberating insight: our justification in a divine gift! . . . free[ing] us from the bondage of trying to make ourselves righteous before God.”  A third professor heralds Luther’s “composing and arranging of hymns and liturgical music to be sung by people in the vernacular, ensuring that the Word was proclaimed to all musically as well as verbally.”  And Professor Hogan cites Luther’s “high view of preaching: “He declared, ‘When the preacher speaks, God speaks.’ ” (Ibid)

Professor Hogan states that “students can write a paper or a play or a poem, or they can compose a hymn. “  Summing up her hopes for the course, she wants “it to be fun,” and ”I want students to come away from it saying, ‘Wow, this is still affecting who we are and what we do.’ ” (Ibid)

There is much about Martin Luther to study and inspire.  His 95 theses challenged his Catholic Church’s perceived use of people’s sins and related vulnerability to control and exploit them.  A major issue of Luther’s 95 theses was the Church’s sale of  indulgences, which he saw as allowing people to pay money for, rather than repent of, their sins — the indulgences part of a money-raising campaign for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (See “Martin Luther posts 95 theses,” www.history.com)

Martin Luther was brought to trial by religious and civil authorities for his protest and ordered to recant.  He spoke his truth to their power, which has inspired Christians of conscience through the centuries:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me.  Amen. (”Luther at the Imperial  Diet of Worms (1521),” www.luther.de)

Tragically, Martin Luther’s “conscience’s captivity to the Word of God” has spelled captivity and subjugation and death for Jews and other non-believers.   Luther’s “justification by faith” meant persecution and eternal damnation for the Jews — and others — who rejected his absolutist biblical formula of salvation.

Unfortunately, nothing in Wesley Theological Seminary’s description of its course on “Luther and the Reformation at 500 Years” addresses the Reformation leader’s anti-Semitism.   Luther continues to inspire the consciences of many, who live by faith in Jesus, stand up for what is just and do good works.  But his selective, biblically-based, morality also encourages many Christians to remain oblivious to how belief in “the Word of God” is used to divide people and legitimize discrimination and imperialistic plunder of those condemned as lesser.  More than Wesley Professor Hogan appears to be aware, “this [biblical belief in justification by faith” in Jesus Christ alone] is still affecting who we are and what we do” – in divisive ways.

Martin Luther’s “justification by faith” creates division, not solidarity.  It is not about joining others in pursuing justice in society, but about seeking personal justification through correct faith.  It is not about right behavior, but about right belief – from which good works supposedly naturally flow.  As Luther states, “The first and chief article” is this: “Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Romans 4: 25.  And he alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1: 29; and God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53.6.” (“The Smalcald Articles,” bookofconcord.org)  Luther believed in good works.  But faith is first and foremost.   Else the cart is pulling the horse.  As Luther wrote, the good doer “stumbles around and looks for faith and good works,” and knows neither.  First, “Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or do.” (“Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith,” www.ligonier.org)

This divisive, biblically-based, evangelistic belief in “justification by faith”– expressed in the description of Wesley Seminary’s course on Luther and the Reformation — “is still affecting who we are and what we do.”  “Justification by faith” turns people of different faiths into The Other, and helps to justifiy invading their countries and proselytizing their citizens.

A prime example is The United Methodist Church itself.   The worst war criminal of the 21st century is former president George W. Bush, a United Methodist.  His “Christ changed my heart” testimony and  prayerful public piety helped to motivate an overwhelming majority of white Christian evangelicals to enthusiastically support their “brother-in-Christ’s” falsely-based, horrifically destructive invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Certain evangelical leaders were quoted as “claiming that the American invasion of Iraq would create exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims.” (“Wayward Christian Soldiers,” By. Charles Marsh, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2006).  Such Christianity is about subjugation to Christ, not about human solidarity.  The criminal invasion of Iraq created the breeding ground for the rise of the brutal, vengeful ISIS.

All this evil created by a self-identified pious president who said at a news conference shortly before pre-emptively invading Iraq, “I pray daily.  I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength.  . . . I pray for peace.” (“Transcript of Bush news conference on Iraq,” www.cnn.com, March 6, 2003)  “American exceptionalism” and Jesus as the savior of the world are two sides of the same divisive imperialistic coin.

At its core, “justification by faith” is exclusive and therefore divisive.  Many Christians like to tout the assumed solidarity Christianity inspires, by quoting Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Tell that to the Jews who are oppressed in countries dominated by Christians.  Tell it to black people whose ancestors were enslaved by Christians, and, most of whom, in this assumed Christian nation, are still segregated and subjected to racial bias by police. Tell it the women who continue to struggle for equality in patriarchcally-conditioned Christian Churches and societies.

People of various races, nationalities and sexual orientations all may be “one” in Christ, but they are not equal.  Biblical belief in Christ as the savior of the world has not demonstrated the power to overcome anti-Semitism, racism, patriarchy or homophobia and create real solidarity.  Nor has the absolutism of Biblical belief in Christ demonstrated the power to overcome xenophobia and Islamophobia.   Just the opposite:  the salvation of “justification by faith”-believing Christians depends on the damnation of unbelievers, and is thus inherently about division, not solidarity. There is no heaven without hell.

Belief in the inerrancy of The Bible provides the authority insecure and controlling people need to justify themselves and condemn those The Bible judges as lesser.  The issue here is not people believing in what empowers them, but in the kind of belief that leads them to justify their need to gain power over other people.  One apparently won’t find it in Wesley Seminary’s upcoming course on “Luther at 500,” but, tragically, “justification by “faith” in Jesus Christ “is still very much [adversely] affecting who we are and what we do.”

Enter Donald Trump, who played on the biblically-based biases of white evangelical Christians especially to win the White House.  His candidacy was not about bringing people together, but dividing them.  He called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals, promised to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep others out.  He pledged to ban Muslims from entering the country, set up surveillance of those here, and to kill family members of “radical Islamist terrorists.”  He vowed to be a real “law and order president” and keep people of color in their place.  To appoint a pro-life judge to enable the Supreme Court to gain control over woman’s bodies.  And to create a religious freedom act that would legitimize Bible-believing Christians’ culturally conditioned homophobia and grant them the right to discriminate against LGBTQ persons.

Trump’s campaign was about making America white and Christian again – and many voters were ripe for his racist candidacy after eight years of an “illegitimate” black president in their White House.  Trump’s divisive appeals worked: a reported “eight-in-ten self-identified white born-again evangelical Christians voted for Trump,” and “white Catholics also supported Trump over Clinton by a wide, 23-point margin (60% to 37%).” (“How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis,” By Gregory A. Smith, Pew Research Center, Nov. 9, 2016)  While Hillary Clinton was not a moral alternative to Trump, the mere fact of being a woman is assumed to have contributed to her defeat.

Thanks to President Trump, those Bible-believing Christians got their pro-life Supreme Court justice.  They also have a died-in-the-wool-born-again, anti-gay vice president in Mike Pence.  And Trump has signed an executive order that allows faith leaders to endorse or oppose political candidates from the pulpit, while still holding in front of them the carrot of an executive order on religious liberty that would allow them to practice their Bible-based discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

But evangelical Christians will discover that they, and those other Trump voters, got far more divisiveness than they bargained for.  With impulsive, white supremacist, nuclear weapons-rattling Donald Trump as president, hate groups are on the rise, and violence against minorities is dramatically increasing, (See, “American mosques – and American Muslims – are being targeted for hate like never before,” By Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post, Aug. 8, 2017; and “Donald Trump’s Rise Has Coincided With an Explosion of Hate Groups,” By Michelle Chen, The Nation, March 24, 2017)

And an aggressive, delusions of grandeur afflicted President Trump, with his finger on America’s nuclear weapons, is just getting started.  He is threatening to reign “fire and fury” against North Vietnam “like the world has never seen.”  (“Trump’s Words Hinting at War Were Offhand,” By Glen Thrush and Peter Baker, The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2017)  He then doubled down, saying “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.” (“Trump warns N Korea that US military is ‘locked and loaded,’ ”BBC News, Aug. 11, 2017) His dark pathological obliviousness to humanity is seen in him making this world-shaking threat against North Korea in the face of Japan having just observed the72nd anniversary of the US dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, killing over 200,000 people in the two cities. (See “Nagasaki mayor urges nations to abandon nuclear weapons on 72nd anniversary of atomic bombing,” By Mari Yamaguchi, AP, www.usatoday,.com, Aug. 9, 2017) His warmongering words reveal that he is the greatest threat to humanity.

US imperialism is responsible for North Korea developing nuclear weapons.  Former president George W. Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil.”  He then invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government, under the false pretense that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.   Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi gave up his pursuit of nuclear weapons, and later was overthrown by Obama administration-led NATO forces and violently killed.  The fate of Iraq and Libya sent a clear message to North Korea that possessing nuclear weapons was its only defense against US imperialism. (See “North Korea is more rational than you think,” by Zeeshan Aleem, Vox,  Aug. 9, 2017)

Many white evangelical Christian leaders are with President Trump: ready to pray with him in The White House whenever he summons them, to give him the appearance of being guided by “God – like former president George W. Bush claimed to be.  The priority of these evangelical Christians is access to power, so that they can impose their biblical self-justification by faith on others – maybe even on North Koreans, like evangelical Christians have done following Bush’s invasion of Iraq. (See “The Nation; Should Christian Missionaries Heed the Call in Iraq?,” By Deborah Caldwell, The New York Times, April 6, 2003)

Where are the other Christian leaders?  Is their god big enough to lead them to transcend the exclusive belief in “justification by faith,” empathize with all people and publicly speak moral truth to President Trump’s bellicose political power?  Where are those Christian leaders for whom the bottom line of faith is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-11), The Golden Rule (Matthew 7: 12) and The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37)? The world desperately needs faith leaders who have the moral capacity to move beyond Christian sectarianism.  Faith leaders motivated by the belief that every human being laughs and cries and loves and mourns – and has a right to be and to belong and to become?   Justification, not by faith, but simply by being born human!

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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