“Religion can be a passion -- the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that [on 9/11] brought all that destruction…. there [is] no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.” --from “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero”, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
If we choose God, when we choose God, which God will it be? A God of love? A God of hate?
That is the question which has haunted me since the terror attacks in France last week, which left seventeen innocent people dead, a city traumatized, a nation terrorized, and a world once again reminded of the terrible price paid when religion goes evil. When religion inspires violence. When religion gets so twisted and warped, that “religious” people hate, murder, and even dare to proclaim that they do so in “the name of God”.
It’s tempting to imagine that this is a modern problem, one born in the ashes of 9/11, when religious fundamentalism moved a group of extremists to attack thousands of innocents. But the question of what kind of God humans worship, know and proclaim is as old as faith itself. Life itself. From the moment tens of thousands of years ago when our ancient ancestors stared up into a night sky at the stars and imagined, hoped, that a power greater than themselves was somehow behind all of existence, religion has been used for good and evil in the world. Religion has inspired humankind’s greatest acts of kindness, mercy and compassion and humanity’s absolute worst acts of depravity and hatred too.
As a person of faith and a clergyman, one who has staked his whole life in the service of religion and all the good it can and does do, it is heart breaking for me to name this truth. The reality that religious faith can evoke the noblest of human behavior and the most heinous as well. I’m embarrassed, ashamed and angry that any of my fellow faith adherents—Muslims, Jews, Christians, whomever—would use the cloak of faith in God to justify hatred and bloodshed. Would have the arrogance to cry out “God is great!” while shooting a police officer, killing a cartoonist, gunning down a shopper in a neighborhood deli, all of which happened in Paris.
Some hope is emerging from these events. More than 1.5 million French rallied in Paris to proclaim “WE ARE NOT AFRAID!” in the largest such demonstration in that nation since 1944. They were joined by many political leaders, including the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the Palestinian Authority, representing two peoples locked in a titanic struggle often fueled by religious intolerance. There’s the story of the Muslim deli employee, Lassana Bathily, who led his customers to safety, as the terrorists took hostages. On social media and in the press, moderate Muslims are speaking out and up and against the terrorists and their supporters, and they are doing so more forcefully and publicly than perhaps ever before.
This is where the real reformation and transformation of all religion has to start, has to continue. From the believers themselves. From the ones within a given religious faith who refuse to allow their particular faith in God to be hijacked by fellow adherents, those who through fundamentalism, extremism, fear and even bloodshed, pretend to love and honor “their” God. The brave, the religious dissenters: they and they alone, must finally have the courage and the tenacity to take back their religions. And not just in Islam, but in any religion which uses the power of faith in God for naked human power, and all to oppress, to hate, to hurt, to control, to dismiss.
Until this happens, I’m sad to say that I think nothing will change. God wants things to change, of this I am absolutely convinced. Yet finally it is God’s followers who must choose just what kind of God they believe in.
The world is a very religious place: 84 percent of its population claims a place in a specific religious tradition. We do not need more religion. We need better religion, belief systems and practices which make our fragile and beautiful big blue marble, our God created home, a better place. A safer place. A more loving place. A tolerant place. A hopeful place where all—people all faiths, people of no faith—can live together in peace. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.
A God of love. A God of hate. For the religious, this is the choice.