I just finished reading the book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.
The author is Karen Armstrong, a well known and well respected scholar and writer in the field of comparative religion. In this book, Armstrong explores the very important common ground shared by many, if not most, religious traditions when it comes to their understanding of and teaching about compassion. In the opening chapter of her book there is this sentence which, given the religious climate of today and the use of religion in the public square, cries out to be heard. Armstrong writes:
“Let us return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.
Which leads me to this…As so often happens, when it comes to a sermon, I do it backwards from many of my colleagues. Rather than starting with the Bible and moving out from there, it is the headlines in the news or a comment on the radio which push me back to the Bible reminding me of verses and stories I have heard and read and preached about and pondered for most of my life. This week is no different. Two items recently caught my attention and pushed me back t the Bible, and back to the scripture readings we heard a moment ago. The first was an article I read both online and in the New York Times. The second was a post written by a writer from Sojourners, a Christian community located in Washington, D.C.
First the article (https://nyti.ms/zBCJcQ).
Maybe you saw it.
It is about a 16 year old high school student, who is an atheist, and who sued her school district over a prayer that hangs in the school auditorium. The morning I read the article I wrote this response in my blog. (www.paulalcorn.com)
A 16 year old Cranston, RI high school student, who is an atheist, sued her school district over a prayer that hangs in her school auditorium. The prayer talks about being our best, growing mentally and morally, being kind and being helpful.
Qualities towards which all of us should aspire.
You might wish her concern over the prayer had lead to thoughtful and respectful discussion rather than a lawsuit, or that the outcome of the lawsuit was different.
But here is what I find most offensive.
A Rhode Island State Representative called her “an evil little thing” on a talk radio program.
The young woman, for standing up for her constitutional rights, has received online threats.
I assume from anonymous persons because it is much safer that way.
And, while at school she now has to be escorted by the police.
What is wrong with this picture?
Am I wrong to assume that, at least, some of those who have spoken out or threatened this young woman call themselves Christian?
And how about taking to heart the words of the prayer – being helpful and kind and doing and being our best rather than calling names and making threats?
No wonder more and more people in our country are turning away from religion in general and Christianity in particular.
They may be longing for what I know and name as God, and searching for meaning and hope and purpose in their lives, but this?
No, way. And, who can blame them.
I certainly can’t.
No wonder that, according to a survey by the Barna Group, 85% of young adults view organized religion as hypocritical and judgemental.
And, as I said, the second headline in the news was an online post from the Sojourners Community. It was written in response to how religion is being used or misused in the political process as the election year cycle begins heating up. They wrote:
When we’re choosing a president or examining a candidate, it’s fair to ask about their moral compass – how their values affect their decision-making and policy positions. What we shouldn’t do, however, is require that everyone believe in the same doctrine or espouse the same religious traditions.
In the past several months, we’ve seen Christians launch increasingly inappropriate attacks on candidates. From the misguided to the outrageous, here are a few of them:
· Rick Perry ran ads stating the current administration had declared a “war on religion.” (https://bit.ly/znMaIc)
· Pastor Robert Jeffress attacked Mitt Romney during the primaries by calling Mormonism a “cult.” (https://huff.to/zr2KMT)
· Randall Terry, a radical conservative activist, has released ads telling Christians that “when you support Obama … it’s as if your vote is an attack on Jesus himself.” (https://bit.ly/xqsS3F)
· Mike O’Neal, Kansas House Speaker, sent an email to his Republican colleagues saying that his prayer for President Obama is Psalm 109:8, which reads: “May his days be few; and another take his place of leadership.” (https://huff.to/waWS9H)
Christians often disagree.
Sometimes we become passionate and argue.
But these tactics go too far.
Where did we begin our conversation this morning?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD my rock and my redeemer.
These represent just two examples of what I consider to be the misuse of religion.
Both are by those who call themselves Christian which is what I call myself.
But, Christianity certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on this type of rhetoric or action. Without too much trouble I am sure I could find similar examples from Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism.
But, I am a Christian.
And, if I have a voice at all it is to Christian community, in general, and in this community in particular. And, so here is what I want to say to you today.
You and I…
And those like us, of whatever religious tradition, who believe that while we may disagree and even disagree passionately about religion and politics and the appropriate strategies to help us solve the issues we face, we are to listen with as much intensity as we speak and we are to treat one another with respect. I believe we need to regain our voice and to say with as much clarity as we can;
Not just here, but also in the public square:
That any use of religion and any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence or hatred or disdain is illegitimate. That any use of religion that demeans another or purposefully divides one from another is illegitimate.
The days of wars waged the name of religion must cease.
The days of intolerance and prejudice cloaked in religions rhetoric must cease.
The days of ethnic or political or racial hatred or discrimination disguised as religious principle must cease.
And, the truth of the matter is this…
If you and I do not find the courage not just to think it, but to say it;
Not just to disavow it by turning way, but to confront it;
It will not happen and the misuse and violence and discrimination and division will continue.
I know this is not easy for us.
For us our faith is very personal.
It guides what we do and why we do it.
It shapes our values and what we try to teach our children.
It inspires us and comforts us and strengthens us and sustains us.
But it is often inside us and not outside us.
We are not those who beat others over the head with our interpretation of the Bible.
We are not those who tell others that they will go to hell if they don’t think and act and believe as we do.
We are not those to wear our faith on our sleeves.
But, maybe some of that needs to change…at least a little. I believe our voice needs to be heard.
Our take on what it means to be faithful needs to be heard.
Our understanding of compassion and hospitality and inclusion needs to be heard.
Our sense of who God is and who God calls us to be and what God calls us to do needs to be heard.
I think many around us are looking for and waiting for and hoping for and maybe even praying for a different, more inclusive, more tolerant, more visionary understanding of God and religion and faith to be seen and heard, not just in church, but maybe even in the public square.
Our faith is very personal, but it can no longer be private.