The two-edged sword of religion: How shall we use it?

Christ with the double-edged sword after Apocalypse of St. John, on the side altar in Catedral de Cristo Salvador in Avila, by unknown artist of 16th century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, religion is “the belief and worship of a superhuman, controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” We know that from the instant that human beings gained the brain power to contemplate themselves and their surroundings, they developed various forms of rituals and practices to celebrate and give meaning to the mystical and magical things around them they could not understand. Be it life and death, the rotation of the earth, weather and seasons, illness, pain or joy, these practices and rites continued to grow and eventually enmeshed themselves so completely in the lives of the people that they became indistinguishable from the culture of the group; community, culture, and religion became as one. Holy writings came into being, prophetic and wise leaders emerged, and over time certain core principles developed within the religion that their followers agreed to believe.

The three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), have become, in many ways, the most powerful of the world religions. Although they comprise less than half of the world’s population as followers, they control well over half of the world’s armaments, and 70% of the world’s wealth. They have cut through the chaos of existence to bring many good things to humanity. They have been responsible for creating great beauty in music, art, architecture and literature, and for bringing into being the modern world or “enlightenment” of science, education, mobility and technology. Their teachings of love, peace, justice, fidelity, inclusion and compassion form the bulwark of much of that which is positive in human evolution. Yet, we must also acknowledge that the powerful “sword” of religion has also brought a sharp edge of violence and war, fear and greed.

Often used as a tool of powerful governments, religion has also used its sword as a xenophobic weapon against those people and cultures seen as different from their “real religion.” Indigenous and peace-loving people of North and South America, Hawaii, and parts of Africa were brutally subjugated, and their cultures destroyed by marauding armies seeking land, gold, and to spread God’s kingdom. The Crusades are a savage, evil time in Christianity that remains today as the root for current rivalries and wars between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish nations. The United States is now in its 17th year of war with nations in the middle east, and now other disagreements bode ill for conflict, rather than accord and accommodation. Trade wars with former allies, nuclear disagreements with Korea and China, immigration disputes with near neighbors – all bear marks of racism, greed and power-mongering thinly veiled under the deceitful cloak of patriotism and legality, and supported vigorously, in many cases, by religion.

Yet almost every faith group has an equivalent of Jesus’s teaching to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) – our oft-quoted Golden Rule. Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself” (Udanavar 5:18, 580 BC). Confucius told his followers, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others” (Analects 15:230, 557 BC). Mohammed taught, “The most righteous person is the one who consents for other people what he consents for himself, and who dislikes for them what he dislikes for himself.” Similar statements can be found in Zoroastrianism, Hindu, and in teachings of African tribal cultures.

And so it goes throughout history. Sadly, we find even today that just as religion seeks to stand for love, peace, justice and truth, so too is it the cause of many of the world’s conflicts and problems. Indeed, religions reflect the strengths and weaknesses, aspirations and stumbling-blocks of those who follow them! Religion continues to be a two-edged sword, capable of carving the future for both good and bad.

As Christians and Episcopalians today, we would do well to acknowledge our part in the wielding of this two-edged sword, not only throughout history, but in today’s world. What we can do – you and I – is to determine that we will work to dull the cutting edge of Christianity that wields vengeance, violence, greed and pain upon one another and upon our brothers and sisters around the world, and sharpen the bright edge that fosters peace, justice, compassion and love. Let us resolve never to use our religion as a weapon against those who are different from us, but to cut a path that will ease the burden of others as they navigate life’s journey. Let us remember the teachings of the New Testament:

•Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God (Matthew 5:9)

•If possible, insofar as it depends on you, be at peace with all people (Romans 12:18)

•But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy (James 3:17)

Let us put aside our differences and begin to build peace and love in our world. Let us together confront turmoil and hate with kindness and justice, forgiveness and compassion.

Let this be our prayer:

Our God and Creator, who made us to be your family throughout the earth, we give you thanks for the expansiveness of your love. We rejoice that you have included us all in your compassionate embrace. We praise you that you have spread wide the unseen arms of your eternal, welcoming kindness. Forgive us our failure to reflect your way in our own lives. Often we do not spread our arms wide. Often we keep our compassion in much too small a circle. Often our love has been constrained and restrictive. Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see brothers and sisters where we previously had not seen any. Help us to breach walls built by ignorance, suspicion and hate so we will draw nearer to one another, as you have drawn near to us in Christ. Lead us that we might reject animosity and instead promote harmony. Help us, O God, that what we say and do will further the grace you have extended to us as we reject the ways of harm and advance those things that add to the health and hope of all creation. Amen.(Michael Neuroth, Policy Advocate for International Issues, United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries.)

The author, the Rev. Deniray Mueller, serves as Legislative Liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with her at deniray@deniray.com.

This article was originally posted January 4, 2019 at dsoConnections.org

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