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Religion for Evil or for Good

July 11, 2004

Bible Reading

Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.

(John 14:1-2)

Reading from Swedenborg

The Lord provides for every nation a universal means of salvation. Whatever religion people may live in, they can be saved. For they know the evil things, and the falsities from those evils, that must be shunned. And having shunned them, they know the good things that must be done and the truths that must be believed. . . .

Christians see this from the Bible, Muslims from the Qur'an, and Gentiles from their religious principles.

Christians see from the Bible that God is one, that the Lord is the Savior of the world, that all good that is good in itself, and all truth that is true in itself, is from God, and nothing of it from humans. They see that there must be baptism and the Holy Supper, that there is a heaven and a hell, that there is a life after death, and that those who do good come into heaven, and those who do evil into hell. . . .

Muslims see from the Qur'an that God is one, that the Lord is the Son of God, and that all good is from God; that there is a heaven and a hell, that there is a life after death, and that the evils forbidden in the Ten Commandments must be shunned. If they do the latter things, they also believe the former, and are saved.

Gentiles see from their religious principles that there is a God, that he must be regarded as holy and worshiped, that good is from him, that there is a heaven and a hell, that there is a life after death, and that the evils forbidden in the Ten Commandments must be shunned. If they do these things and believe them, they are saved. (Apocalypse Explained #1180)


The title for my reflections might well seem inappropriate, perhaps even blasphemous, for a message delivered in a church. But a quick glance at the newspaper headlines reminds us that religion is sadly intertwined with the worst kinds of hatred and violence in many parts of the world. Not only is there the fresh memory of the nightmare of 9/11, when terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam murdered thousands of innocent people, but each day brings news of brutal actions by militant Muslims in various parts of the world. Lest we think this is a purely Muslim phenomenon, we must acknowledge the hateful tortures and killings carried out by Serbian Christians against their Muslim neighbors, the truly horrific actions of Hindu extremists against Muslims, and the acts of violence by Jewish militants against Muslims and Christians in Palestine.

In American society, we have been largely spared this kind of violence--although it is disturbing to witness an increasing number of statements of religious intolerance and antipathy by religious and political leaders. In the current climate, there is justifiable concern over the destructive capacity of many who claim to act in the name of religion. This is especially the case because religion worldwide is in the midst of a new period of great growth in numbers and enthusiasm.

The capacity of religion or those who claim to act in its name to do evil is doubly unsettling for us because we are accustomed to seeing religion as the most important source of peace and brotherhood. The current horrors committed in religion's name may lead us to ask whether religion is a positive or negative force in the world. To answer this troubling question properly, we need to step back for a moment to remind ourselves what religious faith and action are, and what separates them from actions that are the antithesis of religion, even if they are wrapped in religion's cloak.

Religion is a divinely inspired human construct that is meant to link us to the Divine and to infuse us with the qualities of a loving Deity, thereby giving meaning and guidance to our lives here and hereafter. The degree to which we are truly religious is defined by the degree to which we absorb and live out the qualities of the Divine as communicated to us in the Bible, or the Qur'an, or the Torah, or other sacred sources. To use religious faith as a motive or organizing principle for harmful and hateful actions against other human beings is, therefore, the antithesis of being religious--the denial of what it is to be a religious person.

We must guard against the hijacking of Islam and other religious faiths, to use our President's vivid rhetoric. The wisdom of the founders of this republic in freeing religion from the control of the state has spared us most of the religious horrors that plagued Europe earlier in history, and that afflict much of the rest of the world now. The real problem arises when people succumb to the temptation to use religion as a source of identity separating them from others rather than linking them in brotherhood and sisterhood. "We vs. them," reinforced by the powerful force of religious faith, can lead people to believe that God wills them to fight against and kill other groups of people.

We do see this in our country in a much milder form--yet it is enough to cause us concern. I am reminded of the confusion between what is truly religious and what is ideological by the heated reaction to a recent federal court decision declaring unconstitutional the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am old enough to remember that when I recited the pledge as a schoolboy, those words were not included. I do not think my early youth coincided with a time that was less godly than the years since 1954, when those words were added to the pledge.

It is well to remember that those words were added at the urging of a president who had not attended church until his election--when he did so as a civic gesture. He was largely motivated by the Cold War threat of Communism, and thought that words emphasizing Americans' God-fearing nature would strengthen our hand in that war. That is not necessarily wrong; but I do not think it should be confused with religion. It is something meant to reinforce and promote ideological and political identity. That is a dangerous slope down which to proceed. Our religion should be more than political and ideological correctness. Samuel Johnson once remarked, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." I think it could also be said that self-identification with religion can be the last refuge of hate-filled and resentful people everywhere.

That is the dilemma. In a world that is more and more seized with religious fervor, we need to find ways of restoring religion to its proper place if we are to avoid further hatred and destruction. As a distinguished religious leader, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, reminds us, "There is no instant solution, but there is a responsibility that rests with all of us, particularly with religious leaders, to envision a different and more gracious future."

I think there is an equal responsibility residing with political leaders. Even where church and state are formally separated, there is an inextricable connection between religion and politics. This will always be so. The question is how we seek to live out and apply the true beliefs and values religion to the world we live in, and to the resolution of its problems and suffering.

There are two political leaders, one a Christian and one a Muslim, who in my mind point the way: Jimmy Carter and Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

President Carter's religious values helped drive his efforts at Camp David to bring President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel together, thus laying the foundations for the process, however tattered at present, that has sustained hopes for peace in the Middle East. His Christian values are more evident still in his post-presidential career. Instead of socializing with the financial or show business elite, collecting huge honoraria for dinner speeches, or polishing his presidential reputation, he has worked tirelessly to help the poor around the world through Habitat for Humanity, and as an unofficial envoy to help resolve international conflicts.

Two years ago I accompanied several distinguished Arab and Israeli scholars and retired diplomats to the Carter Center to meet with the former president and discuss efforts to promote Middle East peace. One of the visitors asked Dr. Kenneth Stein, a Middle East adviser to Carter, what drove the former president to undertake these efforts. Stein said it was simple: Carter absorbed values in his Baptist Sunday School that impelled him to act as he has.

Shaikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and father of the United Arab Emirates, has said:

Islam is a civilizing religion that gives mankind dignity. A Muslim is he who does not inflict evil upon others. Islam is the religion of tolerance and forgiveness, and not of war; of dialogue and understanding. It is Islamic social justice that has asked every Muslim to respect the other. To treat every person, no matter what his creed or race, as a special soul is a mark of Islam.

His actions have spoken louder than his words. If Carter's values came from the Bible as understood in a Southern Baptist church, Zayed's came from the Qur'an, which provided his only formal learning. His whole sixty-year career in leadership, from governing the Bedouins of the desert to serving as a respected international leader today, has reflected qualities derived from his absorption of a deeply conservative but tolerant Islam, which enshrines, among other things, a profound sense of social justice.

The hallmark of Zayed's career has been his unswerving commitment to realizing this social justice, and to unfailingly acting with moderation and charity. This could be illustrated through the recall of a number of delightful anecdotes about Zayed, many of them concerning the innumerable times when he has exercised his authority as ruler to set aside the harsh judgments of some of the U.A.E.'s religious courts, and reached into his own pocket to fund the quiet escape of the miscreant.

Carter and Zayed present a dramatic contrast to the religious extremists of various faiths. While the latter have used religion to identify themselves as separate and superior to others, Carter and Zayed have lived out the true commandments of their religions. Rabbi Sacks is again worth quoting:

Nothing has proved harder in civilization than seeing God or good and dignity in those unlike ourselves. There are surely many ways of arriving at that generosity of spirit, and each faith may need to find its own way. I propose that the truth at the heart of monotheism is that God is greater than religion; that he is only partially comprehended by any one faith. He is my God, but he is also your God. . . . A God of yours and mine must be a God of justice standing above both of us, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear one another's claims, and to resolve them equitably. . . . Only such a God could teach mankind to make peace other than by conquest or conversion, and as something nobler than practical necessity.

That is a very Swedenborgian concept, given eloquent expression by a Jewish rabbi. It answers well the question of what we must do if religion is to bring good rather than evil to the world.


O God of all nations, bring to the various religions of the world a spirit of tolerance and appreciation for both the differences that distinguish us and the commonalities that bind us all together into a single human race under your divine government. Amen.

Malcolm C. Peck