When Faith is Hijacked

For Sunday September 4, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 12:1–14 or Ezekiel 33:7–11
           Psalm 149 or Psalm 119:33–40
           Romans 13:8–14
           Matthew 18:15–20

September 11, 2001.
September 11, 2001.

           With the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, D.C. right around the corner, and our Christian country deeply divided over our preemptory war in Muslim Iraq, I've been reflecting on the religious justifications of so much hatred in our world. Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban hate the Christian west more than they hate death itself, enough so to slaughter their own Muslim brothers and sisters.

           But Muslims are not the only ones to glorify and valorize war. Some Christians have added fuel to this fire. About a year after the 9–11attacks, on November 16, 2002, Franklin Graham, Billy's son, appeared on the NBC Nightly News and derided Islam as "an evil and wicked religion." Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, denigrated the prophet Muhammed as "a demon-possessed pedophile" in his annual address to the convention on June 10, 2001. In a speech before his colleagues on March 4, 2004, Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma characterized the Middle East conflicts as "a contest over whether or not the word of God is true."1 And a few days ago, on his television program The 700 Club, Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (an ardent critic of President Bush).

           Granted, there have been various justifications for different wars. Countries have waged war for territorial expansion, retaliation, protection, self-defense, or to stem the tide of evil. It goes without saying that ethnic, economic, political, cultural and historical factors converge in a complex cocktail when people wage war. Sometimes religion gets unjustly blamed in wars; in my two trips to Croatia I can't remember anyone saying that the war among Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, and Bosnian Muslims was fundamentally a religious war. Rather, they described it as a land-grab by Milosevic. Despite these concessions to historical reality, it is still true that in some wars believers of all religions have invoked divine sanction: "not only do we hate you and intend to exterminate you, but so does God Himself, for He is for us and against you."

           Consider two of the Old Testament texts for this week. Exodus 12 describes the institution of the Jewish feast of Passover that commemorates Israel's liberation from 430 years of bondage to slavery in Egypt. Liberation from oppression is a good thing, and always worthy of celebration. But the writer of Exodus construes Israel's emancipation to include Egyptian subjugation. Today we would say that the horribly-oppressed became the new oppressor, except in this instance the writer insists that Hebrew revenge was the very act of Yahweh Himself. Yahweh will "bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt." In something akin to divine infanticide, Yahweh will slay the first-born of every Egyptian, from the highest in Pharaoh's house to the lowliest prisoner languishing in a dank dungeon, even including the firstborn of Egyptian livestock. To punctuate his point, the writer adds: "there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead" (Exodus 12:30). In a departing act of humiliation, the Hebrews looted and plundered their Egyptian oppressors.

           Or consider the schizophrenic zeal in Psalm 149 for this week. The first half of the Psalm describes dancing, singing, music, and praise of God. But the instruments of worship like tambourine and harp give way in the second half of the psalm to weapons of war like swords and shackles:

May the praise of God be in their mouths
     and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vengeance on the nations
     and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
     their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them.
     This is the glory of all his saints (Psalm 149:6–9).

I love the rather anemic understatement in the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (1991) footnote to Psalm 149: "The dance was evidently of war-like character." Yes, it certainly was. Perhaps the enemies of the Psalmist somehow deserved their humiliation, perhaps there is a mysterious divine providence at work in the rise and fall of nations, or maybe you could read this as the normal but tragic rhetoric of military conquest. Whoever laughed at the notion of poetry as a political act? But a simple reading suggests that for the Psalmist it was a very short step from pious praise to religious rage. He glorifies the religiously righteous who brandish a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

           Even some of the closest followers of Jesus evidenced indifference and hatred. When a beleaguered crowd besieged Jesus because he actively welcomed and healed them, the twelve disciples urged Jesus to "send them away" (Luke 9:12). When someone outside of the Jesus movement tried to heal a person, John boasted with misplaced pride, "Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us" (Luke 9:49). Toward the end of his life Jesus set out for Jerusalem. When he passed through a village of the despised Samaritans and they refused even basic hospitality to him, James and John spewed their venom: "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54).

Battle of the Milvian Bridge, fresco by Raphael (1483-1520).
Battle of the Milvian Bridge,
fresco by Raphael (1483–1520).

           After three hundred years of sporadic, state-sponsored persecutions of Christians, most of whom were the peripheral and the poor, the Roman emperor Constantine credited his military victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the Christian God. Tradition says that on the evening of October 27, the night before the battle, Constantine had a vision of a cross emblazoned on the setting sun, and the Greek letters XP, the first two Greek letters of "Christ," superimposed on it. Constantine either saw or heard the phrase, often rendered in Latin, "In Hoc Signo Vinces"—"With this sign, you shall conquer." Constantine, who was a pagan at the time, put the symbol on his solders' shields, thus transforming a sacred symbol of innocent, redemptive, suffering love into a talisman of violent, hate-filled, military conquest.

            Somewhere deep within the human psyche there seems to reside a dark and primitive impulse toward hatred, exclusion, and deadly violence. Perhaps to justify ourselves, or to calm our deep insecurity, we insist that God not only sanctions our hatreds and our causes, whether personal or national, but that He himself hates our enemies and at some points in history even exterminates them. But when God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be confident that you have created Him in your own petty and paltry image.

Martin Niemoeller.
Martin Niemoeller.

           So, thank God for Paul's text for this week, in which he borrows a passage from the Hebrew Old Testament to instruct the earliest followers of Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 9:9 = Leviticus 19:18). The only debt we should carry, he says, is the never-ending debt to "love your fellow human being." Loving your neighbor fulfills any and every other divine command, for genuine love "does no harm to its neighbor."

           The German Pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892–1984), who protested Hitler's anti-semite measures in person to the fuehrer, was eventually arrested, then imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937–1945). He once confessed, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies." I pray to love what Niemoeller learned, and I pray that despite the pain and horror that our country experienced on September 11, 2001, our nation and its leaders will too.

[1] See Rezan Aslan, No God But God; The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random, 2005, p. 273 for documentation of these three examples.