Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seek the welfare of the city

Someone once asked humorist Will Rogers if he belonged to an organized political party, and he replied, “No, I’m a Democrat.” Think about that for a moment. Right now, I think it applies to both political parties.

I like to paraphrase Will Rogers’ joke and tell people that I don’t belong to an organized religion; I’m an Episcopalian.

We have all heard that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company. People tend to have strong, even passionate, opinions about both subjects, and a discussion of either topic is likely to generate more heat than light.

But as a religious leader people often want to discuss religion with me. I don’t mind; I think it’s a little ridiculous not to talk about the subjects that interest us and which touch on the deepest concerns of our hearts.

People often tell me that they believe that organized religion is pernicious, and they even say that it has done and is doing more harm than any other institution. They cite the conflicts in northern Ireland, the middle east and elsewhere.

Let’s just look objectively at that idea. There’s a good deal of support for the idea that religion does more harm than good. Religion appears to be at the heart of many dangerous conflicts. Religious differences are part of the reason for the hostility and suspicion that divides Hindu India from Muslim Pakistan. There is even less reason for the differences that divide Protestant Northern Ireland from the Catholic Republic of Ireland. How can two groups that both profess the Christian faith be so bitterly divided? And then there’s the Middle East. As humorist Tom Lehrer said in his song “National Brotherhood Week,” “Oh, the Catholics hate the Protestants and the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Hindus hate the Muslims and everybody hates the Jews…”

In our own country, we seem to be in the midst of wave of anti-Islamic feeling, but if we want to encourage Muslims to reject extremism, we have to reach out to our Muslim neighbors with understanding.

Let’s take a closer look at the accusation that religion spawns hatred, misunderstanding and violence. There’s some justification for this idea. The Roman empire systematically persecuted Jews and Christians who would not offer sacrifices in the temples of the gods who were believed to uphold the Roman state. Christians, then, returned the favor when Constantine converted to the Christian faith in the 4th century. In the Middle Ages Jews cowered in their homes in fear on Good Friday because Christians often rioted through Jewish neighborhoods beating and even killing Jews on the day of Christ’s crucifixion.

Muslims conquered the Middle East and Northern Africa by force in the 7th and 8th centuries. Jews and Christians were free to practice their religion in many Muslim countries but were treated as second class citizens.

During the crusades, Christians indiscriminately slaughtered Jews, Muslims, and even eastern Orthodox Christians in their campaign to reassert Christian rule over the Holy Land. And we won’t even go into the Inquisition…

So far, so bad. Now, let’s look at the evil done by explicitly secularist and atheist regimes. If we total up those killed just in the 20th c. by the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, we reach a conservative estimate of 50 million. That greatly exceeds the number of those killed in wars of religion in the last 2000 years by a factor of 2 or even 3.

The word "religion" is derived from two Latin words that mean to "re-connect". That's the true purpose of religion: to united, not divide... to join, not to

Religion has given us schools and hospitals, teachers and doctors. Mother Teresa was motivated by her love of God to serve the poorest of the poor; Gandhi’s campaign to achieve Indian independence was profoundly spiritual; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never deviated from his commitment to non-violent resistance because of his deep faith in God; the Catholic teachers I met in Bangladesh provide education for hundreds of children, most of them not Catholic but Muslim; and we could go on and on.

In today’s Old Testament reading the prophet Jeremiah writes a remarkable letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah could have told the exiles to resist, to do everything in their power to sabotage the Babylonian regime. But instead Jeremiah told them to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

I believe that Jeremiah’s words sum up the purpose of religion. Even though we believe that this world is not permanent, that our eternal destiny is in a world to come, that in some sense we are exiles here, we, too, should bend every effort to work for the well-being of this world, to plant gardens, to build schools and hospitals, to care for the sick, lift up the fallen, nurture children, befriend the friendless, and to make this world as much like heaven as possible.