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When religion becomes evil
Jewsweek Magazine ^ | 10-29-02 | CHARLES KIMBALL

Posted on 10/29/2002 7:42:37 PM PST by SJackson

How can something rooted in positivity become the impetus for something so negative? In a new book, CHARLES KIMBALL explains the basic reasons for religious corruptions and offers some corrective measures that can be taken. Your exclusive excerpt begins here.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - | Religious persuasions are indisputably central factors in the escalation of evil and violence in the global scene, and hence a growing subject of popular concern and debate. Many argue that religion is the chief source of problems in the world today. Central to this debate is the need to distinguish between "corrupt" forms of religious expression and the "authentic" forms that offer real correctives and solutions to this global threat.

In a new book aptly titled "When Religion Becomes Evil", religion and Mideast politics expert Charles Kimball offers a timely examination of the nature and signs of religious evil, while outlining the correctives to these corruptions within each of the major religious traditions. Kimball outlines a clear description of the basic corruptions that manifest themselves in each of the major religious traditions -- blind obedience, absolute truth claims, the end justifies the means, etc. While no single tradition is exempt from these corruptions, each has the ability and means to identify and correct such tendencies within its own wisdom.

Kimball's book offers a reliable guide to this urgent global issue, showing that the ways in which people of faith uderstand and live out their deepest religious commitments will have profound consequences for the future of humanity.

In partnership with the book's publisher, Jewsweek has garnered exclusive rights to excerpt a section from this important work. Below is a part of chapter seven, titled "An Inclusive Faith Rooted in a Tradition" which explores the undeniable truth that when we coherently understand our differences, we will begin to see similarites we never thought existed.


Our awareness of the complexities and dangers of global conflicts has grown significantly since the sobering events of September 11, 2001. Our knowledge concerning the causes and possible solutions to these conflicts lags behind, but we are learning important new lessons each day. We know that religion remains one of the most powerful forces in human society and that religious ideologies and commitments are often directly linked with violent conflict. We know with certainty that well-organized groups of motivated people are capable of wreaking havoc on a global scale. At the beginning of this book, I offered the edge of a cliff as a metaphor for the precarious place where we find ourselves standing today and suggested that progress is best defined as taking one step back. This book represents an effort to step back, by identifying clearly the major warning signs of corruption in religion that invariably lead to violence and evil in the world.

The complicity of religious persuasions in global conflicts today is undeniable, but understanding this complicity requires that we clearly grasp the difference between what we have called corrupt forms of religious commitment and the authentic forms that offer hope. Throughout much of the book we have described the five telltale signs of corruption in religion. As we have seen, one or more of these five signs always precedes any instance of religiously sanctioned evil. Knowledge of such corruption is invaluable in today’s world, yet it is not sufficient in itself. Whether one is a true believer or a die-hard secularist, it remains necessary to take the next step from the knowledge of these factors that predict when religion becomes evil to a clear understanding of how religion can remain true to its authentic sources and a force for positive change.

As we have explored each of the warning signs of corrupted religion, we have seen how correctives were always present within each tradition. Our study of the pathological has helped to elucidate the healthy. At the heart of every major religious tradition we find abiding truths and principles that provide the first antidote to violence and extremism. It is important to recall that violent extremists are on the fringe of these traditions for a reason: the large majority of adherents recognize that the extremists violate the most basic teachings and values within the tradition. But as our examples have shown, many sincere people are susceptible to authoritative claims made by charismatic leaders. It is all too easy to lose sight of the most basic teachings in one’s religion, particularly when oppressive social, political, or economic conditions figure prominently into the arguments advanced and sacred texts quoted by authoritative leaders. Fear, insecurity, and a desire to protect the status quo can foster a tribalism in which otherwise sincere people engage in dehumanizing patterns of behavior, even war.

Nevertheless, in my view, people of faith offer the best hope both for correcting the corruptions leading to violence and for leading the way into a more promising future. At the outset, we affirmed that religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths. Throughout history religion has often been connected with what is noblest and best in human beings. Now, perhaps more than ever, religious people must transcend narrowly defined self-interest and seek new ways to live out what is noblest and best in their faith traditions.

We have seen truths common to each of the major religious traditions. These same traditions that have nurtured millions of people have also inspired adherents to rediscover, redefine in contemporary terms, and deepen these truths amid changing circumstances over the centuries. Such an impetus for reform is urgently needed today. All the resources needed for reform can be found at the heart of the major religious traditions. Even in the face of the worst examples of religious extremism, a strong and clear voice for change always sounds from the center of those traditions. Scott Appleby, who coedited the five-volume Fundamentalism Project with Martin Marty, has been studying religious extremism for more than a decade. Appleby argues convincingly that deeply committed religious peacemakers provide a major source of hope. He, too, suggests the respective religious traditions can once again serve us well.

The religious tradition is a vast and complex body of wisdom built up over many generations. Its foundational sources—sacred scriptures and/or codified oral teachings and commentaries—express and interpret the experiences of the sacred that led to the formation of the religious community. A religious tradition is no less than these sources, but it is always more. The deeper meaning and significance of these sources continues to be revealed throughout history. In each of the major religious traditions of the world, prophets, theologians, sages, scholars, and simple believers, exalted by the holy lives they led, refined and deepened the tradition’s spiritual practices and theological teachings in support of peacemaking rather than war, reconciliation rather than retaliation. To be traditional, then, is to take seriously those developments that achieved authoritative status because they probed, clarified, and developed the insights and teachings contained in the foundational sources.

The challenges today include and move beyond those that religious people have always faced. Like those generations who have gone before us, we, too, must look deep into our traditions for the wisdom and resources that support peacemaking rather than war, reconciliation rather than retaliation. But we must do this in a global context. Albert Einstein, whose name is synonymous with innovative thinking, once noted, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” His observation remains apropos. Today’s call for reformation is both an imperative within the different traditions and an imperative at the interfaith level. We need new paradigms, new ways of understanding and living out our particularity in the midst of pluralism. We need new paradigms both for the ways we function within existing traditions and for our multicultural and interfaith engagement.

A compass for the journey ahead

A common religious metaphor for life in this world is that of a journey or a pilgrimage. The religious traditions provide a worldview to orient the adherents; they teach of origins, purposes, and ultimate goals. The religious traditions provide symbolic maps for the journey. They present different paths and identify different obstacles blocking the way toward the goals. As a Christian, for instance, I can approach the Bible with this orientation. The cumulative tradition from Genesis to Revelation provides a frame of reference for me and for nearly two billion others who make up the largest religious community in the world. The sacred texts indicate where we come from and where we are going. While we recognize that the specific landscapes evident in the journeys of faith recorded in the Bible are often different from the terrain we encounter today, the biblical stories continue to offer invaluable insights from the successes and failures of pilgrims seeking and discerning God’s guidance along the way. So, too, we can learn from the journeys of those throughout history who have faced similar, and distinctly different, challenges as well as perilously unfamiliar landscapes. The Bible provides no detailed map for the terrain of the twenty-first century. For us, the Bible is more like a globe, showing us the big picture. If one could have taken a picture of the Earth from the moon in Jesus’ day, it would look very much like the picture of the Earth from outer space we see today. A detailed map of Europe or Palestine from Jesus’ day, however, would not be very helpful today in trying to reach one’s destination in those lands.

More than a map, we need a compass. This need has been reflected clearly in American culture in recent years, especially in the profusion of values-based inspirational publishing. In his perennial best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey offers one of the clearest arguments for this need for reorientation:

We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles or directions) and less in need of a road map. We often don’t know what the terrain ahead will be like or what we will need to go through it. . . . But an inner compass will always give us direction.

Covey believes that one’s inner compass is a set of core principles, what he terms “deep, fundamental truths that have universal application.” Covey includes fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, growth, patience, nurturance, and encouragement among the universal principles he suggests are “part of most every major religion, as well as social philosophies and ethical systems.” He goes further, arguing that these principles are self-evident: “It’s almost as if these principles or natural laws are part of the human condition, part of human consciousness, part of the human conscience.” Covey is writing primarily for people functioning in organizational settings, especially businesses and families. In 1993 Stephen Covey and I discussed his view that these fundamental principles are innate and reflected in the major religions. I agreed then and still affirm his basic assessment. But I believe the core principles in the major religious traditions go deeper. They include faith, hope, and love. We will return to these components of the religious compass after an additional comment on the metaphor of the globe.

In the introduction to his book Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith alludes to this innate human compass without using the term. “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to follow Rainer Marie Rilke’s suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.”

On the compass of each enduring religious tradition, God or the transcendent is true north. Jeff Rogers, my former faculty colleague at Furman University and now the senior minister at First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, affirms this image but adds a helpful caveat. Rogers reminds us that the needle of a compass points to magnetic north, not geographical north. Depending on where you are on earth, there can be several degrees of variation, or magnetic declination. He suggests that our needles point in the right direction but that we must be careful lest we assume the needle on our particular compass points directly to the sum total of the reality of God. Rogers echoes the message of chapter 2, on absolute truth claims; he warns us to beware of those who speak and behave as though magnetic declination does not exist on their compass.

Faith, hope, and love are also guiding principles on the spiritual compasses provided by the enduring religions. Faith is not the same as belief. Belief is connected to particular ideas, ways of conceptualizing religious systems. Faith is sometimes linked with belief, but it is deeper and richer. Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote extensively on human faith over several decades. In his book Faith and Belief, Smith examines the phenomenon of faith in the Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian traditions. As a result of his meticulous, historical exploration, Smith concludes that faith is an essential human quality.

It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe . . . a capacity to live at a more than mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of, a transcendent dimension. . . . It is engendered and sustained by a religious tradition, in some cases and to some degree by its doctrines; but it is a quality of the person, not of the system.

. . . Faith, then, is a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen to oneself at the level of immediate event.

Hope is another vital point of orientation on the compass. Hope sustains people when the immediate circumstances are less than ideal. Hope is forward looking. Even when obstacles seem insurmountable, the religious traditions orient adherents toward a more promising future. Theologically, hope is not merely wishful thinking; it is much deeper, more profound. Hope calls us to act in pursuit of a better future. Hope and faith were points on the compass that guided and sustained Moses as he led the children of Israel on the extraordinarily difficult journey for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai. Faith and hope sustained Muhammad when powerful leaders in Mecca mocked him and persecuted those who abandoned the multiple tribal and local deities in order to worship the God of all creation. Like Moses, Muhammad and the community of faith also had to embark on a journey, a perilous pilgrimage to a new location. So, too, did Martin Luther King Jr., who had every reason for pessimism as the forces of prejudice, injustice, hatred, and death assailed him and others on their journey to the promised land. How did Gandhi and Nelson Mandela find their way on their respective, dangerous, and seemingly impossible journeys?

In each of these cases, we can identify with the metaphor of a compass. None of these well-known leaders had a detailed map from which to chart each step on their long and arduous sojourns. But each had a spiritual compass; whatever the obstacles blocking their path, they were oriented toward true north and guided by faith, hope, fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, and encouragement. They neither retreated simply into the private world of personal piety nor sat around and engaged in wishful thinking. They set forth on their respective pilgrimages with an inner compass. And each of these persons of faith helped change the course of human history.

Woven in and among these principles is love. The apostle Paul writes of faith, hope, and love in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. He called love “the greatest” of these three (1 Corinthians 13:13). We have identified the centrality of love in the world’s religions, symbolized by Jesus’ call to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Love of God and all of God’s creation is the foundation for ethical behavior. For Jesus, this included the call to love even your enemies and those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43–44). Neither Jesus nor primary figures in other traditions promised an easy journey. On the contrary, life’s sojourn is always demanding and at points life threatening. Jesus warned that the way of compassionate love might not be reciprocated; it might even lead to death, as it did for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But imagine for a moment how different the world would and could be if millions of people who identify themselves with a religious tradition constantly consulted their spiritual compass, found their bearings, and took the next step on their journey with the golden rule as their guiding principle.

Thinking in terms of a spiritual compass has two additional benefits. First, it alters the way one approaches diversity, including the bewildering array of problems and detours we all inevitably encounter in life. A compass provides a confidence that, despite the magnetic declination of our human limitations, we are oriented toward a meaningful goal. Security comes not from having or assuming we have all the answers; it comes from knowing which direction we are going and being able to respond to confusion, crisis, and even calamity on the basis of time-tested principles. The diversity we experience—in relation to those nearby as well as those who are far away—need not be seen as a threat; it can become part of the rich texture of life on the journey. When we travel to distant, sometimes exotic places, it is not because we want to experience exactly what we experience every week in our home settings. We seek diversity, from which we learn, grow, and enrich our lives. It is nice to get home from a long journey. But it wouldn’t occur to us that returning home would be accompanied by a declaration that I’m the only one who really understands what home means or where it is located. A spiritual compass can help us see religious, ethnic, and national diversity—in our neighborhoods, country, and world—as enriching rather than threatening.

A second benefit of the image of the spiritual compass is that it leads to an emphasis on practice in daily life. Notice that the various points on the compass have much less to do with carefully constructed belief systems than with how one orients oneself in the world. For me, it is the difference between thinking of my Christian identity in terms of a noun or an adjective. The powerful distinction between the two hit me with some force many years ago when an Arabic-speaking Muslim I’d just met in the Middle East asked, “Are you Christian?” I assumed that he meant “a Christian” but simply left out the indefinite article. I answered, “Yes.” But later that day his question haunted me. Am I “Christian” in my attitudes and behavior? It is easy enough to say I am a Christian; honesty and a healthy dose of humility prevent a casual or overly confident claim to Christlike behavior. Other people are better suited to comment on how Christian I am on a given day in a particular situation. Their assessment will be based on how they experience me relating to others. As we have noted at points throughout the book, behavior is critically important in the major religious traditions. The Day of Judgment in both Islam and Christianity is not portrayed as a final exam in which your answers to true-or-false questions about doctrines of God determine whether you pass.

All metaphors have limitations, and this one is no different. Thinking of God as a direction and enduring principles as points on a spiritual compass is helpful. But as the paragraphs above reveal, most human beings, including me, inevitably resort to more anthropomorphic images. The religious traditions provide these as well. God is like a parent, a loving and nurturing mother or father. Human beings are often described in familial terms: we are all God’s children; we are brothers and sisters. The language of neighbors is also commonly used. Our neighbors are not simply the people living physically nearby, people who share the same community. The world today is our neighborhood. The phrase is overworked, but it reflects the reality of economics, ecology, communication, and politics in the new millennium: our world community is increasingly becoming a global village.

The importance of religious traditions

With globalism a defining reality in our world today, it is urgent for us to assess the real and potential dangers posed by extremists within particular religious traditions. As we have noted, some people now argue that whatever value the religious traditions may have provided in the past, they have outlived their usefulness. They fear that deep loyalty to particular religious traditions inevitably feeds a kind of tribalism that is at odds with global cooperation; it is kindling that fuels an impending conflagration as civilizations clash. Our investigation lends credence to these concerns if the dangerous and violence-prone corruptions of religion remain unchecked.

Some religious seekers also wish to transcend the particularity of traditions. In individual religious exploration and in a range of New Age religions, a growing number of people selectively draw from the wisdom and practices of major religions as well as smaller, indigenous traditions such as are found among Native Americans. Visit the religion section in any major bookstore, and you will find many books catering to people whose spiritual quest takes them easily across the boundaries presumed to define religions. For some, this is the natural outgrowth of the study and engagement with the sacred literature and practices found in the various wisdom traditions. We have seen that gaining access to texts of many religions and engaging in personal encounters with adherents of different traditions is a fairly recent development, one that offers many promising benefits and some possible pitfalls.

A strong case can and should be made, however, for the continuing importance of the major religious traditions. These traditions have served millions of people extremely well throughout much of recorded history. They contain time-tested wisdom and provide the frameworks for ethical and legal systems. For the vast majority of people worldwide, their religious tradition—like their family, tribe, or nation—anchors them in the world. Religious traditions provide structure, discipline, and social participation in a community. Returning to Thomas Friedman’s striking image, one’s religious tradition is like an olive tree that has deep and secure roots. Religious traditions, Wilfred Smith reminds us, engender and sustain human faith.

For most people through the millennia, their religious tradition has been a fact of birth. While many people in the West today approach religions with the idea of choosing one or none, the reality is more complex. Our ways of seeing and interpreting the world, of framing issues, and even of asking questions are strongly tied to the social, religious, geographical, and historical circumstances into which we were born and raised. When someone learns that I was born in 1950 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of the post–World War II baby boom, that I attended public schools, and that I was raised in a Christian family, she or he already knows a good deal about my olive tree. I did not choose to be born in Tulsa and raised by Christian parents. Had I been born in Boston like the large majority of my extended family, I would have been raised—as were my many cousins—in a Jewish home. Had I been born in Cairo, there is a 90 percent chance that my parents would have been Muslims.

What if I had been born in Boston or Cairo or Calcutta? I’ve pondered that question many times as I’ve traveled and worked with people in various parts of the world. Extensive involvement with Christians in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Egypt, for instance, has taught me that our shared religious tradition is a major factor in how I see and interact with the world; it is not, however, the only determining factor. Cultural context, family, national identity, and education also shape my worldview—often in ways that are distinctly different from those of my Christian friends in the Middle East. I am strongly persuaded that I would be writing this same book had I been born in Boston within the Jewish branch of my family. The approach and examples would be different in places, since I would be writing, no doubt, from a perspective of Jewish pluralism. But the thrust of the analysis would be very much the same. Religious traditions do not determine who we are, but they are a part of the givenness of most people.

Established religious traditions continue to be valuable in other ways as well. They provide institutional structures that are essential in many ways. Consider, for instance, all of the humanitarian relief and development work in response to disasters, wars, and rampant poverty. Countless human service agencies are connected to religious traditions. These institutions are often among the first to respond to crises, and they are present for the long haul in many developing countries. Having worked for seven years coordinating the relief and development work of the major U.S. Christian denominations through the ecumenical structure of Church World Service and Witness, I know well the importance of such institutional structures. The stories of cooperation—ecumenical and interfaith—in response to the conflicts in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq as well as of ongoing work among the poorest people in Egypt are powerful, inspiring, and often unknown. Well-organized institutional structures, including those of established religious traditions, are essential. Personal spiritual growth and insight may occur as one moves in and among various traditions; systematic efforts to respond substantially to human beings in great need require functioning institutions.

Religious institutions, like similar structures in business, education, and government, are often developed to meet particular needs and facilitate work toward identifiable goals. As needs—and sometimes goals—change, institutions, too, must be modified. Many institutions, including religious ones, are notoriously slow to adapt to changing circumstances. While religious institutions are vital to communal life and work on many levels, these institutions are human constructs that can also be obstacles or even vehicles for destructive corruptions of the very religions they are there to serve. My experience working within the National Council of Churches (NCC) and among the major member communions—Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, various Orthodox and Baptist churches, and so on—illuminates this common problem.

The NCC was founded in the mid–twentieth century when many Christian communions were enthusiastic about new forms of ecumenical cooperation. For three decades the NCC flourished; thirty to forty denominational bodies worked together on a wide range of programs and projects, from mission and service ministries worldwide to biblical translation initiatives resulting in the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. When I was elected to the staff in 1983, support for the NCC was strong among the member churches. But resources for ecumenical programs were shrinking since many of the mainline churches were themselves experiencing decreased revenues. During my seven years at the NCC, I was involved directly in three major restructuring initiatives. The program staff and the representatives from the member communions were continually faced with difficult decisions on how best to pursue their ministries with dwindling resources. Each round of reorganization revealed how difficult it was for almost all people concerned to let go of previously successful institutional structures and programs, even though financial and other circumstances were clearly changing. Ecumenism was (and is) alive and well, but the established structures of the NCC were sometimes not flexible enough. In my experience, several of the most successful domestic and international ecumenical programs during the 1980s were inspired within the hallowed halls of 475 Riverside Drive in New York, but they needed new, more flexible institutional structures to flourish.

Ecumenical and interfaith cooperation is happening today on all levels and among people in all religious traditions. At the same time, people operating within religious traditions can and do foster the most destructive forms of tribalism. William Sloane Coffin, my former pastor at New York’s Riverside Church, succinctly spelled out the challenge before us in his provocative book A Passion for the Possible:

The challenge today is to seek a unity that celebrates diversity, to unite the particular with the universal, to recognize the need for roots while insisting that the point of roots is to put forth branches. What is intolerable is for difference to become idolatrous. When absolutized, nationalism, ethnicity, race, and gender are reactionary impulses. They become pseudoreligions, brittle and small, without the power to make people great. No human being’s identity is exhausted by his or her gender, race, ethnic origin, or national loyalty. Human beings are fully human only when they find the universal in the particular, when the recognize that all people have more in common than they have in conflict, and that it is precisely when what they have in conflict seems overriding that what they have in common needs most to be affirmed. Human rights are more important than the politics of identity, and religious people should be notorious boundary crossers.

Religious argumentation has defined and reinforced needless boundaries that many religious people—especially Christians and Muslims—have had difficulty crossing. Today, however, we can find strongly encouraging signs that more open, welcoming approaches to religious diversity are gaining ground.

*** ***

Reprinted from When Religion Becomes Evil with permision from the publisher Harper San Francisco.

{ Charles Kimball is a professor of religion and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University. He received his Th.D. from Harvard University in comparitive religion. Dr. Kimball is the author of three books about religion in the Middle East. }

TOPICS: General Discusssion

1 posted on 10/29/2002 7:42:37 PM PST by SJackson
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To: SJackson
Bump for later read vs scan.
2 posted on 10/29/2002 7:53:07 PM PST by sarasmom
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To: SJackson
Dennis Prager posits in his taped lecture on the Ten Commandmants that the one admonishing not to take the Lord's name in vain, is actually translated from the Hebrew as, "You shall not carry the Lord's name in vain," and that it is even a deeper admonition for religious people to refrain from doing bad, and even evil things.

In the sense then that, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His Name in vain," this becomes a pretty weighty indictment of Islamic terrorists, faith-healing charlatans and platitudinous libertines who do more harm to religion than even armies of atheists.

3 posted on 10/31/2002 4:41:43 PM PST by onedoug
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