WHOSE SIDE IS GOD ON?
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on February 3, 2002
These are tough times for Unitarian Universalists. The very foundations of our religion seems to be shaken; the core of our beliefs destroyed. Some of our most sacred ideals are being attacked. What am I talking about? Think about it. The first precept that gave us the name Unitarian was that God was one -- a unity rather than a trinity. So Unitarians also came to believe in one God -- or as some have said in more recent times -- at most one God. This idea later got expanded to the belief that there is only one God. Not just that God comes as a single unit, without three parts, but that there is really just one God, and all people worship the same God, although they may call God by different names. Unitarians have resonated with the notion that every religion looks to the one God, insofar as they worship any God at all.
In the wake of the terrible events of September 11, many have been asking where God was that he (or she) would allow such a thing to happen. There is the suggestion that we need more of God; that there is not enough God in the world. I disagree. It seems to me that a large part of the problem is that we have too many Gods. Rather than following one God, people in different countries, with different religions and ideals, have invented their own versions of God, and it has become convenient to call upon their unique image of God to support whatever cause they espouse. The result is that, instead of having a God with many names, we now have many Gods whose names are being used to justify terrorism. So a good Unitarian might well ask not "Where is God in all this? but "what happened to the idea that we all worship the same God?"
Another problem comes from the Universalist side of our religion. The name Universalist originally came from the belief that any God worth having was a loving God who would not condemn anyone to eternal damnation, but who nevertheless expected people to behave well towards one another--to spread the idea of love throughout the world. If God was love, then to be Godly was to live a life of love. But now it appears that God is to be invoked not for the sake of love, but to support hate. Instead of a God who loves everyone, we now have several Gods who apparently hate anyone who doesn't agree with them. The old Universalists must be rolling in their graves.
Later, Universalism came to embrace the concept that all people live together in the world, and therefore there is a universal common shared need to get along, to help one another, and to live together in peace and harmony. This is the principle of the interdependent web; we are all connected in important ways, and must therefore respect one another and the environment and work, love and suffer together. Universalism has worked toward one world theology, in which people would share the same basic beliefs and work together to create a better world. Universalists came up with the idea of the global village; a world community with one purpose -- to improve life on earth for everyone. Universalism has come to represent the hope for an ecumenical, world-wide religion based on love.
But, as we have now seen, those who glorified the idea of the world turning into a global village evidently didn't know much about the behavior of people in villages. Sometimes, as Cervantes understood, "there is more harm in a village than is dreamt of." In any case, the global village -- proliferating now into a planetary city, with a few luxurious districts, and many terrible slums, and some neighborhoods that are savage and very dangerous-- has no police force. What the global community does have is many churches, with many gods. Sometimes it is the faithful of the churches, and the mosques and synagogues, who need policing most of all.
If you scratch any aggressive tribalism or nationalism, you usually find beneath its surface a religious core, some older binding energy of belief or superstition, previous to civic consciousness, previous almost to thought. Here is the paradox of God-love as a life force, the deepest well of compassion, that is capable of transforming itself into a death-force, with the peculiar annihilating energies of belief. Faith, the sweetest refuge and consolation for many, may harden by perversity into a sword, or a bomb or biological weapon or assault rifle. Religious hatreds tend to be merciless and absolute.
The dream of a global village, or of one God whose name is love, seems almost ridiculous in the face of the terrorism we have experienced recently. Now we are face to face with the fanaticism that seems to be the polar opposite of our ideals, or even of our belief in the sanctity of the individual life. Somehow, we have failed to understand the zealot's capacity for blind terror. We have consistently failed to appreciate the malign power of religious fundamentalism. We have been blind to the possibility that, in the name of God, radicals will condone murder or brutality as just, honorable, or manly. We have naively thought individuals shouldered responsibility for their own actions.
Most recently, and most in the news, is the malign power of Muslim fundamentalism. In the name of ancient injunctions to acquire honor or wipe out shame, these extremists have been willing to commit suicide in order to carry out the supposed wishes of Allah. So innocent Americans are killed at the World Trade Center, Jews and Palestinians are murdered in the West Bank. The vast majority of Muslims are neither radical nor violent, but Islam's militant strain is on the verge of becoming the principal opponent of Western liberal democracy and the values it enshrines.
Although it is hard for us to understand, the origins of their hate are in part religious. In the secularized societies of the west, we separate religion and politics. In most of the Muslim world, politics is religion and religion is politics. Militant Muslims feel that foreign ideologies, such as liberalism, socialism and nationalism -- led by Muslim apostates and, even worse, by infidels -- have caused Muslims to forsake the God-given law of the Koran and the religious life prescribed for them.
Some of it is due to grievances from the past. A Muslim world dominant for a thousand years was surpassed by the West, whose systems proved more powerful. The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat: first, the loss of domination of others; then, the undermining of Muslim authority even in Islamic countries through an invasion of foreign ideas, laws, and ways of life, sometimes even resulting in foreign rule. On top of all this, the traditional Muslim man has had to contend with the challenge to his mastery in his own home from the emancipation of women and rebellion of children. For many it has been too much.
One can understand why Muslim fundamentalists should want to purify Islamic society by returning to its origins in the hope that Muhammed's message, unchanged by time and thought, dress and education, would provide the answers today as it did in the golden era. One can understand why this might appeal to people frustrated by the failure of their own systems and their leaders. One can understand why frustration would lead Muslims to differentiate between the "good" Muslim world and the "evil" west. We can even understand how they might view us as destructive of the planet, uncaring about the suffering of the oppressed, concerned only about our own welfare and position as the world's only superpower, and how this might lead to them feeling depressed, angry, and in various ways dysfunctional-- and resentful.
Yet, we do not feel personally responsible when American corporations run sweat shops in the Phillippines or crush efforts of workers to organize in Singapore. We don't see ourselves implicated when the United States refuses to consider the plight of Palestinian refugees or uses the excuse of drugs or the greed for oil as reasons to support repression in Muslim countries. We didn't even see the symbolism when the terrorists attacked our military center and our trade center -- we talk of them as buildings, though others see them as centers of the forces that are causing the world so much pain.
Still, there is never any justification for acts of terror against innocent civilians. This is something we must remember as we pursue the "war against terrorism", in which, already, officially, we have killed more innocent civilians in Afghanistan than the terrorists did in America. In the struggle of Islam vs. the west, an examination of conscience is needed on both sides. Lance Morrow, in an essay In Time last December, suggests that there is plenty of arrogance to go around on both sides, and plenty of danger. On the Islam side, we have the arrogance of "jihads," and "fatwahs," against the "infidels." On our side, we speak of our "crusade," our "resolve" against the "evil ones." The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, spoke for the American religious right when he told a television interviewer, "The God of Islam is not the same God as that of Christianity. It is a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Not just the terrorists are wicked and evil; the entire Muslim religion is condemned. This is dangerous talk. Morrow fears that the grievance of September 11 has nullified certain long-standing American inhibitions, such as the constraints of political correctness and "hate speech, and even the taboo against speaking of nuclear weapons.
Certainly, there is ample evidence that religious bigotry and hatred and terror are not the purview of Muslims alone. Extremism in pursuit of truth on the part of religious groups and individuals has been going on for a long time, and has become a global problem in the last decade. Terrorism is also nothing new. I have been collecting examples of terrorism perpetrated in the name of religions for over ten years. I pulled out that file the other day, and discovered that ten years ago people were aware of the dangers of religious extremism, and warned of its potential for evil and harm. But they were largely ignored.
Here are some examples of terrorism in the name of God that have torn our society asunder in the last decade, in addition to the ones we all know about -- the embassy and Cole bombings, the two attacks on the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bombing, the situation in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing terrorist acts in the Middle East, especially in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. These days it is getting more and more difficult to tell which side -- Arabs or Israelis -- are the worst terrorists. Certainly both sides have legitimate grievances; certainly both sides have been provoked by the other; certainly both are engaged in terrorist activities.
We tend to hear most about Arab atrocities, but how about the American-born Jewish extremist who murdered dozens of praying Muslims in the mosque, and the racist rabbi who spoke at Goldstein's funeral and said: "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail." Or the religious extremist Yigal Amir, a young Orthodox Jew, who shot Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a Tel Aviv square, and then calmly submitted to arrest, claiming he had acted under orders from God. This act arguably changed history by removing Rabin from leadership at a critical moment in the search for peace.
Elsewhere in the world, militant Hindus became increasingly belligerent toward Christians in India; radical Muslims continue to use violence in their quest for an Islamic state in Egypt and Algeria; Japanese followers of Shoko Asahara and his group Om Supreme Truth released poison gas in crowded Tokyo subways, killing 12 people and injuring thousands more; David Koresh, dead in the Waco firestorm, who said to his followers: "If you can't kill for God, you can't die for God." And Louis Farrakkan and his friends and followers who preach race-hatred and anti-Semitism to cheering young people. The list goes on and on.
Many feel that perhaps the greatest danger faced by Americans comes from our own militant Christian fundamentalists, who are organized into militias, Christian Identity groups, race-hatred and anti-Semitic groups, Klans, cults and "Armies of God." Americans have paid little attention to the campaign of systematic destruction being waged by this group of domestic terrorists over the past quarter century -- except for the Oklahoma City bombing. It takes big acts to get our attention, as Osama Bin Laden knew well.
One major target has been abortion clinics and providers. For years and years, people who work in family-planning clinics -- whether they actually provide abortions or not -- have been living with letters filled with white powder and anthrax warnings, constant bomb scares, arson, assault, Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, glued locks, blocked sewers, doctors shot and killed, and the ever-present fear of something worse to come. There is no ideological difference between these people and those who flew planes into the World Trade Center; both feel justified in their actions because their distorted view of religion tells them they have a holy right -- even an obligation -- to harass, injure, or murder people with whom they disagree on the say-so of a direct pipeline to God, or Allah. Their rhetoric is more akin to the language of war -- crusades, intolerance for the enemy, and violence -- than the reasoned democratic discourse which maintains respect for opponents even while disagreeing with them.
Every state in the union now has militias -- private armies to fight the American government, while defining their actions as patriotism. Under many names -- Christian Identity, Aryan Nations, Christian Patriots, Skinheads, the Free Militia, the Church of the Creator, the Army of God, Phineas Priests, and others -- their esoteric doctrines present a vast array of conspiratorial scenarios and religious visions which unfold against the backdrop of the timeless battle of good against evil. All are violently racist and anti-Semitic; all believe in an absolute right to carry guns and use them against the government if, as they feel, the government is violating their rights; all are in bed with the NRA; all believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; and all believe that it is their duty to "live out God's holy word," and "found a just society based on the Bible," and "take a public stand against the ghastly holocaust of abortion."
While these are extremists, and it is not fair to paint all fundamentalist Christians or Pentecostals with the same brush, it is also true that even more moderate groups like the Christian Coalition use inflammatory language. For example, a prominent speaker at a recent CC convention said, "There can be no compromise with sin and evil. We must have men and women who understand the crisis of our time, who are determined to exercise godly principled leadership. We need men who will stand on an issue because it is right to do so...this is the time for Americans to choose between conviction or compromise, Christ or chaos." And CC leader Pat Robertson agreed with Jerry Falwell, whose mind is Taliban minus the bloodlust, when he blamed the World Trade Center attack partly on "liberals, abortionists and feminists." I am thereby triple-damned. Better watch out!
"A fanatic," said Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, "is a man that does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He knew th' facts in the case." In spite of how others feel about how the Lord would act, I feel that, overall, as the Universalists felt, any God worth worshiping would be a loving God. I don't know where fanatics find all this hate and poison and violence in the Bible; when I read it I find far more about love, and justice, and compassion. What can we do about the terrorist threats to our way of life? How should we as UUs respond? I think by remaining true to our view of the world, and recognize the spirit of God in each other. We can continue to practice a religion of loving-kindness that recognizes the worth and dignity of all people, and the interdependent web of life.
One would like to think that God is on our side against the terrorists, because they are wrong and we are in the right, and any deity worth anything ought to be able to see that. But as soon as we fall into the mode of thinking God is on our side, we fall into the same arrogance cloaked in morality that motivates the terrorists. I think the God worth worshiping is one who pays us the compliment of staying out of our lives and trusting us to regulate ourselves and mind our own business.
Ours is a world out of touch with itself, filled with people who have forgotten how to recognize and respond to the sacred in each other because we are so used to looking at others from the standpoint of what they can do for us, how we can use them toward our own ends. We need a period of reflection, of coming back into touch with our common humanity, asking ourselves how our institutions can best embody our highest values. We need a return to the notion that every human life is sacred, that 'the bottom line' should be the creation of a world of love and caring, and that the best way to prevent these kinds of acts is not to turn ourselves into a police state, but turn ourselves into a society in which social justice, love, and compassion are so prevalent that violence becomes only a distant memory. When Americans finally put their flags away, they will have to ask if they want to go back to what they were on September 10. We can do a lot better, and we religious liberals can help show the way.