By Mark Biskeborn
Fear drives people to dogma, dogma drives people to stop thinking, both deliver people to leaders who promise to protect and to do good but will most likely do neither.
“Abortion is the most important issue on the table.” Fred explained to his group. He is a Bible study class leader at a local Catholic church.
“But, Fred, you know this war in Iraq is killing thousands of people, innocent civilians and U.S. soldiers.”
“We must stomp out abortion and our President Bush – well, he’s pro-life.” Fred went on.
“But Fred, all those people in the war, they’re losing their lives.” I repeated. “And abortion’s been around since before King Tut. The Bible doesn’t say a word about it, talks about the value of life, and, Jesus, wasn’t he the Prince of Peace?”
“Yeah,” said Fred. “They’re brave men and women, fighting for a good cause. They volunteered and when they pay the ultimate price, it’s God’s will. It’s a holy war, you know? The righteousness of God against the evil of those non-Christians. ‘He that is not with me is against me.’ That’s what Jesus said in Mathew 12:30.”
“Well what about in his Sermon on the Mount, Christ saying that his main mission aims to help the poor, heal the sick, and teach peace?” I asked, curious to understand the priorities of Christ’s teachings.
“Your line of thinking…uh…esoteric.” Fred said. “You’re a newcomer here, you’ll catch on. You’ll learn how to think, you follow along here. You learn the dogma or you’ll be left behind. Left behind as in the Rapture, you know? The Second Coming.”
“Church dogma?” I asked. “Sounds like rules to live by. Who made those? I don’t know. I have to follow my own conscience.”
“If you sin, if you don’t obey…if…if you’re not humble, obedient…then your soul goes straight to hell.”
Looking for Religion in all the….
That exchange represents a true to life conversation I had a few months ago. It represents more than just a conversation. The general consensus of Catholic doctrine stands by this line of thought. I was interested in learning more about the Catholic Church, seriously considering joining.
For over six months, I attended the indoctrination and Bible classes. Catholicism attracted me because of its lineage all the way back to Peter and Paul. The Church carries a lot of history and tradition, but then, the age of an institution doesn’t make it more holy, more moral. It can weigh it down. In light of the conversations, I balanced the great architecture and art against the barbarous beheadings and burnings of great men that the Vatican carried out over the ages.
Over the centuries, the Church spilt its lion’s share of blood in the name of God. In the 16th century, it burned poor Tyndale at the stake, then beheaded him, then mutilated him and all this because he translated the Bible into English.
Eventually, it occurred to me that I would have to leave my own sense of rationality in the parking lot. That is, if I ever wanted to participate in a class discussion without leaping head first into steaming debate. For several months, I submitted myself to group thought, ethical contortions, and tunnel vision. I listened carefully to inerrant and absolute truthful readings of scripture. I was outnumbered. They proved me wrong. I folded my cards including my King of Hearts – the heart felt sense of what Christ says about peace, love, and charity to others, especially the poor.
I picked up my spirituality from the asphalt in the parking lot and never returned.
Naïve, I did not realize that, as a non-believer in their dogma, my soul already carried a one-way ticket to hell. In the Bible you’ll not find an exclusive doctrine that gives the righteous a first-class passage to the Kingdom of God. No, you’ll have to join that particular group to learn the special rules. Good luck in finding the right one.
I used to think that the term “fundamentalism” belonged only to the Waco Branch Davidians or the terrorists like Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh who, inspired by the Christian Identity group, bombed the P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City…or the Whacko Islamic terrorists.
Fundamentalism, a form of religious belief, comes in many degrees of extremes. During my brief tenure in the Catholic Church, I met a few people who shouted feverishly about God’s wrath – these folks seemed to bleed on the edge between fervent righteousness and downright blood-red head splitting. However, a majority seemed to fit into a group of regular, law-abiding extremists.
Fundamentalists know that people, especially children, who think on their own, tend to stray from their indoctrination. So, keeping an authoritarian control over their children offers a sure way to grow their flock.
Whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or Whacko, regardless of their religion, fundamentalists arise in every religion and share common practices, like bovine communities that follow common herding patterns although the breeds vary. Their literal reading of sacred texts calls on them to dominate the general society and to set its political path.
Fundamentalists work to raise leaders and followers whose politics reflect their narrow understandings of ancient scriptures. They want to recreate the world in their own image and rule by the ideology drawn from literal readings of texts. This approach strays far from democratic government, as we see in the Davidians community or in the Islamic Wahhabi or Taliban communities. Likewise, the Patriot Act smells of the same authoritarian control as the fundamentalist’s Shepard staff.
Some fundamentalists take their educational program a step further by raising or training followers who are willing to kill and die for their cause like Mohammed Atta, one of the lead 9/11 hijackers or like certain members of the Army of God group who killed doctors in the name of pro-life.
War on Terror in Fear
Under the auspices of Bush Jr., America declared an all out war on terror in the wake of the 9/11 catastrophe. Fear led to hysteria. People bought more gas guzzling SUV’s than ever to protect themselves. People allowed their government to invade a country that looked like it just might threaten America. Bush Jr. took advantage of the people’s fear and invaded Iraq, the oil soak lands of Babylon.
Anyone who threatens our lives and security and anyone who harbors terrorists will be destroyed – so long as they are not Christians or Americans. Iraq did not harbor terrorists or, for that matter, any real threat to America, at least, until its U.S. occupation.
Has America, in its hysterical fear, set a double standard in the way it deals with fundamentalists? The Bush administration’s war on terrorism abroad ignores the threat from fundamentalists from within our own borders. Ironically, as Bush Jr. calls for more religion in government, he invites more of the same type of ideology that fueled the attacks in the first place. Likewise, his invasion of Iraq motivated regular Iraqis to bomb U.S. soldiers where no terrorist groups operated before.
Still longing to be part of a fun loving, cultural community, I visited an Evangelical church nearby. After several warm receptions and discussions, I opened up to my political views regarding the war in Iraq. I chatted with the head preacher who looked like a hulking NFL player, over six feet tall wearing corporate casual attire and round thick glasses to help him read all the footnotes.
“As far as Jesus teachings, I probably would have a different slant on them.” The head preacher explained to me. “For instance, Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace, but a sword.’ Mathew. 10:34. This is not talking about regional war, but God was involved in quite a few wars. Does that mean I think we should be in Iraq? Again, my slant would be very different than your own. Mainly because I don’t believe that you can tame the hatred between Isaac and Ishmael. There will always be a fight between them. I think that is a major problem for any who thinks they will bring peace to the region. According to the Bible, it isn’t going to happen except under the reign of the anti-Christ.”
Still dizzy from the shock of his view, I wondered for a second, does he mean that Bush Jr. is the anti-Christ? We are under his reign, and, in some ways, he seems like America’s own worst terrorist threat. No, he can’t seriously mean that. So, I asked, “Don’t you think you’re reading the Bible too literally? Isn’t this war all about oil? It has nothing to do with those guys, Isaac and Ishmael.”
“The peace that Jesus talked about was inner peace – not outer.” The head preacher continued. “You can’t control the outer, but you can the inner peace that passes our understanding. God is at war this very moment and we should rejoice that He is. ‘The Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing and forceful man lay hold of it.’ Matthew 11:12b. His fight is spiritual, in the spirit realm, and so is ours. If we are like Jesus, then what we see Him do, we must do. Which means fight!”
At this point, I stood dumbfounded for a moment. “It seems the fight is more than spiritual. Thousands of U.S. middle class folks are losing their lives, their bodies blown apart by IED’s. What’s so spiritual about Bush’s lies to justify a war for oil?”
“There are quite a few things that we would disagree on,” the preacher continued, “but all of that doesn’t matter much to me as long as we agree on how people have access to relationship with God. Jesus Christ right? That is the only way according to Jesus’ own words in John 14:7. When we agree on that, we can disagree on many social and political views and still be related in Jesus. I am sure that it would be an interesting dinner conversation though.”
It seems the preacher found a way to justify war by calling this a spiritual, a holy war in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. What other skull-splitting, blood-spilling violence would he call for next with his brilliant readings of the Holy Scriptures?
He says if we agree on how we relate to Christ then everything else becomes less relevant. So, if he relates to Christ like I do and, nevertheless, throws a bomb or a knife at me during dinner, this behavior would be acceptable? After all, isn’t that what we’re doing in Iraq? I didn’t bother to ask this last question.
I made it to the parking lot and never looked back.
A Rich Spirituality
Regardless of whatever church or group you find yourself in, reading the Bible can be an enjoyable way to cultivate your mind. When we read beyond its many literal messages and historical accounts, it offers a deep wealth of wisdom, and spiritual philosophy relevant to modern situations. The Bible offers insights to inner life and outer politics today. Full of metaphors and allegorical images, the Bible, like the Koran or the Torah, or other ancient texts, enables readers to connect otherwise unrelated ideas to form new insights.
In Christ’s parables, he is talking about more issues than the common objects like water, wine, or mustard seeds. He used parables, metaphors, and allegories in order to keep his thinking fluid, flexible, imaginative and, thus, to avoid dogma. Christ never delivered a doctrine, only church groups do that.
Christ’s many stories offer a moral, or tropoligical, meaning. Take, for example, the entire mission of Christ on earth. As the Son of God, he could have wiped out the entire Roman Empire with a mere eyewink, but he allowed the oppressors to crucify him as they had done to thousands of other poor and rebellious people. Christ sided with the poor, the downtroden, and sick in order to show the world that life can offer more wealth and purpose through charity, love, and forgiveness.
Some might prefer to read the Bible strictly in a literal way. But this limits its full potential. Those who read it literally, like an accounting procedure, might also look to live their lives in the same manner. Fear and insecurity can drive some people to cling to simple, fixed ideas in an otherwise flowing and dynamic world. Yet, Christ advises his followers often, “be not afraid.” As a nation completely engulfed in fear, we are twisting up Christ’s own words.
Mark Biskeborn was born in Oregon and has over 15 years experience in the enterprise software industry. Mark has a M.B.A. and M.A. in comparative literature and teaches literature. You can email him [email protected]
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