Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reflections On Religion and Violence

One thing that every religious person must take seriously in this century is the rise of religious violence. The most extreme examples of religious violence that the media expose us to are the religious clashes between “The West” and “Muslims extremists” in the Arab world and the continuing confrontations in Israel. But, many more exist, including tribal clashes in Africa, religious clashes in the fragmented states that used to make up the Soviet Union, and the war of words between “conservative Christians” and “liberal Christians,” which are aiding in polarizing our own nation. When the fundamentals of the world’s religions preach peace and reconciliation, why is there so much religious violence and division? Why do Americans hear hate coming from the mouths of Christians when Christ taught us not to continue in anger with our brothers and sisters and also taught us to reconcile with each other as soon as possible?

I just read an article, The Dangers of Thin Religion, by Dick Keyes that helped to put things into perspective.

"I recently heard a radio interview with Miroslav Volf, a Croation Protestant theologian now teaching at Yale that was very helpful in making sense of what is going on. He reflected on his experience in the ethnic violence and horror when Yugoslavia came to pieces after the fall of Communism. The violence was between Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim, so he was asked what made religion so violent. His answer was interesting. He distinguished between “thin” religion and “thick” religion. Thin religion is superficial. Thick religion is deep. Thin religion has little solid content, but exists in slogans, clich├ęs, hot-button issues and formulas used to quickly separate good from evil, friend from enemy. Thick religion is built on deeper reflection and awareness of the scriptures of the tradition, its history and a prophetic voice that questions all expressions of the faith."

Thin religion was what I participated in when I was a senior in High School. The local cable network was planning on cutting a “Christian” station from the airwaves in our community because it had almost no viewers. I and other local Christians took this as a personal attack against Christianity, quickly formed an action team (a small clan of Christians you might say) who rebuked the Christian hating cable network, and succeeded in preserving a station that none of us ever viewed.

Thin religion is tribal and clannish in nature. It works by gathering a group of “us” who will seek to attack “them.” Thin religion can be a very powerful force, but it is in no way thick. It is bound together by common enemies, but almost always has very little depth of theological reflection.

A thick religious outlook would have never supported what our little clan was doing. In fact, the pastors of the area did not support it. They had a thick religious understanding. They knew that the station we were sweating to preserve had very bad and even hateful points of view. The “Christian” station we preserved was a very poor reflection of Christianity indeed. Local Christians would have been better off not having the station’s hate speech reverberating through the TVs of our community, because it made all Christians appear hateful and stupid.

Thin religion always serves a false god that puts unity against an enemy above the core religious message. Thick religion puts God and God’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation first. For the sake of the world, we ought to preserve thick religion. Maybe, in keeping thick religion, we won't have a perfect world, but we will have a more peaceful world.

To read Dick Keyes full article go here:

Reflection On Acts 2:1-21

A few years ago, I had a real problem preparing my Pentecost sermon. Somehow, ironically, on the day when the church celebrates how God sent down the Holy Spirit on the disciples so that they could tell the good news in various languages to all the Jews gathered from various countries, I struggled to find something to say. No one in the congregation was even a foreigner, there was no language barrier, yet somehow I found myself coming up short of words. How could this happen?

Perhaps, the text is intimidating. After-all, tons of people came to believe in Christ because of this first gift of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, there was a nervousness that somehow in my preaching things would come up a little short.

Maybe, I was just tired of preaching and I needed a break. I think we call that sort of reaction in a preacher: burnout.

In my head I used one of these excuses for my inability to come up with anything to say, but the truth was…at the time…I needed someone to preach to me. What I really needed was for God to send the Holy Spirit into someone and for that someone to use words that I could understand so that I could be lifted out of my spiritual slump. I searched for this very thing from wise men in bible commentaries and asked for help at our local pastor’s study group. Even with that, I struck out. What was I going to do? It was Saturday and Sunday morning was fast approaching.

I was the one who was expected to give the Holy Spirit; I was the one who was expected to translate the love of God into words that comfort and strengthen; but at the time I just couldn’t. I felt as if God had left me. Like the disciples sitting, waiting in the upper room for God to be preset with them once again after the crucifixion, I waited for the Lord to return and he didn’t seem to be coming.

Now, I don’t recall this time because somehow I want a pity party for poor Jira or preachers like him who find that their fire has somehow blown out. I think that most of us have felt inadequate in sharing Gods word. Maybe we don’t think we know enough; or that we don’t understand rightly; or we a just plain scared. No matter what it is that has blown out our flame, I think most of us know what it is like to need the Holy Spirit to come down and light our fire once again. What I was experiencing was nothing new.

I do recall this time because of Mr. Walt. Mr. Walt touched my life right when I needed it and Saint Peter talked about Mr. Walt thousands of years before. Here’s what Peter had to say about Mr. Walt. After the disciples were accused of being drunk (because obviously drunk people are in the perfect state speak foreign languages they don’t know…obviously) Peter says, “No, no they aren’t drunk. You aren’t seeing or hearing anything weird. You should have expected all of this because in the prophet Joel it says:

‘17'In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Did you hear the part about Mr. Walt? His name wasn’t in there of course, but he was talked about: the Spirit will be poured on “all flesh,” sons and daughters shall prophesy, “young men shall see visions.” You see, Mr. Walt wasn’t an old man, but he was wise. Mr. Walt was not an elder of the church, but God sure moved in him. And, Mr. Walt could not drive to church, but he could ride his bike. Mr. Walt, the person who carried the flame of the spirit…the person who relit my spiritual life…the person who dropped in that Saturday while I struggled to come up with a sermon worth sharing, was only thirteen years old. I called him Mr. Walt as a joke, but he was known as John to his friends.

“Intern Jira,” John said, “that stinks…that you can’t come up with anything.”

“It does stink,” I said.

“You know that God loves you don’t you?” he said.

“Yes,” I replied simply.

“Isn’t that enough? I think that maybe you want to make it too complicated. I know that I probably would. I would want to sound like the greatest preacher ever. But, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s all about God loving us isn’t it? Don’t make it too complicated. I get more out of your children’s sermons anyway,” he laughed with an infectious smile.

And, in that moment in those simple words, the Holy Spirit descended upon a thirteen year old kid and he prophesied to me. A spark transferred from a thirteen year old to a pastoral intern and my soul was relit. God had not forgotten to send the Spirit. God had not forgotten to relight my soul. I just thought that God would use some wise commentator or fellow pastoral colleague. But, I was wrong. I had forgotten the Pentecost story itself…I had forgotten the part where it tells me that God poured the spirit on “all flesh,” all flesh young and old, all flesh male and female, all flesh wise and challenged: all flesh.

Our culture has unwritten norms for how information is to be passed along: From old to young, from male to female, from healthy to unhealthy, from smart to stupid, from the powerful to the poor, from the strong to the weak, from faithful to unfaithful, etc. For years this progression from the greater to the least has been pounded into our heads and we expect it to happen that way. But, this progression isn’t pounded into God’s head. God chooses to pour the Holy Spirit on “all flesh.” And, because God is so wise, the lost will be found, the spiritually doused will be relit, and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.