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I remember well that day when I returned home I just felt quite uncomfortable about religion. It’s the first time I felt that way and I realised that I just couldn’t anymore take my religious beliefs for granted. Since then I resolved not to dive into anything without thinking about its impact on me and on others.
Visit to Hasmonean village
The moment of awakening came after visiting the ruins of the Hasmonean village in Jerusalem. From there something began to churn in me about religion. I knew something was happening in me because previously every time we came back from such archaeological visits I was thrilled by the great achievements of the ancient people of the Holy Land. To the contrary, after this particular visit the feeling was distressing.
In fact, the trip was part of the course in Biblical History and Archaeology and at this time we were doing the history of the New Testament which we started considering a little way back from 134 BC, that is, the Hasmonean period.
We had lectures about Alexander Janneus who crucified 800 rebellious Jewish men and commanded that their wives and children be slaughtered in the sight of those men hanging on the crosses. During that awful scene Janneus amused himself with a grandiose banquet in the company of his concubines, enjoying the finest of wines. Indeed, Janneus was notorious for cruelty. If the Queen of Sheba travelled miles to come and listen to the Wisdom of Solomon, people would come to Janneus to learn the art of inhumaneness. Who was he?
He was Hasmonean, a descendant of the Maccabees who had revolted against Hellenism and the desecration of the Temple in 166 BC in order to preserve the purity of their religion. Janneus was king of Judah. Weren’t his contemporary kings as cruel to their enemies? Possibly true! But Janneus was not only a king; he was also High Priest who served in the temple of Yahweh. Possibly, this is what punched me hard in the stomach. I reflected on how much evil, violence is done in the name of religion. Examples are abundant.
Violence in the name of religion
Psalm 135, actually a song of praise, captures and conveys this problem of a believer that I fear. The Psalmist sings God’s love that endures forever. God is praised because he’s said to have used his might to favour a people against another. He struck down the first born sons of the Egyptians, he drowned Egyptian army, he slaughtered Sihon king of the Amorites, and he dispossessed Canaanites of their land to give it to his chosen people as birth right –for all that because God’s love endures forever. Evidently, God seems to be hijacked and dragged into selective love that favours a group at the expense of another. Unfortunately, many are the times when God’s love has been so misunderstood.
Then we have the story of Elijah who killed 450 prophets of Baal (cf I Kings 18:20-40). The question is not whether it’s true or not but rather the attitude the surrounds the story. Here, who talks about murder? It’s rather a zealous and heroic action in the name of God. It’s an episode with full sense of victory and assurance of God’s accreditation. Scenes of the kind are innumerable in the Old Testament that spilt even onto the New Testament Time.
This same zeal for God would blaze in the young Pharisee, Saul –later Paul. He would not be content with approving the barbaric murder of Stephen but he will also travel miles and miles hunting for Christians beyond Jerusalem for the holy name of God –so he thought. Only the striking light would knock him off from such mistaken belief and mission. Then he will realise the futility of his action, which he would later call rubbish. Yet, such ill-conceived manner of doing God’s will didn’t end with Paul.
Religious violence continued
Centuries later, soldiers would be dispatched well-armed with swords and armoured with God’s benediction. Theirs would not be an ordinary war but holy war. I only wonder if the bloodshed would also be holy.
Do I hear you cry “unjust”? You reprimand me of judging history with today’s measure? And you lecture me by saying: we have to understand things in their context! Thanks for you intervention. I stand to be corrected. What you say is true. Nevertheless, that does not change evil into good. Anyway, let me continue.
Then, we have the Jihad. Possibly here is a practice rooted in a positive spiritual sense that is now manipulated, not so much by religious fanatics, but by those who capitalise on religion for personal agenda. Consequently, violence is revered as heroic act of piety.
Only those who go to synagogue, church or mosque?
No! Not only them. The problem goes beyond atheist or theist –it touches a human heart. No heart sanitation more tragedies. In fact, we all believe in something; it may be some cause to which we relate like religion. History has great deal to testify such as: the horror of slavery, colonialism, holocaust, and apartheid in South Africa; to mention but just some forms of inhumanity. What else was beneath such horrors if not a belief in some god? We are the superior race! We are the best nation! We are the most powerful! We alone are human! We have the truth! We the civilised must civilise the uncivilised!
To date, there are still those who consider themselves apostles of democracy for which, and without shame or inhibition, they will thrust themselves onto others to kill and kill and kill. They do that in the name of their god called democracy.
This testifies that human beings can fall into tragic errors. This calls for a good discernment and never take anything for granted –not even your religion. Have the courage to question it.
Seeing the absurdities that human beings do, and justify in the name of religion, I appreciate better the remark of our professor in Moral theology. After defining conscience as man’s most secret core where God’s voice echoes in the depths of his heart, “Be careful” he cautioned us, “you risk passing your whims for the voice of God. The consequences can be tragic”. And history has abundant proofs.
Religion of the god of my whims
Exactly this is what I fear, and it makes me tremble; the danger of believing in the bloodthirsty god of my whims whom I forge and manipulate to give legitimacy to my murderous ends. In his name, I harm others and myself with a clear conscience.
Perhaps, that’s why I need to be knocked off the route of my own Damascus so that I come to believe in God as He is and no longer the one of my forging. I want to believe in a God who doesn’t have to destroy others to do me favour; curse others to bless me; cast others in sombre darkness to illumine me. Yes, I want to believe in a God who showers upon me his blessings that are also capable of overflowing onto others as well.
Some people would attribute the breakdown in moral values to atheism or secularism. Well, I say, theism ill-conceived might be worse. After all that here’s my personal verdict: any religious belief, that can still find in itself the reason to justify violence against a human person; that religion is good litter basket. Full stop!
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