What? Am I equating mainline Christians with the faith-based terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, including my own nephew? Not at all. But I am suggesting that we cannot call others evil if we don’t also acknowledge the capacity for evil within ourselves.
Toxic religion is all around us and is not limited to the disciples of Osama bin Laden who hide behind a distorted version of Islam to justify their violent ideology.
I recently read Church of Lies by Flora Jessop. It tells about her struggle to escape the FLDS, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect of Mormonism. Her childhood in the FLDS, she writes, was like that of many young girls in that church who suffer sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of male relatives because FLDS theology insists females need the approval of those males to get to heaven.
Not much different is the wildly homophobic Topeka, Kan., church led by Fred Phelps, who believes, in his spiteful words, that “God hates fags.”
Or there’s the Holocaust-denying Richard Williamson, who falsely calls himself a Catholic bishop and whom Pope Benedict XVI has allowed back into full communion with the church. Williamson stands in a long, sad line of Christians who have promoted a virulent kind of anti-Judaism that helped to create modern anti-Semitism, without which the Holocaust is simply inconceivable. (My essay on this subject is available on my blog.)
All of these examples — and many more — seem to be to be rooted in a false sense of certitude. At least I’ve long thought that. Then, for my forthcoming book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, my co-author and I interviewed Dr. Felix Zandman, a Holocaust survivor in Philadelphia. And Zandman offered another theory about why people get sucked into toxic religion:
“Because of the doubt,” he said. “The doubt.”
What did he mean? He put it in terms of Christians pondering the reality that Christianity never killed off Judaism or convinced all Jews to convert. So, he said, some Christians think that “if they (Jews) didn’t convert, maybe they are right and I’m not right.”
But rather than confront such doubts head on, he said, they deep-six them and then begin to treat Jews as pariahs: “You degrade them, you kill them. That’s what happened for 2,000 years …”
So what can we do not only to stand against toxic religion but to do away with some of its causes and to promote healthy religion?
We can teach our children the right way to doubt. We can suggest to them that the path to lasting faith inevitably runs through the valley of the shadow of doubt. We can help them wrestle with doubts — and acknowledge our own — so they won’t be tempted to turn those doubts into toxic religion.
Faith, we must tell them, does not answer every question. Rather it assures us that we can live confidently without all the answers. It means we recognize with the Apostle Paul that now we see through a glass darkly. It means, as Scripture insists, that now we walk by faith and not by sight.
This does not mean we believe nothing or, worse, believe everything. Rather, it means that we approach eternal questions with the Benedictine virtue of humility.
For me, the most liberating aspect of Christianity is that truth is not a dogma or a doctrine. Rather, truth is a person, Christ Jesus. And that means we are required not to put unquestioning faith in written words on paper but in the living Word, whose spirit blows where it will.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected]