Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister with long missionary and ecumenical experience in the Mideast, wrote a book in the aftermath of 9/11 called, “When Religion Becomes Evil.”  He wrote the book to help others understand how violence can become rooted in one’s faith.  He wrote the book not just to explain the terrorists.  He wrote it to assist all people of faith to resist such evil in their own faith.  He wrote it out of concern that people of faith can lose their way when confronted with violence.  Here are the five warning signs, according to Charles Kimball, of corruption in religion:

  1. Absolute Truth Claims 

According to Kimball, religion becomes evil when we lose the liberating awareness that humans are limited as they search for and articulate religious truth.  Religious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as God’s agents.  People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion.  A healthy religion remembers human limitations.

2. Blind Obedience

Do you remember the name Asahara Shoko?  He was the founder and leader of Aum Shinrikyo.  On March 20, 1995, his devoted followers simultaneously released sarin, the deadly nerve gas, in sixteen central Tokyo subway stations.  The assault left twelve people dead, more than five thousand injured, and a nation in shocked disbelief.

What other names would add to that of Shoko?  David Koresh?  He was the Branch Dividian leader who barricaded his followers in Waco, Texas in 1993 and sabotaged his compound so that an FBI siege led to the death of 75 men, women and children.

The message is clear: beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents.

3. Establishing the “Ideal” Time

In the last 20 years, there have been 12 attempts to destroy the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by Jewish extremists.  Why?  A variety of Jewish groups and a network of fundamentalist Christian individuals and organizations continue to share the vision of an approaching day when the third Jewish Temple will rise again from the Temple Mount.  This vision is tied to particular interpretations of selected biblical passages associated with the messianic age, or, for Christians, the second coming.

That is just one example of how so-called “millennialist” hopes, looking toward the End Time, can motivate some to violence or to a toleration of violence in the hope of ushering in God’s absolute rule here on earth.

4. The End Justifies Any Means

The New York Times headline on March 1, 2002 proclaimed: “Hindu Rioters Kill 60 Muslims in India.”  The violence between the majority Hindus and minority Muslims in India has a long history.  This specific act of violence was sparked by a long clash over a sacred site in the city of Ayodhya.  Just a few days earlier, a fight had erupted on a train.  One of the passenger cars was set ablaze resulting in the death of 58 Hindus.  In the next few days, Hindus in 30 towns and villages across northern India unleashed ferocious attacks, killing more than 600 Muslims.

The Hindu religion is, by definition, tolerant and respectful of diversity.  In a healthy religion, the end and the means to that end are always connected.  If peace is our end then the means should be peaceful.  But when religion becomes evil the end justifies the means, including violent means.

5. Declaring Holy War

The ultimate sign of a religion becoming evil, according to Kimball, is the declaration of Holy War. ISIS is the face of religious evil in the world today precisely because of its call for “jihad” or holy war against the United States, Israel, as well as so-called “infidel” Muslim leaders who support those governments.  The United States has responded to “Holy War” with a “War on Terrorism” centered first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.  In Christian circles, there was particular concern over the War in Iraq since it seemed its justification went far outside the traditional Christian criteria for a “Just War.” 

Good intentions and biblical proof-texting have been used in times past to justify “Holy Wars” in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian history, most particularly in the Crusades.  Whatever religious justifications have been put forward in the past, the results of “holy” warfare were consistently catastrophic.  As Kimball puts it, “To pursue holy war today is to rush headlong down a dead-end street.  Healthy religion speaks not of war but the promise of peace with justice.”

Your Friend and Fellow Minister, Rev. Steve Savides

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