Religion, I would conclude many years later, is largely a matter of geography. Had I been born in Bombay, I'd likely be Hindu. Egypt or Indonesia, and I'd be praying to Allah. If I called many parts of Asia home, Gotama would be my Main Man. It gets a little cramped in the Middle East, where your chances of being born Jew, Christian or Muslim are defined by feet and inches as opposed to continents. Nonetheless, "where" is quite likely the major "what" with faith.
Unlike many people -- for example, the Rev. Charles Stanley, a gentleman we'll come back to -- I don't claim to speak for the Deity. So I don't know why we have all of these religions, each anchored to a different part of the globe. My personal conclusion is that God truly is great and infinitely imaginative -- and He (and/or She) demonstrates this by showing there are many, many ways to come to Him (and/or Her).
Whatever, it was my lot to be from the South, in the United States, continent of North America. That meant, religionwise, it was almost inevitable I would be raised a Southern Baptist, which makes it not at all surprising that I was sitting at the Billy Graham revival.
On the fourth night of the crusade, as the choir sang "Just As I Am" and with my mother rapturously beaming approval, I marched forward, accepted Jesus as my savior and grabbed Graham's hand (I can still see the blue suit he was wearing). I didn't want to let go. I later had my soul cleansed in the blood of the Lamb, via baptism, and despite my age, I made a perfect score on a Graham correspondence course.
By the time I was 14, I was on my way to becoming apostate. Still, I believed much of what I learned in Sunday school -- including the bit about whether your faith's foundations were rock or sand. I became a committed Civil Rights activist in my teens, and when I found out that Southern Baptists had, in 1845, split from the denomination because they believed God approved of slavery, and that many in the church had been founders and leaders of the Klan, I decided to look elsewhere for a spiritual home. I felt the church's foundations were rooted in sludge -- but I don't deny the goodness and faith of most of the 16 million Southern Baptists (including Mom).
I never forgot the Rev. Graham, and his resonant voice, which seemed able to move the world and simultaneously touch the heart of a little boy. Even when he became pals with Richard Nixon, even (much later) when it was revealed that the preacher and the president indulged in anti-Semitic banter, I was and am awed by Graham's majesty.
But not his son Franklin's. Or his son's pals -- Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and our own Charles Stanley.
George Bush had no legitimate reason to invade Iraq that he could rally the nation around. So, he scammed America. If there were weapons of mass destruction -- and so far none have turned up -- the U.N. was well on the way to cleansing Iraq. Saddam Hussein was murderously horrible, but he was long a client of the United States, especially beloved by the CIA, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- and our history is much more about propping up bloodthirsty dictators than taking them down.
Bush's and his neocon mentors' real reasons were and are the hardly marketable goals of conquest, hegemony, empire and oil.
And, praise the Lord, since this is in every material respect a Christian crusade against Muslims, the missionaries are massed to be the second wave into Iraq. They will use the old proselytizing ruse of bringing humanitarian aid, but what they want the Iraqis to swallow is the cross.
Clearly (at least to the Christian soldiers), Muslims are much in need of the Holy Brigade. Falwell has declared Mohammed a "terrorist." Jerry Vines, a prominent Jacksonville, Fla., Baptist preacher, said Islam's prophet was "a demon-possessed pedophile." Robertson declared the Muslim faith a "monumental scam." And Franklin Graham, who just last week presided over a come-to-Jesus session for crusaders at the Pentagon, has said Muslims pray to "a different God" and that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion."
Overlooked by these men of God is that no faith rivals Christianity for the blood it has spilled. The eradication of the indigenous American civilizations and people -- in the name of God -- has no parallel. The crusades, the genocides, the Inquisition -- the litany goes on. I don't believe that current events signal "The End Is Near," but I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus wanted to hurry his Second Coming in order to clear his name, besmirched most recently by the arrogance, intolerance and hatred of the not-so-very-Christian right wing.
Leading the Church Militant will be generals such as Franklin Graham with his Samaritan's Purse -- a "here's food and water, but first you gotta hear a sermon" outfit. Atlanta's Stanley will field his divisions, dubbed In Touch Ministries, whose messages are broadcast in 14 languages worldwide. According to an article this month in Salon.com, "In Touch is just one of a phalanx in an army of Christian soldiers who see Muslim Iraq as an extraordinary new marketplace for their theology."
Stanley runs the 15,000-member First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Apparently overlooking Jesus' admonition to sell all, live in poverty and follow him, Stanley commands a $40 million empire. As a leader (past president) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Stanley helped spearhead a Taliban-style assault on women, banning them from the ministry and declaring them subservient to men.
Moreover, he is a theological contortionist, able on the one hand to condemn divorce, forbidding it to his followers, yet survive his own marriage's disintegration. He averred in 1995 to resign if he did get divorced, but, shucks, God just needs him so darn much that he had to break his vow.
And he just loves war. Oh, sure, he gives a half-hearted disclaimer in an online sermon, "A Nation at War," that "God is not excited about war." Stanley is divinely enlightened about what turns God on. The rest of the sermon is a hymn of adulation about slaughter. "God battles with people who oppose him," the reverend says. "So, even though he hates war, God is not against it."
Stanley's evidence is citations from the Old Testament. The preacher must have missed the theology classes where Jesus told his followers: "Whosoever smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also ... Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you ..."
Stanley tells his faithful that God only forbids individual killing, but that the mass slaughter of warfare isn't really murder. "When a man in combat shoots his enemy under the command of the government, without personal hatred, he is not committing murder." That is a novel variation on "I was only following orders." If Stanley's spin on God's will is correct, every military butcher in history is exonerated -- as long as their massacres didn't involve "personal hatred."
The preacher's rationalizations should certainly shake the heavenly palaces where St. Augustine (4th century) and the 16th-century monk Erasmus are spending eternity. Augustine decried combat: "It is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word than to slay men with the sword, and to maintain peace by peace, not by war."
Erasmus opined that "there is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome (than war). Once war has been declared, then all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the few."
Preachers such as Stanley are enthralled by the Bush regime. Stanley thunders: "God clearly establishes the government's responsibilities and authority over us. ... The government is ordained by God with the right to promote good and restrain evil. This includes wickedness that exists within the nation, as well as any wicked persons or countries ... ."
The basis for that is a passage from Romans. Unfortunately, what Paul was doing was trying to deflect the anger of that earlier, pre-Bush Empire.
Jesus, I hate to remind the reverend, was a revolutionary who challenged the authority of both Rome and the ruling Jewish classes. He told Peter to put away his sword, forgave his killers, and died the Prince of Peace.
Senior Editor John Sugg -- who previously has confessed to practicing theology without a license -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily Web log is at www.cln.com/fishwrapper/suggreport.html.
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