In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate. ... In the name of God, of myself, and of my family ... I pray to You, God, to forgive me from all my sins, to allow me to glorify You in every possible way.
"Oh God, open all doors for me. Oh God who answers prayers and answers those who ask You, I am asking You for Your help. I am asking You for forgiveness. I am asking You to lighten my way. I am asking You to lift the burden I feel.
"God, I trust in You. God, I lay myself in Your hands. I ask with the light of Your faith that has lit the whole world and lightened all darkness on this earth, to guide me until You approve of me. And once You do, that's my ultimate goal."
Amen! Amen! Right?
Wrong! However pious they sound, these are the words of Mohammed Atta, the terrorist leader who flew the first plane into the World Trade Center on September 11.
As ministers, how do we relate to these huge issues of religious extremism, the hijacking of faith and religion to serve terrorist ends, and the violation and exploitation of all manner of legitimate liberties, both civil and religious in the name of God?
"Man's inhumanity to man makes count less thousands mourn," wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns. What's worse is that this inhumanity is often done with religion as the pretext.
"How could anyone do this?" is the question asked so often in the light of the work of terrorists. Often this question is soon fol lowed by, "How could God allow such a thing?" Tragedies and disasters bring out the fundamental questions of faith, and in pastoral settings its important to be ready not with pat and easy answers, but to share in the agony of grappling with such questions.
In the name of God?
Of all the aspects of terrorism, the most disturbing is the appeal to religious faith to vindicate and support it. "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction," wrote Pascal hundreds of years ago.
First, and most importantly, such claims, at least as Christians understand them are a terrible blasphemy of an authentic faith in God. The belief that God would approve of terrorist carnage is similar to the belief that pagan human sacrifice placates the wrath of the gods, as in the case of those who burned their children to satisfy Molech.
To claim such acts are committed with divine authority and approval, "in the name of God," is the greatest perversion of religious belief. That God should sanction such evil acts is to clothe divinity with the attributes of the demonic. To counter such misrepresentation is the responsibility of all those who speak for the truth of God to be His witnesses, a spectacle to angels and to men, as to the real nature and character of the God we trust.
So the best antidote is as always the clear exposition of the truth about our loving and trustworthy God. When confronted by the devil himself, Jesus answered with reference to the Word of God. That is the source, more now than ever. As the controversy rages, we need the Bible as our foundation to stand for the right against evil.
The daily news throws up case studies of religious extremism and intolerance. Take, for example, Indonesia. For many years, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in fact, believers of just about every faith under the sun lived together in relative tranquility Then came the bombshell of inter-religious conflict, set off by a dispute over a taxi cab fare! The issue boiled over, and in spasms of violence thou sands have been killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Holy wars, forced conversions, rape, and mutilation all because of new-found hatred between the believers of various religions.
This example provides clues as to what is really going on. It is not in the actual religions themselves that the hatred arises. Rather the intolerance and violence comes from the exploitation of religion, the extremism that hijacks religion and makes it a tool with which to attack "the enemy." Religion becomes the identifier, the labeler, which is conveniently used first to identify some politically charged cause and then to justify any evil that might be deemed necessary to eradicate the opposition.
Because faith or religion help a society define itself, those seeking political power and partisan goals will readily use religion as a potent weapon. This kind of exploitation of religious belief is not new. Witness the jihads and crusades from history, where both Muslims and Christians were involved. That which frightens us is the projection that this use of religion will increase in intensity, impact, and extent, becoming the dominant destructive wave in the foreseeable future.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban used religion as a powerful, political tool. Claiming a mandate from their interpretation of the Koran, the Taliban barred women from participating in education and many aspects of society, decreed death to anyone leaving the Islamic faith or encouraging another to do so, banned access to the Internet, destroyed religious heritage of other faiths (for example, the Buddhist statues), and required religious minorities to wear a distinguishing label (reminiscent of Hitler's yellow-star requirement for Jews). Religion was hijacked in the service of a dominating political power.
Even in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where Buddhism is the state religion, this normally open and accepting religion of peace and love has been exploited. The idea of "militant Buddhism," which might seem like a contradiction in terms, is now a real possibility. In Buddhist Bhutan, conversion to other religions is illegal. Attacks on minority religious groups are increasing. Christians have been arrested and beaten. Some have been forced to leave the country.
Preaching religious freedom
The principles of religious liberty that are part of traditionally Christian nations are all too often taken for granted. They are increasingly under threat. While nations nominally sub scribe to such international instruments as the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, such documents no longer seem to be as well respected as they once were.
Consequently, it is surely imperative to preach these fundamental principles of religious liberty, speaking out for the God of responsible freedom. For coerced religion is no religion at all. The very nature of authentic faith calls for the heart and life of the believer, as the Bible makes so abundantly clear.
Professor Abdelfattah Amor, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, writes in his latest annual report of "the ever-worsening scourge of extremism. This phenomenon, which is complex, having religious, political and ethical roots, . . . has diverse objectives (purely political and/or religious), respects no religion. It has hijacked Islam (as in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines and Turkey), Judaism (in Israel), Christianity (in the country of Georgia) and Hinduism (in India)."1
In all this, the casualties are the religions themselves and the authenticity of religious faith itself, along with the freedom to believe, practice, and worship that go along with religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. The result of religious terrorism is the fracturing and destruction of society, and the degrading and debasing of humanity. For as any individual's religious freedom is violated, we are all violated. For there can be no actual truth in force and imposition, in hatred and violence. In the words of Thomas Clarke, "All violence in religion is irreligious, and that whoever is wrong, the persecutor cannot be right,"
"The slayers of the heretics are the worst heretics of all," said Balthasar Huebmaier, an Anabaptist leader.
"Religious conflict can be the bloodiest and cruelest conflicts that turn people into fanatics," said William J. Brennan, U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
We have learned, haven't we, how right they are.
1 E/CN.4/2001/63, 46 available at: <http.//www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridocansf/(Symbol)/E.CN.4.2001.63.En>