Kevin Smith and Lesley Buckley
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Gospel of Mark, 8:36
I’ve been looking at religion for some time now, thinking if there are areas where perhaps it can be more involved as a voice against regime change, extremist ideology and continuous war.
My thoughts on the concept of religion and its basic teaching are positive. Despite what some people say, I think peace and compassion is a strong theme in the writings of the Bible and Koran. But, I’m sure like me there are many of us who take issue with the behaviour of the religious hierarchy and some followers.
Recently, I attended a course which explores the basics of Christianity and what underpins Christian beliefs. Among the thoughts I had is why Jesus has not paid us a return visit maybe to give us a further chance to change. With so many more people living on our planet and in such dangerous and immoral times, surely we are in need of a big dose of forgiveness and guidance to change our ways?
One of the stories in The Gospel of Mark is about some people asking why Jesus sat at the table with tax-collectors and those considered to have committed sin. Jesus replied ‘It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’
Looking at events today, I wonder where he would he start. Not only do the majority of the general population in the West need guidance to varying degrees but those claiming to be carrying out god’s work need particular attention.
2,000 years on from Jesus I don’t think there’s as much war purely based on religion. But there is more greed and materialism, ignorance, dishonesty and obsession with power which sadly has also affected followers of religion.
Here are few examples of this within religion at different levels.
The religious establishment
The shocking financial and sex scandals of the Catholic Church past and present are well known. And apart from this the Vatican and Catholic Church have actively involved itself in war and mass murder. The support this church gave towards the Nazi puppet Ustase movement in Croatia during World War II and Croatia in the early 1990s, examples of a religious establishment which has lost any moral authority.
In many ways the Vatican is a mirror image of our political establishment – corrupt and self-serving but somehow survives the scandals, perhaps because crime in this church has become almost normal or of a notion among some it has a right to be above the law. The Catholic Church is not the only Christian church caught up in various scandals and hypocrisy.
Likewise in the Middle East we’ve seen the rise of Wahhabism a doctrine promoted by Saudi Arabia which is a distortion of Islam. This ideology has been responsible, in part for terrorism and the wars being fought against secular, moderate states in the Middle East.
Religious media coverage
Admittedly there is some decent coverage in some religious focused media. For example there are some which have highlighted the plight of Christians and other groups in Syria and Iraq and spoken out against war. But like in the general media, truth and balance is the exception.
One typically inward-looking site is The Trumpet which publishes a magazine read by 1 million people. It is a Christian publication which also has quite a lot to say on geo-politics. A lot of the content mentions the prophecies promoted by Herbert W Armstrong. The editor-in-chief is Gerald Flurry of the Philadelphia Church of God.
Flurry writes about events in the world and many might say he shoe-horns the news to fit the prophecies which I guess is not unusual among American fundamentalist conservatives. But what he writes is away with the fairies.
This is from the statements of beliefs of the Philadelphia Church of God.
The Church’s beliefs
We believe Christians are forbidden to kill (Exod. 20:13) or in any manner directly or indirectly take human life. We believe bearing arms is contrary to this doctrine
But reading just some of the articles it becomes clear that The Trumpet is very much against anything remotely resembling pacifism and is really promoting war. Articles highly critical of Russia, China and ‘appeasement’ towards them feature prominently throughout, including this recent commentary about the US’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty:
The Russians, as would be expected, are playing the victim. They are accusing America of destabilizing the world by leaving the INF Treaty. But that is an obvious misrepresentation of the facts. And now, largely because the Europeans are frightened by Russia’s increasing aggression, the risk of global nuclear war is becoming higher’
And Iran seems to be a regular target of attack – commentary here describing Iran as a promoter of radical Islam.
And I probably don’t need to explain the recent story of Marco Rubio, Senator for Florida inciting murder against the Venezuelan President on Twitter. Included in his Twitter profile – ‘Follower of Christ’. No wonder religion is in trouble with lunatics like this in its ranks.
Religion at grass-roots
One example many of us will recall was the subject of this recent OFF-G article – Samara Levy, a charity worker involved in Syria and the Middle East. It was a fascinating case-study of how some people use charity and religion as a cover for criminal behavior
I visited her website and came across this stuff in her background story.
Throughout this piece Levy mentions that in getting her charity off the ground she received strength from God who replied to her prayers telling her several times over a period to “start collecting”
I wonder at which point God told her to “start scamming”.
And on a day-to-day basis in our society you see some ordinary followers of religions intolerant of other faiths and not condemning criminals and extremists within their ranks, rather than observing the true teachings of their religions. Many local religious leaders seem to do little to discourage this and much like the wider population, followers have become disconnected from the suffering and injustices in the wider world.
The co-writer of this article was at a wedding recently attended by regular church-goers. Unfortunately their conversation was concerned with which congregation paid the most to an overseas mission or which congregation was the ‘better’ one.
So with all these people hijacking religion for their own selfish needs it’s easy to see why it might not be much help to anyone.
‘The Church of Syria’ – Secularism and religion
But are there parts of religion, within a system which encourages the values we can embrace and spread a message of truth over dishonesty, peace over war and compassion over intolerance?
As I say, there are positive aspects to the original religious teachings and principles in Christianity and Islam. My idea is to embrace the good which can be found in sufficient measure and with a strong voice promote it as distinct and unique.
One state where religious tolerance and understanding exists is Syria. It has a model of secularism which is unique and resilient and has withstood nearly 8 years of war directed against it from outside. But how is it still possible that a country of over 20 ethnic groups and numerous religions and sects have survived this onslaught?
There is a major difference between say the French version of secularism which is about banning religious symbols and expression and secularism in Syria. Real secularism, as in Syria is less about banning but more about celebrating difference and diversity.
Syria has long prided itself on its unique and diverse heritage. I’ve heard it described as a state for all religions and no religion. It therefore may not be surprising that Syrians of all faiths are remarkably united against a common enemy – not other religions but an external sectarian army which seeks to divide them.
There seems to be an in-built community spirit and compassion for fellow citizens which is largely absent in the West. The lives of the people are far closer to the sentiments of kindness and forgiveness written in the Bible and Koran – and just basic decency.
I think the reason Syria has survived war waged against it is due to their faith, religious or otherwise plus the vital, unique secular framework which binds the people and religions together. Secularism in Syria and religion complement each other like nowhere else.
Having identified values to embrace what about finding a strong voice in mobilising religion generally against war? This is difficult because you have to change the behaviour of many. But I think it is about firstly trying to change the attitude of many more, including decent but distracted people.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”
With this well known quote in mind we need to stop accepting that criminal behaviour in our governments, media, charities and churches is somehow normal or ‘part of the deal’
So the first thing we need to do is reflect on is basic decency. I’m not talking about strict religious observance or moral codes – just decency. Then I believe we need to spread the message through our actions. If your church doesn’t represent the good I described above or just goes through the motions, tell them about how religion and community spirit works in Syria.
As well as being uncompromising about exposing evil we should specifically highlight the success of Syria and its people. They’ve done religion and humanity a huge favour by showing how things can and should be done. It’s now up to religion and humanity to wake up and see it
And if your church or religion still won’t change and speak for Syria and wider humanity and against war – consider leaving your local church.
For those not of any religious faith spread, the message to anyone who will listen, pointing out that secularism in the Middle East and Syria is also vital for our own national security and interests. If we continue to destroy through war we will be destroyed by the inevitable blow-back.
And until mainstream religion pulls together and speaks for all humanity, I’m joining ‘The Church of Syria’ – it’s the best church in the world.