Rich Mayfield: When God stands in the way of dissent
February 8, 2008
It wasn’t my intention to follow up last week’s column on True Believers with another so soon, but both certain correspondence and a couple of current events combined to convince me another 600-plus words on the subject might not be in vain.
The Christian season of Lent began this past week with Wednesday’s somber and sobering imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful. The service is intended to be a time of humility and self-reflection, wherein the supplicants spend time quietly resolving to be both better human beings and make for a better world.
This is why it is so curious that the Catholic-in Chief, Pope Benedict XVI, chose this day to release another of his faith-numbing edicts, this one concerning a prayer recited on Good Friday that seeks the conversion of Jews to Catholicism:
“Let us now pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.”
Surprisingly, this is supposedly an improvement over a previous prayer employed in the Latin mass which, not incidentally for us Protestants, also begs the Almighty for our own theologically heretical souls along with the Orthodox and any other practicing pagans who somehow missed being burned at the stake.
Although the prayer will only be employed in traditionalist Latin masses, the Pope’s endorsement is a disappointment to religious folk everywhere who seek greater understanding among differing spiritual sojourners. Catholicism and, indeed, all of Christianity, seems especially blind to the abuse its theology inflicts on non-believers.
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Christian hymns and liturgies often utilize language that denigrates disbelievers and, most particularly, Jews.
Passages from the Christian New Testament can shock the unfamiliar with their vehement treatment of Judaism. The oft-quoted Gospel of John is especially culpable with its numerous depictions of evil Jewish intent that certainly sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism for the past two millennia. The Gospel of Matthew includes one of the most horrifying passages in scripture, Christian or otherwise, when it describes a Jewish crowd at the time of Jesus’ trial declaring: “His blood be on us and on our children!”
The presumptive posture that so many True Believers take in assuming priority for their religious faith often fails to take into consideration the vagaries of their own history. Our belief systems are often intimately tied to our circumstances. Being born in Bangkok rather than Boston probably has more impact on our theology than all the volumes stacked in the Vatican.
If our forebears ended up in Minneapolis instead of Myanmar the odds on our being Buddhists go way down. It seems intellectually audacious then to claim with any religious certainty … any religious certainty.
The death last week of Gordon B. Hinckley, 97-year-old president of the Mormon Church, offered another opportunity for pondering True Belief. In an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes” several years ago, Hinckley presented himself as a likable leader whose religious convictions were unassailable.
The more Wallace probed, the more resolute was Hinckley. Over and over again, the LDS president posited a position that left no room for doubt or even, it seemed to me, a modicum of self-criticism. Such assurance may appear admirable to some, but for others it is an arrogance that can have disastrous, even diabolical, results. One need only remember the discriminatory practices the Mormon Church engaged in against African-Americans up until quite recently, unquestionably assuming they were only following orders from a presumably white, male, upper-middle-class, all-American God.
Similar bigotries continue to be used against women, gays, Jews and many others by both Mormons and Christians, all justified by an unshakable conviction that this is the will of God.
Many years ago, when I was much smarter than I am today and while employed as a self-assured pastor, I justified a controversial decision I had made by declaring that it was the will of God.
After the service, a man I very much admired came up to me and told me he was quitting the church. I was stunned and sputtered out a “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to be a part of a church that uses God to stop discussion and deny legitimate dissent.”
I lost a member that day but learned a valuable lesson. Wars are fought, lives are ruined, cultures are destroyed, races are completely or nearly annihilated and intellectual integrity is denied when religious certainty disallows honest doubt and open inquiry. Beware the True Believer.