I want to talk this morning about Saints and Sinners in a time of war. I know that many leaders have said that the war we are facing is not about Islam (or religion, for that matter). But in some very complicated ways, this is a religious war; a war much older and broader than September 11th. Some would say this larger war is a culture war, and I would agree. It is a struggle about values and morals and the ability of a religious view to control culture and society. But more particularly it is about theology – specific religious understandings and interpretations about how human society should be ordered: for example the role of women, how we should dress; censoring of art, music and speech which lack compliance with a specious definition of reverence; and the priority of religious piety and observance over secular life for believer and non-believer. Without apology religious groups with such views see themselves in a war and they have a mandate, which if not carried out just suffer the vengeance of God. So they struggle to distinguish themselves even from other groups in their own religion. They are Saints and those who differ with them are not just against them but against God. God is vengeful and vindictive. Whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic I call this “Political Fundamentalism”.
A few days after the September 11th attack, Mr. Pat Robertson, host of the popular national religious show, the “700 Club”, said: “The Almighty is lifting his protection from us…. We have a [Supreme] Court which has essentially stuck its finger in God’s eye…. We have insulted God at the highest level of Government. Then we say, Why does this happen?”
His guest on this show was the Rev. Jerry Falwell of another prominent national religious program, The Old Time Gospel Hour. Mr. Falwell responded by saying, “All of them [abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, American Civil Liberties Union and Christian liberals] who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say: ‘you helped this happen’…. God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” [CNEWS 9/14]
This is strangely similar to the rhetoric of Islamic Fundamentalist in assessment of current events in Palestine, Afghanistan, and other suffering Arabic countries (similar language was used to explain the establishment of Israel in l948 and the devastating defeat of Arab armies by Israel in l967. Drawing from the writings of a prominent Islamic fundamentalist, the late Sayyid Qutb, Fundamentalist Muslim leaders declare, “all this has happened because Arabs have fallen away from Islam, the PLO was a political and moral failure and Allah was punishing Arabs.” This kind of rhetoric appeals to a confused, desperate and truly oppressed peoples such as Arabic Palestine and Afghanistan with weak and constantly changing governments (countries like Egypt, Iran and Pakistan have strong enough governments to contain a balance, although they must be sensitive to the political views and agendas of religious fundamentalist.)
Political Fundamentalism perceives the world in sharp lines of good and evil in defining every aspect of life — not just their life or that of their fellowship but the society. The perplexing issues of morality and theological understanding and current events are judged in black and white, good and evil. There is no gray area. There are God’s people and there are others. Saints and Sinners. As an old preacher once said describing a Church fight, “In my church I have ‘Saints’ and ‘Aints’.” Fundamentalists would argue there is nothing new to be defined morally or theologically than is already present in a literal reading of Holy Writ. This is true whether subscribing to the Torah, the Bible or the Koran. Their answer to places where secularism and religion have found a partnership is that both are fueled and seduced by economic prosperity, which not only leads to moral decay but to the anger of God. Whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, political fundamentalism is dangerous because they are motivated by fear and their spiritual mandate is conversion by any means or cost. Only those who believe in their goals and perspectives and interpretation are the true “saints”.
Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College, and a Christian of the far right, wrote a very interesting book called Ecumenical Jihad. He argues that Christian, Jewish and Islamic conservatives have more common agendas than moderates and liberals in their own religious traditions and must stand together against any fundamental compromise. Professor Kreeft writes: “We need to realize first that we are at war… We are at war: not between religions, but between good and evil… It is not unchristian to be polemical and belligerent in this war, since our enemies are “not flesh and blood, but… principalities and powers…. It is even right to have ‘fanaticism’ in this war.”
For centuries Christianity has been plagued with these kinds of extreme exclusive interpretations. Although never the majority, in times of war, oppression, social and economic uncertainty they have been historically very influential. Beginning with Montanism, which taught its adherence that martyrdom was the only sure path to God and martyrs were soldiers of God engaged in a battle with the forces of evil; to the Crusades which believed that it was a holy duty to recapture the Holy Land at any cost from Arab and Jewish infidels; to the Inquisition which sought to save the soul of society by forced conversion, even to the point of torture and execution.
Historically, this was often referred to as radical orthodoxy. But in the early 1900’s, growing out of a very conservative movement at Princeton University, pamphlets were written to define true Bible based belief. These standards were called “the Fundamentals”, and the proponents “the Fundamentalists”. The fundamentals, which had to be believed as literally interpreted, included:
1. Literal inerrancy of the scripture, which is relevant to all things;
2. Virgin birth and divinity of Jesus;
3. Substitutionary atonement of Jesus;
4. Physical resurrection of Jesus;
Harvard Professor Harvey Cox said in a lecture on Fundamentalism, “If you are willing to do battle [without conscience] for your interpretation you are a (political) fundamentalist.” As I listen to some of the rhetoric, it is strangely similar to that of black militant radicals in the l960’s who advocated the tactic: “By any means necessary”. We see this in the Army of God bombings and assassinations; or the character assassinations by some on the Christian right; in general, the willingness to use any political or economic means without apology to advance specific agendas. The ends seem to justify the means. Most Christians are deeply concerned about abortion, but would not find any justification for murder or the destruction of another’s character. Is why Billy Graham is so respected? He is nobody’s liberal, but there is an integrity, a grace in his ministry that demands respect and feels faithful to Christ.
When we understand Political Fundamentalism in our own context perhaps we can better understand it in a Muslim context and why for them this is a culture and religious war. We
must understand and hold firm that this war is not about Islam but about radical political Fundamentalists, who would either convert all Muslims to their jihad or cause Americans to judge Islam through their prism. But we would not want Christianity be judged solely by radical Christian theology—right or left; neither should we allow popular judgements of Islam to be so judged.
Karen Armstrong in her book The Battle For God, says of Islamic Fundamentalists that they believe and teach that, “Religious people and secularists could not live in peace…. Muslim fundamentalism would always be activist and centered on the ummah (or brotherhood).” Armstrong goes on to say by making Jihad central to the Muslim vision, Fundamentalists have in fact distorted the Prophet’s Mohammed’s life (just as Christian Political Fundamentalists have done with the life of Jesus). Their view of history was of “one jahili enemy after another intent on the destruction of Islam: pagans, Jews, Christians, Crusaders, Mongols, Communists, capitalists, colonialists, and Zionists.”
There is another understanding of Saints in these times. A view very different from Fundamentalism. First, by our baptism all Christians are saints, holy ones. It is important to know that holiness is bestowed by God not earned. As St. Paul greeted the Church at Rome, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…” Romans 1:7 . Saints, in this sense is an accepted status from which behavior or lifestyle emerges or results. When we know God is not vindictive or vengeful, that we are love, we then act not with fear but with love and respect for others. Fear—cultural, political or personal —is not the basis of saintliness. Listen to the words of I John Chapter 4 (16b- 21).
“God is love, and those who abid in love abid in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as her is, so are we in this world. There is not fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for feas has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
And what is God’s witness? What is the essence of Jesus’ example? Love!! Nothing else in Jesus’ ministry, behavior comes close to the dominance of this example. And it was, as Jesus taught, AGAPE … more than brotherly or sisterly love, more than romantic love, he lived in witness to God’s Love … Divine Love. It was to see others—saints and sinners—as persons who are loved of God. Jesus teaches us in our social discourse to trust the power of love above all else, even when criticized for our views and faith.
Remember, Jesus is not a doctrine or political philosophy. Jesus is a life, a teaching, an everlasting and living witness of Divine grace and love—even unto the cross. That is what Jesus taught, what Jesus lived, how he behaved. The willingness of Jesus to be vulnerable to the ignorance, fear, vengeance and hate, all of which led to his crucifixion. But there he said: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. Or to turn to the thief who legally and morally deserved the punishment which Jesus shared with him. In him Jesus saw someone whom God loved and made peace with that thief on the cross. Jesus was saying, I see not simply a criminal but a being loved by God: “My prayer for you, dear thief, is that you will be with me in paradise this day.”
Finally, Jesus example was utter trust in God. Even in accepting his lot as a poor carpenter and itinerant preacher. He did not curse God’s choice how to use his gifts charismatic, intelligent and articulate. In tragedy of betrayal and death, he did agonize and try to change God’s will; and he questioned God (“Why have you forsaken me”); But ultimately he trusted God: “Not my will, but thine be done.” “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. To agonize and negotiate with God, to question God can be a vital part of true faith. Jesus fought the war of darkness with a light, not a sword of violence or militant words.
So what is our role in society in these days of a culture war and religious strife? I believe in one word, we must be Grace. We must be those who to hold to a faith which allows forgiveness, which seeks not just to be understood but to understand others, which respects differences. We witness as Christians who reach out to others, even Christians who may not be of our views — Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, moderates and liberals. In these days we must reach out to those of other Faiths, especially Muslims. They are in our offices, schools and neighborhoods. We must offer grace to pray with those who will pray with us and pray for those who won’t. For the history of Christianity and its greatest heroes shows that in the end lovers of souls always ultimately prevail, not the haters. Grace to be like Jesus in our time and world. Courage to hold to a faith that believes God’s will and revelation is still unfolding. It will take courage to see Jesus not as a doctrine for subscription, but as a ministry, a life and loving witness to God. That Jesus is best known not in doctrines but in the spirit of his ministry. The heroes of our Faith—those we believe pleased God—were patient and persistent; people of goodwill and peace. Yes, there is another way to think of Saints, and it is found in the teaching of Jesus. Just listen to the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Amen.