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The Deadly Nature of Religious Idolatry

I’m in the process of fleshing out the core convictions of ReKnew as I laid them out in the “ReKnew Manifesto.” Our first core conviction concerns where we are to get our LIFE from, so in my previous post on this topic I addressed “The One True Source.” Before moving on to the second core conviction of ReKnew, I thought it might be good to share an experience I had that illustrates what happens when Christ isn’t our source. It’s the moment when I first experienced the religious idolatry that kills.

I was attending the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society several years ago when I was approached by an angry-looking, heavy-set man dressed in a suit and tie. His face was red and he had beads of sweat on his brow. I remember thinking to myself that this dude looked as if he was about to keel over from high blood pressure. “Mr. Boyd?” he asked with a thick southern drawl and a slight quiver in his voice, the kind you sometimes hear when people are struggling to hold back a strong emotion. I glanced at his conference nametag. His name was Karl, and he was an instructor at a Bible school in Tennessee that I’d never heard of.

Sensing this was likely to be an unpleasant encounter, I mustered as much friendliness in my voice as possible and replied, “How’s it going Karl?” We were now standing face to face in the middle of this hotel lobby, and I could clearly see rage in Karl’s eyes. As I’ve trained myself to instinctively do whenever facing aggressors, I began to pray a silent blessing over Karl. Whatever else it may do for the aggressors, I’ve learned it’s the best way to keep my heart in the right place and not allow my amygdala to take over when I find myself in conflict.

Folding his arms and lifting his chin slighting so that he was almost looking down at me, Karl said, “I’m curious Mr. Boyd.” The quiver in his voice was now more pronounced. “I’m curious about the depth of evil that resides in your heart, because I frankly can’t imagine the depth of darkness it would take to compel someone to so arrogantly assail the sovereignty of my God the way you have.” Whenever people say “my God,” I know I’m in trouble.

From my perspective, Karl’s stance, demeanor and tone of voice oozed with self-righteousness. Frankly, to me, this is just about the most ugly thing you can ever experience. It’s what motivated Jesus to use such harsh words when he confronted certain religious leaders of his day. Anyway, I immediately ratcheted up the intensity of my silent blessing on Karl to fight off the anger I immediately sensed swelling up within me. “So nice to meet you,” I said with a forced smile as I offered to shake Karl’s hand. Karl kept his arms folded as he continued to look down at me with his raised chin. I held out my hand for a second or two as I gazed into his angry eyes, then I let my hand drop to my side. I smiled even more broadly and, in the voice of Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey), I said, “All-righty then.”

If you’re going to get blasted, I figure you may as well have a little fun with it.

“You think this is funny?” Karl angrily blurted out. His face grew even redder and the sweat on his brow more pronounced. I remember thinking, “He’s really going to pop!” Part of me wanted to just walk away, which is perhaps what I should have done. But I was frankly intrigued as to where this “discussion” might lead, so I just continued to stare into his eyes with my forced smile.

“You not only blaspheme my God and bring damnation on yourself,” he said. “Your diabolic writings are inspiring others to do the same!” His voice now had that religious-talk feel you hear in some Bible-Belt preachers. For instance, “God” sounded more like “Gawwd.”  “I take it you’re not a fan?” I replied. Ignoring my response, Karl’s voice grew even louder as he said, “You know the Bible has much to say about God’s wrath toward blind leaders of the blind like you. And I’m not only talking about the final judgment Mr. Boyd. If I were you, I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time!”

The forced smile faded from my face, and my silent blessing strategy intensified even more. I filled my mind with words of blessing for Karl to stave off my natural responses, and I silently repeated over and over, “Bless this man, Lord bless this man, Karl has unsurpassable worth, Karl was worth you dying for, etc.” I had to really work to stay in that zone of Christ-like love.

“Karl,” I said as calmly as I could, “that almost sounds like a threat.” “It’s the Word of God!” he shouted. His voiced echoed in the hotel lobby, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye a few heads turning in our direction. Karl then uncrossed his arms and pointed his finger inches away from my nose as he shouted even louder: “I call on you to repent!” More heads turned. I raised my eyebrows and shoulders as I glanced at the small audience gathering around us, as if to ask, “what do you do?” Then I turned back and looked again into Karl’s blazing eyes. The hatred I saw there was frankly chilling.

That moment is frozen in my memory. I’ll never forget it. In those burning eyes I saw the answer to something that had always puzzled me. How could professing followers of Christ viciously torture and murder people throughout history?

I recovered my smile and spoke in a soft voice that betrayed a little of the excitement I felt at my new insight, “I get it!” I almost spoke it to myself. But then I leaned in slightly to Karl and repeated, “I get it. You’d kill me right now if you could get away with it, wouldn’t you Karl?” He crossed his arms and raised his chin while remaining silent. “You’d feel perfectly justified killing me, wouldn’t you?” His silence and his eyes screamed “yes!”

With a dozen or so people now watching us, Karl and I just stared at one another for several moments, the distain frozen like a mask on Karl’s face. I can’t tell you how long our staring contest lasted, but it felt like an eternity – a bizarre and extremely awkward eternity. I finally caved. I gently patted Karl on his left arm and said, “Well Karl, you’re a precious child of God, and I love you, and I know God loves you. Have a great day!” Karl turned and angrily walked away. I simply shook my head in disbelief. I didn’t feel the need to correct his assumptions or his theology because I don’t get my LIFE from being right or by having everyone agree with me. (Plus I wasn’t really sensing a receptive vibe from this guy.)

I’m sharing this because I believe this episode clearly illustrates what can happen when our source of LIFE becomes the rightness of our beliefs rather than our relationship with Jesus Christ. When our identity and sense of worth, significance, security and over-all sense of being “fully alive”—our LIFE– is rooted in our rightness, then our rightness becomes our god. Religious advocates, of course, are sincere when they claim to worship God alone, but the truth is that we “worship” whatever we ascribe ultimate worth to. And we ascribe ultimate worth to whatever it is we derive our ultimate worth from. So if our identity is wrapped up in the rightness of our beliefs, and if it’s this rightness that makes us feel like our lives are worthwhile, significant, and secure, then our rightness becomes the god we worship.

What I saw in Karl’s raging eyes was a reflection of the religious hatred that erupts when people feel like their ultimate source of LIFE –their god – is threatened. Our innermost need for LIFE is so intense that the threat of losing it feels to the soul what losing air feels like to our lungs. We defend our gods the way we fight to keep from drowning. People will do anything to protect their god, and they will feel justified doing it.

Ever since secular authorities forged the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century to end the inter-Christian religious wars that had been slaughtering millions and decimating Europe for centuries, killing on the basis of religious conviction has been illegal (a fact for which I was truly grateful as I spoke with Karl!) Religious rage in the modern West has thus been mostly limited to heated arguments, violent language, name-calling and character assassinations.

The same holds true for the many today who worship a political god by trying to derive LIFE from the rightness of their political views. Previous to this modern oasis of religious tolerance, however, religious rage fueled much of the barbaric violence carried out by people throughout history, as it continues to be in parts of the non-western world today. (I should mention that religion has more often than not been inextricably mixed with politics and patriotism, to the point that it’s often impossible to parse out the extent to which any particular episode of violence is fueled more by religious rage or by political and/or patriotic rage.)

In contrast to this, Jesus calls on people to come to him and find life. He is himself “the way, the truth and the LIFE.” The heart of the kingdom movement Jesus inaugurated and that we are part of is thus not about people believing they hold all the right religious or political beliefs. It’s about people experiencing the transforming LIFE of God through their relationship with him.

When our LIFE is grounded in Christ, we will of course continue to aspire to embrace and defend true beliefs and thus disagree with those we think are false. But we won’t ever try to get LIFE from them. Which means that, when we encounter people who fundamentally disagree with us…

…we won’t feel the urge to kill them.

Image by antwerpalanUsed in accordance with Creative Commons.  Sourced via Flickr.


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