By Rabbi Les Scharnberg
March 26, 2006
The beauty of the world's religions is manifest in the best of their teachings and, more importantly, in the inspirational lives of some of their leading figures. On the other hand, despots, zealots and monstrous individuals from virtually every religious community have been able to justify their actions by referencing passages from their sacred texts.
During the past few weeks there have been a number of letters to the editor and “My Word” essays written concerning religious communities. Some have expressed unequivocal criticism of religion and others have been equally unequivocal in maintaining the view that religion is all about peace and love. Those unwilling to hear criticism of religion maintain that the critics don't truly understand the religion. Defenders of religion maintain that manifestations of brutality and hatred are misreadings, or misunderstandings, of that religion. Defenders claim that sacred texts are quoted out of context by those ignorant of the “true” meanings of the texts.
Readers are often left with the impression that what a given religion teaches is simply a matter of how one chooses to read it. There is some truth to this view, especially when one looks at the history of how religious leaders have acted in this world. Sadly, there is also truth in this view because of one other characteristic of religions: Of all social institutions they are the slowest to change, the slowest to embrace new moral concepts, and the least likely to change or modify their basic understandings and teachings of their foundational texts.
This is so even in the cases of texts which exhibit bigotry and cruelty toward those who do not follow that particular religion. This is particularly ironic because most of our major religions have been founded on challenge to the fundamental nature of the received sacred texts and of the ways in which those sacred texts were being manifest in the lives of their devotees.
Abraham and Moses challenged and changed the prevailing Mesopotamian and Egyptian religious views; rabbis challenged and changed the sacrificial systems of the Israelite priests; Christians challenged and changed the rabbinic view of messiah; Mohammed and his followers challenged and changed Christian and Jewish understanding of their sacred texts. In the world of India the Hindus challenged and changed the earlier tribal understandings of the varnas; the Jains and Buddhists challenged and changed the teachings of Hinduism. In the end, the irony is: That which was founded on change becomes as rigid and unchanging as the religious system it challenged.
It is this same challenge and resistance which characterizes religious conflict today. The pathetic attempt of rabbis and Christians to mitigate sacred texts which advocate stoning people for acts which we no longer hold to be egregious clearly demonstrates the futility of their apologetics: As long as such texts as “an eye for an eye” continue to be considered sacred, the zealots, despots and religious bigots of those communities will continue to find “divine” pretext for their ugly acts. Critics will continue to point to such texts as examples of the shortcomings of religion. It makes no difference if some imams are appalled by the actions of some of their spiritual brothers and sisters: As long as they seek to justify continued inclusion of sacred texts urging violent recourse against others, critics will point to those texts as deficits in the Islamic spiritual path. No religion can fully manifest its greatest beauty while maintaining bigotry against the non-believer, hatred against those with different sexual orientations than those the religion endorses. In short, as long as texts of violence remain sacred, so long will the sacred be profaned.
In the end, each religious tradition must ask itself, “Where are the spiritual leaders unwilling to settle for apologetics and defense of the undefensible in their sacred texts?” Until such spiritual leaders step forward it would seem that we are doomed to the weak and pathetic defense of “misquoted” texts and the equally weak and pathetic attempt to distance ourselves from the appalling religious actions of brothers and sisters who share our sacred texts. Where are the spiritual leaders who are tired of hatred and violence being wedded to love and generosity of spirit in our sacred texts? Where are the spiritual leaders willing to refuse texts of violence a place next to our sacred teachings of peace?