Ten Years After the Storm

A moment ago we heard these sobering and soaring words from Dr. King:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Is that what we’re going to do?

Do you want to do that?

Hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope?



Right here we experience some of the best stuff religion has to offer, religion that rallies us around peace and hope, religion that takes our separate spiritualities and shapes them, holds them to a higher standard, says “don’t succumb to fear, don’t be a slave to fear,” seeks out the ways of love. In all of history, religious ideals and commitments have inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, and it is happening right now among us, in our very midst.

So it is undeniably jarring, whenever we see the reverse—in the name of religion, people committing acts of terror. Religion as a source of the very worst examples of human behavior too. It’s jarring—deeply disappointing and disillusioning. Practically every week, we hear about some kind of violence connected to religion, happening somewhere on our globe.

And then there is 9/11. Ten years after the storm, there’s still lots of unresolved issues, lots of open questions, and one of them, undeniably, has to do with violence. Ever since 9/11, there’s been literally thousands of articles and books published about this very issue, and here’s just a sampling:

In the Name of God: Are Violence and Religion Natural Bedfellows?

The Age of Sacred Terror

Religion’s Misguided Missiles

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion

The Disarmament of God

Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After Sept. 11

And on and on and on….

Thus our focus today: Why do people do bad things in the name of religion? How to understand this? And how to respond, as a religious people?

I want to start out with an observation that I’ve already alluded to: Religion has inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, as well as some of the very worst. Let’s call this the “best/worst effect.” And so, for example, you have the best from Christianity, Jesus, who was clearly a peacemaker and made that plain: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9). “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:43). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). This is an example of the best, but now, consider an example of the worst: How, on March 10, 1993, Michael Griffin shot and killed Dr. David Gunn outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, because he saw himself as a soldier in the Army of God and believed that murder, to stop abortions, is what God wants.

The best/worst effect. We see it in Buddhism as well. The best of them all once said, “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.” He also said, “Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” The best of them all, the Buddha, said this. But consider an example of the worst: How Nichiren in the 13th century found himself deeply distressed by the diversity he found in the Buddhism of his time—all the different kinds of texts, teachings, and practices available to seekers—because he was absolutely certain that there was only one way to enlightenment, and it was his way. So he openly taught his followers to kill all those whose teachings differed, and he promised that their actions would not come back to haunt them in the form of negative karma.

Best and worst. Here’s a final example: Muhammad, saying that the greatest form of Jihad or “spiritual struggle” is that of inward purification of heart and mind and doing works of justice and compassion for the betterment of humankind. How he did affirm a lesser form of Jihad, which involved taking up arms in defense of Islam, but he set forth clear guidelines regarding what was OK and not OK in this, and it was never OK to commit suicide, NEVER OK to target and kill women, children, and noncombatants. This is best, but we also know about the worst. 9/11. We can’t possibly forget about it, even ten years after the storm. Suicide bombers, harming people their own prophet tells them they are not to harm….

How do we understand this? How to wrap our minds around this?

One approach comes from a book I mentioned a moment ago: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion. In it, author Sam Harris argues that religion is inherently divisive and destructive; in its essence it is zealously absolutist; in its essence it creates people who are blindly obedient, who declare holy war, who believe that the end justifies the means… Religion, says Sam Harris, is the direct cause of violence in the world, and so it’s no wonder that religious people do bad things. In this view, the only real question is how people like Jesus and the Buddha and Muhammad (and you and I!) have done and do GOOD things in the name of religion—how they and we have somehow risen above its bad influence to espouse wisdom and peace and love!

Unitarian Universalists, what do you think?

But there’s another perspective to consider, and it comes from Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of California-Berkeley. Here’s what he says: “There seems to be this feature of human nature that the best can become the worst when it’s not lived up to, and I think religion is our biggest example of that.” This is what Michael Nagler says, and while reflecting upon it, I had this kind of weird but interesting thought (which is par for the course—weird and hopefully interesting is what I do). I was reminded of that old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You know that story? An old sorcerer asks his apprentice to clean up his workshop while he’s gone. After a while, the apprentice gets tired of fetching water for the clean-up and so enchants a broomstick to do the work for him, using magic he’s not yet fully trained in. Soon the floor is awash with water, drowning in water, and it’s too much, he tries to stop the broom but he can’t because he doesn’t know the right magic words. Despairing, he takes an axe and splits the broom, but each of the pieces takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now faster than ever. All seems lost—and that’s when the old sorcerer returns, who quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. That’s the story, and it’s really another way of expressing Michael Nagler’s idea about religion. Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are each sorcerers, and the rest of us are sorcerer’s apprectices. When we misunderstand or misuse the magic that Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are masters at, that we are being trained in, bad things happen. Best becomes worst.

Now, I gotta come clean with you—it’s probably obvious by now anyway. I REALLY struggle with the Sam Harris perspective on religion, and I think that the Michael Nagler perspective is far more accurate, and, frankly, far more useful. I have about six books on my shelf at home telling me that religion and spirituality and God are literally encoded in our bodies–neurophysiologists talking about God genes and God spots and on and on. Religion and spirituality and God aren’t going anywhere, so long as we have bodies. So if Sam Harris is right, and religion is in essence evil, then what we have here is a contemporary version of the doctrine of Original Sin. People born inherently evil. And I’m just not going to go there. No way.  Give me instead what my Unitarian Universalist RELIGION says: that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Amen!

But there’s other reasons I struggle with the Sam Harris perspective that “religion is inherently destructive.” One is that his underlying argument is flat illogical. He’s essentially saying that religion is bad because it can have bad effects. That’s like saying marriage is bad because it can lead to hard times, or life is bad because it can lead to suffering. Chris Lehman, writing in the magazine called Reason, echoes my own thinking when he says this: “Reasoning backward under the impression that the destructive results of this or that piece of [religious] writing invalidates its purchase on our serious attention could make ‘E=mc squared’ the most taboo phrase in the language.” This is what Chris Lehman says, and he’s right. “E=mc squared” is what made nuclear bombs possible, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and on and on, but this can’t automatically mean that “E=mc squared” is inherently bad. Lots of other things, good things, have sprung from that equation. Same thing goes for religious texts, or religion in general.

Yet another problem with the “religion is inherently flawed” perspective is that it ignores the degree to which religion is interwoven with factors that are non-religious. How easily religion can be taken over by them. David Niose, writing in a magazine called The Humanist, describes this very well. He says that Sam Harris “almost completely ignores other forces–imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, economics, politics, as well as social and psychological factors–in bringing about the ills of the world. As such, many of his arguments smack of oversimplification and imbalance.” In short, Sam Harris’ “single-bullet theory” simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Religion is not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. Religion is like that powerful magic of the Sorcerer in the story—it’s E=mc squared power—so why would manipulative leaders NOT want to steal it and use as they see fit?

I mean, here’s the ground-floor reality of many would-be terrorists: They feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights; they are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments; they endure some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted; they suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All this amounts to a felt sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. And into this picture comes the terrorist leader and the terrorist group. Leader and group bring these people in, who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them them a sense of adventure and purpose, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they mix social and political disaffection with religious longing. They take a social and political conflict and elevate it into a cosmic war of good vs. evil. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail. They preach that what is morally wrong is now proper religious duty. They preach the creation of heaven on earth “by any means necessary.”

This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern. In it, she shares her interviews with all sorts of terrorists. “All religions [says one of her interviewees] allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their land.” That’s what this terrorist says, and it is simply not true! Yet at this point, what you have is a person who is under the full weight of colonial, national, historical, economic, political, social, and psychological forces bearing down upon him. But his terrorist organization has come to the rescue, giving him a way out, a way to cope. Of course, the language of religion has been instrumental in recruiting him and giving him a sense of the goodness of what he’s doing; but the true spirit of religion is long gone. It’s disappeared. The Sorcerer’s magic has been stolen, distorted and perverted, used to achieve what it was never meant to achieve.

Religion is simply not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. It’s why journalist Fareed Zakaria says, “The trouble with thundering declarations about Islam’s “nature” is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it, but what people make it.” People, who by their very nature are so easily tempted into groupthink and scapegoating; people who, as leaders, can get sucked into the temptations of power and so cynically use whatever tools are at their disposal to get what they want. All of this making it so easy to lose sight of the basic nonnegotiable principles of religion, which include taming our egos, emptying the self so that peace can grow. Violence and destructiveness are evidence of corruption in religion and never the real deal.

So we are back to the viewpoint that, for me, does true justice to the “best/worst effect” of religion: That religion is positive at the core, but the best can become the worst when not lived up to. The Sorcerer’s magic is real—it’s E=mc squared power—but when apprentices are motivated by despair and anger and greed, they steal the magic, chaos ensues, and all seems lost. The magic broom of the story takes on a life of its own, we don’t know how to stop it, what happens next are 9/11s of one form or fashion, and even ten years after the storm, we are still afraid, fearful of what’s coming next….

These are dangerous times we live in. So what can we as a religious people do?

One is to address the concrete political and social and economic conditions that cause people to steal the magic. To wake people up. “I think back to my childhood,” says writer Bill Ayers, “to the houses in trim rows and the identical lawns and the neat fences; I remember everyone sleeping the deep American sleep, the sleep that still engulfs us and from which I worry we may not awake in time.” “Violence,” he says, “is one of the most terrible things in all the world…. But violence exists in all kinds of official and invisible ways that we’re not always aware of…. In our names the US project shatters communities everywhere—in the Middle East, in Columbia, in the Philippines. The world roils in agony and despair, the catastrophe deepens, and our ears are covered, our eyes are closed.” That’s what Bill Ayers says. For our religion to be meaningful and relevant, it must open our eyes and uncover our ears. We have to wake up! Imagine the global difference it would make to finally resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine—the domino effect of this! Imagine the difference, if America decided to realize the dream of one of our Universalist forebears and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush—his dream of a Department of Peace, rather than of war! Imagine the difference! We have to wake up to the official and invisible forms of violence that cause or are related to tragedies like 9/11.

That’s the first thing. The second thing we can do as a religious people relates specifically to Islam, which, as we all know, has been on precarious terms in America ever since 9/11. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. We end up creating a self-fulfilling prophesy dynamic, and that’s tragic.

We have to allow Islam to be different from the version the extremists give us. We have to befriend Islam!

And it can happen in large ways and small. One large way is illustrated by the great work of one of our UUCA congregants, Robin Stinson. Robin was at a Lilburn Town Council meeting recently, where the issue of building a mosque was center stage. Lilburn has been struggling with this for years … the mosque’s zoning application rejected again and again, out of concerns about traffic and noise, even though Lilburn allowed Baptist and Hindu worship centers to be built that dwarf any of the plans of the Mosque. What’s really happening in Lilburn is prejudice, bias, fear. But there’s Robin at the town council meeting, openly speaking out of her Unitarian Universalist values in favor of allowing an Islamic Mosque to be built, and as she does this, people around her are hurling insults. The mood is ugly. But Robin stood up for what is right. We need to stand up for what is right!

It’s about befriending Islam. Ten years after the storm, it can be so hard. “I was fearful of Muslims and Arab people after 9/11, and frankly angry,” says another UUCA congregant. But now listen to what she says—her way of stepping outside this fear and anger: “around 2003 I went to a belly dance class in Little Five Points taught and run by Muslim women. There I was able to break down some of my mistrust and anger.  They were and are wonderful women.  I became a belly dancer for 7 years.” Befriending Islam can happen in large ways and small, and all are important. It’s happening. We’re doing it!

As a religious people, we’ve got to wake up, we’ve got to befriend Islam, and, finally, we’ve got to bolster religion’s internal immune system. Strengthen its capacity to defend itself against hostile takeovers. We do this in the only way we can, by starting where we are, with our Unitarian Universalism. We model religious health, and we let our light shine. If there are unsavory characters who, for example, unleash religious terror because they know how to manipulate the Bible, we learn how to read the Bible for ourselves, we learn how to do it responsibly and faithfully and we learn how to talk about it with others. If there are those who, out of despair, argue that the end justifies the means, that 9/11s of one form or fashion will ultimately bring about heaven on earth, so it’s OK, we say NO, we say NEVER, we remember the words of Dr. King and we have them inscribed upon our very hearts:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.