Once again, news headlines are confronting us with the ugly face of religious extremism. While our nation mourns the Fort Hood massacre of thirteen people carried out by the Islamist murderer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, Israel is grappling with the implications of its own religious Jewish terrorist, Yaacov Teitel, who murdered Arabs and attempted to murder other Jews, including a Messianic Jewish family. Meanwhile, Scott Roeder has trotted out his own Christian convictions to justify his murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in the narthex of Tiller’s own church. These are only a few recent examples of people using religion to justify their evil actions. From 9/11 stretching back in time through the medieval Crusades and into the misty past, history is spattered with blood from unspeakable atrocities people have committed in the name of God.
Many hold God personally responsible for these horrors, never stopping to realize that such acts don’t represent God at all, but are in fact, egregious abuses of His name. People always seek justification for their wicked behavior and what justification could be more potent than divine imprimatur? It is human nature to make God responsible for our own wickedness.
A contemporary group of proselytizing atheists has twisted this tendency a bit further. They point to evil actions perpetrated in the name of God as evidence that belief in God is not only senseless and ignorant, but causes hatred, violence and other dangers to society that ought easily to be avoided:
“The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”
— Christopher Hitchens (from God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)
But when Hitchens and others like him point to how evil religionists can be, they are actually making God’s point: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
The entire drama of God’s engagement with humanity is aimed at rescuing us from ourselves and our sin. Doesn’t it make sense that the greatest evidence of our depravity would be the intentional corruption and undermining of God’s reputation, and the scandalizing of His saving grace? The fact that human beings are willing to use God as justification for their own selfish, self-aggrandizing and self-righteous actions squares entirely with what the Bible actually says about us.
The religious abuse of God by His own creation dramatizes how thoroughly we deserve His just judgment and demonstrates our desperate need for His love and forgiveness. Besides, one need not be religious at all to be what Hitchens calls “crude, uncultured human mammals.” Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot needed no religious justification whatsoever to carry out the most horrific acts of terror in the twentieth century, if not of all time.
Evangelists for atheism need not point their fingers at conservative Christians or any other religious people to find the source of the problem. When religious extremists commit horrible acts of violence, the rest of the world, secular or religious need not blame God: they need only to look in the mirror. Self-righteousness is part of the sinful human condition; it blinds us to our own wrongs so that we feel free to lash out at others. One need not be religious to be self-righteous … but religion can serve as a blind for the condition.
In Jews for Jesus, our efforts to reach out to the Jewish people are often met with extreme antagonism. Our most aggressive opponents are not secular, but religious people. They often justify their behavior by blaming Jesus for the horrific acts of anti-Semitic rage committed by those who claimed to act on His behalf. True followers of Jesus can never justify such violence, especially against people who are the very flesh and blood of the One they claim to follow. All bigotry and hatred is contrary to the express teaching of the Jewish Savior, and whoever claims it is God’s will is abusing His name in the process.
Jesus is the one person who could have acted out of truly righteous indignation in the name of God. Yet even when the majority of Yeshua’s own people turned against Him, when His closest friends betrayed Him, when the leaders of His own people handed Him over to the authorities to be tortured and executed, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
This was perfectly consistent with what He had taught His followers: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-8). What person, religious or otherwise, actually lives this way and follows this teaching?
From the beginning of time, we have blamed God for our sin. Remember Adam’s excuse concerning the forbidden fruit … “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). But though we may find it natural to blame God for our sin, doing His will almost always goes against our own nature and is contrary to our own inclinations. It requires us to do the difficult thing—that which we would usually shrink from and resist in our natural selves. Obedience to God is counter-self and it is counter-culture. That is why it is so rare these days. But it is needed; in fact it is required of those who truly seek to act and speak in the name of God.
Those of us who want to be God’s representatives in this world must be willing to follow in the footsteps of our Messiah, who taught us to love in word and in deed. In fact, if we really followed the life and teachings of Jesus, we would ignite the kind of spiritual dynamite that can turn the world upside down. Yeshua’s earliest followers did just that, and I believe God will use His obedient followers to do so again in the future.
Those early disciples were willing to bear the burden of reproach, to suffer for Jesus’ name, to forgive those who despitefully used them and to speak the truth in love without fear of the consequences. They willingly endured imprisonment, torture and death for the privilege of speaking in the name of God. Who among us speaks for God today with that kind of authority? Only those who by His Spirit and grace will submit to His way of sacrificial love. It is not those who see themselves as instruments of God’s judgment and wrath who truly speak in His name, but grateful and forgiven sinners who are willing to endure scorn and humiliation that others might also know His forgiveness.