Most of the killing taking place around the world in recent years has been caused by religious conflict, whether in Yugoslavia or Ireland, India or Lebanon, Sri Lanka or Tibet or the Philippines. The killers all believe they are doing the Lord’s work.
Yigal Amir has not yet explained how God communicated the order to kill Mr. Rabin. But according to a recent study conducted by the George H. Gallup International Institute and reported in the current issue of The Public Perspective, more than a third of American adults claim that God speaks to them directly. Am I alone in finding this a scary statistic? What in the world do they mean? How does God talk to them? Do they hear voices, like Joan of Arc? And what does God say to them?
Nathaniel Hawthorne showed long ago in “The Blithedale Romance” where delusions of this sort too often lead. Such people, Hawthorne wrote, “have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious; and never once seem to suspect—so cunning has the Devil been with them—that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.” Hawthorne called it the Unpardonable Sin—the sin of self-pride, of confusing oneself with the Almighty.
Fundamentalism in one form or another has been the scourge of the 20th century. Fundamentalists are absolutists—people who believe they are appointed carriers of a sacred gospel and feel so sure they are right that they have no compunction about killing heretics or doing anything else to advance their cause. Secular fundamentalists see themselves as executing the will of History; religious fundamentalists see themselves as executing the will of God.
The zealots who believed they were commissioned by History shadowed the middle half of the century. But the collapse of the totalitarian faiths—fascism perishing with a bang, communism with a whimper—has somewhat reduced the threat from secular fundamentalism. What has arisen to take its place is religious fundamentalism, long repressed by the Cold War, now bursting forth in all righteous and murderous rage. The fanatic, said Mr. Dooley, “does what he think th’ Lord wud do if He only knew th’ facts in th’ case.”
Beware, Hawthorne warned, of those who thus surrender themselves to a single overruling purpose. “
They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly strait path.
There is awful arrogance in claiming access to the divine purpose. We must never forget, wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, the pre-eminent American theologian of the century, “the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.”
As the most religiously sensitive of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, put it in his great Second Inaugural, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” When this thought offended true believers who were sure they knew what God intended, Lincoln observed,
“Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.
” And he added that this was “a truth which I thought needed to be told” because to deny it is “to deny that there is a God governing the world.”
“Religion,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.”
Religion’s proper role is to induce, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of limitation; not complacency, but contrition and repentance
It is surely time for our religious leaders to invoke true religion against those who degrade religion by using it to promote their own agendas and to inflate their own egos. Unrebuked and unchecked, fundamentalists of all faiths will continue to believe that they are serving God by mayhem and murder.