A mate of mine gave me a link to some photos on your website and I had a look around while I was there….  I didn’t like the way you tried to sidestep that guy last month.  He had a good point.  Religion is stupid and backward.  Why would any intelligent adult believe in a system that has sponsored violence and murder over the centuries? Religion doesn’t just murder bodies, it murders minds as well…. If you were honest you would just quit and get a life….  X

Dear X,

I'm sorry I'm not able to print the rest of your letter.  I'd be in all sorts of unnecessary trouble if I did.  But no doubt you felt better after sending it.

I've never written to an X before, and from your letter I can't tell whether it is just the ‘X’ of anonymity, or short for Xavier…. Thanks, all the same, because it provides a cue for what I want to say in reply.  The word ‘religion’ functions exactly like ‘x’ in algebra: it can stand for just anything.  You could even invent a new religion, as L. Ron Hubbard did (and lots of others before him).  All you have to do to start a new religion, someone said, is to stare intently into the sky; others are sure to join you immediately.  In fact that used to be an innocent prank with kids at one time. 

‘Religion’ is much too broad a category to work with.  It is not “a system”, as you called it.  Calling it a ‘system’ is like Sarah Palin calling Africa a country.  The word ‘religion’ covers a multitude of different things.  If the context narrows it down, well and good; many questions and answers on this website refer to ‘religion’, but the context always makes clear what we are talking about.  Standing there, however, without a context, it is hard to tell what it is about.  To talk about religion in the abstract is to put Mother Teresa (let’s say) and Osama bin Laden in the same category, refusing to acknowledge any essential difference between them.  It’s a straight road to absurdity. 

It would be much better to talk about Christianity if it is Christianity you are thinking about.  Even then you have to be aware of the differences between one Christian Church and another.   

You also have to distinguish between the ideals of a particular religion and its followers.  A sizeable proportion of human beings behave badly, no matter what their faith, or lack of it.  That discredits them, not necessarily their faith.  If you want to see a faith in the flesh you have to look at people who live, or try to live, by it, not at people who spectacularly fail to do so. 

Christianity is a religion of peace, even though some of its followers, through the ages, have behaved violently.  It is hard to understand how they forgot the Gospel, but in all sanity you cannot say that Christianity is “a system that has sponsored violence and murder over the centuries.”  When Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus, Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its scabbard; for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52).  He also said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt 5:39).  And most pointedly of all, “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27). 

I once saw a Muslim cleric on television trying to persuade an audience that Jesus believed in violence.  He quoted the parable in Luke’s gospel about “a nobleman who went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.”  It is the only one of Jesus’ parables that is based on actual events and persons.  The person was Herod.  He had travelled to Rome to seek appointment as king of Judea.  He had the dubious distinction of having killed everyone he ever loved; there was a saying, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.”  In Jesus’ parable this is the man who said when he returned, “As for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence” (Lk 19:27).  This would be perfectly in character for Herod, but the Muslim cleric, believe it or not, tried to conclude from this that Jesus believed in violence.  And – again believe it or not – not one of the Christians present was able to point out his mistake. 

You should pay attention to detail, my friend.  The worst kind of hatred is an abstract hatred.  In A Prayer for my Daughter W.B. Yeats wrote: “An intellectual hatred is the worst, / So let her think opinions are accursed.”  I don’t know if you are willing to accept advice from the likes of me, but I'll offer it anyway, and you decide.  Please don’t blind your mind with prejudice – you will lose your sight.  I wish I knew your name.  Pay intelligent attention to what you can see with your own eyes.  You may have very good reasons for hating ‘religion’, and I sympathise with you if you do.  Many of us have suffered assault from people who claimed to represent Christ to us.  Don’t think that their miserable failings represent Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s the one who told the story which is the antithesis of most of humanity’s stories.  He told the immortal story of the Prodigal Son.  It is about mercy and forgiveness.  This is well known, even by people who don’t share faith in Christ.  I was talking once with a Muslim in Pakistan about an atrocity committed against Christians there.  He said, “Of course you Christians have no choice but to forgive, isn't that so?”   

Yes it is so.  We are obliged to forgive our enemies. The remarkable thing is that so many actually do.  When Dylann Roof made his first court appearance last June, charged with the murder of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the relatives of his victims and the survivors told him that they forgave him.  That is one of the places to look if you want to see what ‘religion’ really is – or more specifically, faith in Christ.  That is humanity at its highest peak.  It evokes the deepest respect.  

Thank you for your letter, my friend, and God bless.


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