One of the hottest topics of the week is President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5. Among his comments, the president dared to point out, while condemning Islamic terrorism, that the history of Christianity includes far too much evil in the name of God.
Historians know the story well, and even some conservative Christians who dislike Obama have been compelled to concede that the president is right. The litany is long, and mercifully Obama spared his audience of a lengthy discourse. The killing of so-called heretics who deviated from official church doctrine in the early centuries of the Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the torture and killing of Baptists and other dissenters in the colonial American era, the hundreds-of-years saga of the enslaving and raping and discrimination and murdering of blacks, the Holocaust and too many other atrocities were all committed in the name of the Christian God.
In the New Testament Gospels Jesus spent much of his time denouncing evil and discrimination in the name of God. Early Baptists were branded as heretics for demanding freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. The more recent murders of 4,000 black persons in the American South by lynching and in the name of Christian justice is recent enough history that some black Americans yet alive today remember those days of terror. And Christianity in America this very day is too often associated with discrimination and hatred cloaked in the name of God.
The leavening of Western Christianity by early Baptist principles of freedom for all guarded by church state separation, followed by the Enlightenment and the march of human rights has helped make Christianity much less violent. Discrimination in the name of God remains all too common, but killings are rare.
By way of contrast, much of today’s non-Western Muslim world shares an overarching pre-Enlightenment worldview similar to that of early colonial America: theocratic government, culture and society in which dissent is punished and basic human rights are absent. History teaches us that religiously-infused violence thrives in such an environment, as does Islamic terrorism in today’s Middle East.
To 21st century offenses against humanity committed in the name of this or that God, Jesus of the Gospels is relevant today as in the 1st century. In vain one searches for Jesus’ command or even permission to kill, harm, discriminate against or even put one’s personal rights above those of others in the name of Jesus.
Hatred, discrimination, killing and terrorism are evil; claiming a mandate from God to harm or kill others is illegitimate.
Above all else, Jesus taught that God loves all persons and humans are to reciprocate God’s love by loving one another—not from the lofty heights of self-righteousness, but as equals.
In a world where God is too often the scapegoat for humanity’s greatest sins, may the followers of Jesus have the humility and courage and daring to love as Jesus did, thus bearing witness to the true nature of God.