Who can I blame? Every time something bad, dangerous, negative, hurtful happens it is human to step back and look at who it is that we can be angry at, who we can shout at, and who we can blame. We look to blame one political party or another, our neighbors, our families, the gravitational pull of the Moon, and, after years of therapy and introspection, ourselves. In the midst of this human meta-blame game often times religion is brought to question, especially when considering the broad scope of human history. What we really want to know is who is not good, because those are the people who deserve to be blamed for all that is wrong in the world.
There are a lot of reasons to be angry at religion and lots of reasons to distrust faith traditions. Religion and institutions of faith have a history of encouraging us to distrust people who are not like us, have justified mass violence and slavery, and have pushed down whole segments of humanity. These are things that I would describe as “not good,” and reason to be angry at the whole notion of faith and religion. Add to this broad stroke the ways in which your own church just won’t listen to you and change the way that the bulletin is published even though you know that your way is better. There is so much to be angry about! Perhaps it would be best to find distance from any and all communities and individuals of faith because there is much blame to place with all.
Yet before we walk away from any community of faith in disgust and despair, consider the notion that it there is good to be found in faith. Faith traditions have a history of bringing people to a deeper sense of compassion towards others, have made space to take care of the weak and least in our society, and offers a space for individuals to pause and encounter the divine. These are things that I would describe as “good,” and reason to give religion and faith a second chance. So communities of faith are not all bad. And communities of faith are not all good. So do we need them?
Before casting any more blame or handing out the “good community” awards, I would like to wonder about the idea of morality and right living, and being “good.” Is the notion of being good something that is offered and encouraged through religious institutions, or is it something that is encumbered because of the selfishness, distrust, and mess that is found in communities of faith? The rules for living with other people that many of us play by, the standards that many of us use to shape a civilization come from religious traditions. Some of those standards and rules are overt – don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or donkey or anything else. Don’t sass your parents. Don’t steal or lie or kick someone when they are down. Don’t kill people. These are obvious rules and standards by which we are called to practice and live, and keep us fairly civil towards each other. Yet we should wonder if we need religion/faith to give us these rules and standards. Some might say that they are pretty obvious and something humanity would have come up with on its own without the intervention (or perceived intervention) of some higher power. We are rational, sensible people who will, on the whole, will make the right decision to do the right thing because people are basically decent and good.
Then again, there are multiple examples in our human history of people not doing the right thing. There are multiple cases of masses of people scapegoating and murdering innocent individuals without the aid of faith to justify the atrocity. There are multiple cases of institutions taking advantage of, and outright stealing from someone because, as a fictional movie character once said, “greed is good.” There are moments in our history when people have hated each other because they look different, because they are from a different neighborhood, or because they wear a certain kind of clothing and churches were not needed to sow the seeds of such negative feelings. People did it fine on their own. Maybe humanity, without religion, is not that good. Maybe humanity cannot be trusted on its own, and we need to have some kind of higher power intervene on one level or another.
Then again, many of those atrocities, many evils have been committed through a religious institution and in the name of faith. I recently saw a meme that had a picture of a knight in armor with sword brandished in the air, and the caption read, “I see your Jihad and raise you a Crusade.” This is a blatant endorsement of violence through a religion institution, responding to violence of another religious institution. It is saying that violence, war, and the act of massacring a group of people is ok as long as it is justified through some kind of tradition of faith. And we are back to the “not good” of religious institutions.
I would say that people are selfish and will be selfish within the context of faith and outside of the context of faith. I have children. I have siblings. I have born the brunt of selfishness (and have acted on my own selfish desires), and therefore I know that people cannot fully be trusted. Except I have also seen people act in an honorable and virtuous way. I have parents and grandparents, I have had teachers and pastors, and have seen and experienced people go out of their way to help me at no benefit of their own. So maybe people are not that bad. Except when they are. Perhaps the best way to describe people is as messy.
And maybe religion isn’t that bad, except when it is and perhaps the best way to describe religion is as messy.
So where do we look for a sense of morality with a sense of surety?
We could read our Kant and Hobbes and Locke and Nietzsche and muse over selfishness and what it is that drives us to do certain things. We could all get PhDs in ethics and learn as many esoteric arguments as possible towards what is good, and I would contend that we would not come up with an easy, clear-cut answer. People are good and bad. Religion is good and bad. Institutions are good and bad. Life is messy. What we need to do is to work on navigating the good, the bad, and to try to stay away from the ugly.
One danger is when we become selfish, which we are all prone to do. In our faith or our lack of faith, through an institution or on a personal, individual level, it is when we become selfish that we start to act in less-than-desirable ways. When a church starts to worry about its own self-preservation then that community has stopped thinking about others. When a neighborhood turns its back on people who live on the other side of the tracks, people who look different or live differently because it might be difficult to share and care about them, then bad decisions are being made. When a nation refuses to help others in a place of conflict or stress because they worry about having enough resources, then that nation is wronging the other. Walter Brueggeman writes about an imagination of scarcity, a belief that there is not enough and a selfish way of living that comes out of this belief. (he is specifically talking about what he terms as a “royal consciousness in which scarcity plays a major part – see especially pg. 26-27 of The Prophetic Imagination, second edition). Selfishness breaks a community and that leads to harm and immorality and the negative aspects of the mess of life emerge.
Here is where I need faith and religious community. If we are to move outside of ourselves, we need to find some kind of ground or belief that we will have enough to be able to risk helping and being involved with others. We need to have some sense of hope that there will be an abundance in the face of a perceived scarcity. Such hope is an act of faith. I wonder how those who do not have a sense of faith, a belief is something bigger or greater than what can be seen and known claim any kind of hope. I wonder where they look for a hope that there will be enough and how selfishness is overcome. I don’t want to live with a wanton disregard for caution and prudence, but there needs to be a sense that if you are doing the right thing (read: God’s thing), then you will have enough. Our notion of what is enough may be different from God’s, our notion of living well and comfortably may be different, and this is a different kind of spirituality which calls for prayer and meditation. But there can be a sense that with God you will be ok. This gives a foundation for a morality of community and relationality. This gives something to stand upon for that risk and a deeper kind of rational.
The community of faith can be an important corrective to the selfishness. In a community we hope that there will be a voice calling others to do the right thing, to take a chance. In a community, even when the majority are staying in a mindset of scarcity and selfishness, there is a hope that there will be a voice of dissent that will call the people to turn back to God (so to speak) and to think of others. In a community, founded on a narrative of love, charity, peace, forgiveness, humility, etc., there is a hope that people can offer a corrective to the selfish pulls and desires of others. The religious narrative/story couched in the community can be a place where the good and generous can be practiced and found.
Now I recognize that there are dangerous ways in which faith can be used to regulate morality and “good works.” The image of God as a divine and angry judge might have its place, but if it is used as a fear tactic wrapped with shame and human judgment then something might not be right. If guilt becomes a primary motivator then this is not healthy action. Morality that condemns others, that puts them down for who they are is not good either. And while these kinds of things can occur in both the religious and secular realm, religion seems to have cornered the market on judging, condemning, and casting out others. This is not a good legacy and every community of faith needs to own the blame that is passed around for the ways that they have not been good.
Those actions instead, that are focused on the community, that are focused on helping others and honoring others are those actions which I would consider moral and which we are called to embrace. Whether or not you need a dollop of faith to take that chance, I would hope that you would. Be nice to your neighbor, and in doing so you are being a truly good person.