Steven Alan Posey
Dr. Gabriel Castelino/Valentino Copu
Social Sciences & History
14 April, 2011
Religious or Secular
“And having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”-Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address.
There is a conflict between religion, government, and society that has been going on for thousands of years. Battle lines have been drawn and many people have picked their side. Other people are unconscious that they have made their choice. Most are unaware of the implications of this decision.
Religion in the Western world today has largely taken a back seat in respect to most people’s lives, especially when compared with former centuries. Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked about the indifference he witnessed, “We are moving toward a completely religionless time… Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious” (Van Dyke, 169).
Many people do not like being the target of a disciple-maker. The more moderate believers are not as likely to proselytize; they simply believe “to themselves”. Some (politicians, for instance) may call themselves Christian for advantageous reasons. When people are serious about their faith, and believe it, they are more likely to witness to others, as well as carry out the other tenets of their faith (King James Version, James 1:22). Most recognize that it would be nice to live with people that never deceive and take advantage of other people, and also never steal, and never murder. However, it is said that “doers of the word” or “Fundamentalists” are closed-minded, not respectful of other people’s rights, and sometimes even willing to kill for their God and belief system (Salow). The only religions that are praised are those that are thought to be tolerant.
Because those who believe the Bible are not afraid to explore the natural world in which they live, many scientific discoveries have been made by men and women of the Christian faith. Lord Kelvin, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, and other famous people of science owned that they were Christians.
“…historians have also suggested that the total dominance of Christianity in Europe during the medieval period was greatly responsible for the ultimate opening up of the world to scientific investigation and technological experimentation, both if which would be key to Europe’s movement away from a society wedded to tradition and resistant to change.
Unlike the pagan religions that it replaced, Christianity was not animistic in its teaching; it denied the concept of spirits existing in animals or inanimate objects. Because wind, fire, grain, or cows contained in Christian teaching no essence or spirit of their own, human beings might acceptably examine them, experiment with them, and seek rationally to understand natural forces and objects. (Black et al. 8)”
An old story that has been circulating for some time accuses the Muslims moving through Egypt of burning the library of Alexandria. The story relates that the contents of the library (parchments) were used to heat brothels, and that it took six months to consume all the parchments. Caliph Omar of Damascus is credited with using the famous reasoning that, “If it is contrary to the Koran, it needs destroyed; and if it agrees with the Koran, it is redundant” (Hannam). According to the story, a certain John of Byzantium verbally opposed the Muslim general. However, this John died before the exchange supposedly took place.
Actually, there is a very similar story with a different cast: in this case the Christians are the pyromaniacs. Evidently unable to win by reasoning with the intelligent heathens at the library/temple, an angry mob, under the command of a local patriarch named Theophilus, commits the arson. Even if there is some truth in this story, the ancient sources provide no conclusive evidence that there were any books in the building that burned. Further, while the story claims that the Christian mob razed the building, it is known that the temple was converted into a Christian place of worship. The library had actually been burnt during Julius Caesar’s campaign in Egypt, fighting Ptolomy. It is thought that a fire spread from the docks to part of the museum which may have contained the scrolls. This story, with the fire being accidental, gets less publicity than the made up tales about religious zealots (Hannam).
There were undoubtedly times (and still are) when a person wishing to follow Jesus throws away or burns his book about sorcery. Yet Christian scribes preserved many works of the pagans, though it might have been better for science and mankind if some of these works had not been passed down to later generations. For instance, Galileo was not censured because his views contradicted the Bible, but rather because his views clashed with those of Aristotle (Helden).
The Muslim scribes did not burn everything but the Koran. They copied the works of the Greek philosophers and scientists (such as Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid) that fell into their hands. If it had not been for the fact that the Muslim scribes preserved those ancient texts, we would have less of the Greek works today.
The example of the Salem witch trials are sometimes used to discredit colonial Christians. However, the outcome of cases involving witchcraft would surprise some people today. One lady, Jane James, was accused of being a witch by two different people but each time her husband was able to obtain a favorable verdict. The wife of Christopher Collins was twice accused in 1653. Her husband won his suit for slander. There are other similar cases (Dow, 212).
The three main monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are all basically exclusive in their original forms. Judaism and Islam do not allow for idols, that is, representatives of their respective deities. Christianity also does not allow the use of idols as objects of worship, but the line between idol and visual aid have been blurred at times. However, in its early form, Christian doctrine did not include icons, or worship or veneration of anyone beside the triune God-Head.
The similarities between the monotheistic religions are very noticeable since the Christians drew on some Jewish tradition and interpretation of scripture; and Mohamed, the founder of Islam was influenced by both traditions. However, there are differences that separate Islam from Christianity, and Judaism from the other two. The principle differences center on the person of Christ. Those that call themselves Christians are (obviously) focused on Christ. They are the only ones that maintain that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of mankind, and the mediator between God the Father and man. Jews are still waiting for the Savior. They think that if Jesus really said that he was God’s son, He was blaspheming. Muslims think that it is blasphemous even to say that God has a son. These differences have been used to gender much strife between the major monotheistic religions.
The Almighty God promised to save His people. Then He sent them the law. When the Messiah came to earth over a thousand years later, man was no closer to salvation; he had gotten nowhere on his own. Then Christ atoned for His people. He also founded the Church (not a massive and official association of priests, bishops, cardinals, secretaries, monks, and buildings but His redeemed saints). The Lord is powerful; He has preserved the real Churchthrough enormous peril. There are always men, however, that think they must help God in protecting the Church.
Temporal rulers have made extensive use of people’s faith for wealth and control. They are the worst blasphemers, claiming to speak for God while they ignore His prophets. In the Bible, Jesus explained to His disciples, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever, will be great among you, let him be your minister” (Matthew 20:25-26). However, seemingly pious men began to be lords over the people of God on earth. Some probably thought that the young Church would not remain intact and doctrinally sound without their leadership. After Christianity was given official status by Constantine, and later completed by Theodosius in the 380s A. D., the Roman emperors wanted a magnificent and impressive religion. Some leaders lived sumptuously on tithes, and therewith maintained huge temples. During the barbarian invasions of the Western Roman Empire, the Christian faith was targeted specifically by some barbarian leaders. However, others were tolerant of Roman orthodoxy. There were also clashes between the Eastern and Western Romans. Often, a pope would feel threatened politically or militarily and call for military leaders to aid him in the name of Christ and the Church. The future of the Church, however, did not depend on there being a bishop of Rome.
The Crusades of the Middle Ages have been portrayed as savage exchanges between the Christian and Muslim armies. However, men on both sides understood the chivalric ideals (not that those rules were always followed, but neither were they consistently upheld in Europe). The sad thing about this time is how the teachings of Jesus and the apostles where ignored for the sake of success. Indulgences and reprieves where sometimes given out based on the killing of “Saracens”. The Christian leadership held that those that died in the “Holy War” would automatically go to heaven. It is wrong to think Jesus would agree, since He said: “…if My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight” (John 18:36). He is the one that people should want to please, not those who claim to represent Him, because He said: “No man cometh to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). The failing of the Crusades may be less a result of lack of religious zeal, than a growing alienation of the “Church” from the people. The reading of the Bible was eventually outlawed (except for the Psalms, which sometimes had the name of Mary inserted, (Foxe, 119); if people could read the words of Jesus, they might no longer listen to the earthly Roman authorities. It is important to note that those who lived according to the Bible, and were willing to stand up to the Roman Catholic establishment, were called heretics and radicals. People looked at the fancy buildings erected with tithe money, and how the poor were over-looked. The 14th century Piers Plowmen repeatedly attacks the clergy for ignoring their Biblical responsibilities. The Nobles were less than enthusiastic about sharing their revenues with the wealthy clerical establishments. These are some reasons for the success of the Reformation.
Of course, the gazi (holy warrior) concept is deeply ingrained in Islam now. Things that were ordinarily counted sin (such as lying), where excused when done in the service of “The Prophet”. According to Mohamed, those who furthered Islam through the force of arms gained special merit. However, the concept of gaza (warfare to extend Islam) would actually be further developed by later generations (such as the Turkish Empire). Other things that were a real part of early Islam were over-looked later on. The zakat (Muslim 2% tithe tax to help the poor) has often been channeled to rulers so they could build their arsenals. Mohamed respected the “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians), and so allowed for them to be able to dwell in Muslim controlled regions providing they pay a tax. Much has been made of the second-class status of non-Muslims created by the dhimmi rules. However, this is much better than the “slay all the infidels” rhetoric that is preached by some modern prominent Muslim clerics. Mohamed also said that people should pay attention to the teaching of Moses and Jesus. This, too, is ignored by many modern Muslims (Cleveland, 14).
Anytime religion is important and meaningful to a nation, culture, or group of people attempts will be made on the part of ambitions or fearful leaders to use this tendency for their own purposes. In order to distract people from bad economic and/or social conditions in Middle-Eastern nations, Muslims have been stirred up and mobilized to fight several wars. Religion is the match used by clever leaders to ignite conflicts fueled by political circumstances. Also, some in high places have noticed that any trouble in the main oil producing nations gets the attention of the Western powers, making them (the Western nations) willing to mediate and give incentives for peace. If the plight of Palestinians is not publicized in the West, they get little aid. This is in spite of the riches that oil production brings to the nations there (Yousef, 33).
Because earthly governments exist in the here and now, they cannot concern themselves as much with the here-after. The rulers in Judea, in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry give us a good example. “Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? For this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11:47-48). Because they were concerned about their physical land they disregarded their spiritual heritage.
Usually, governments care little enough for what a person’s ideas are concerning the after-life. However, when following a particular religion means disobedience to a temporal government the situation becomes serious. Governments have been frustrated time after time as physical threats and punishments, even execution, have failed to shake some people’s religious convictions. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3) is an early example. King Nebuchadnezzar sets up his image and commands everyone to bow down to it. Everyone does, except for three men. There is no plot on the king’s life, neither did the men shout insults; but because they did not bow down when everyone else did, the king was furious. The Roman officials were not always against Christianity; they were tolerant of most of the religions that existed in the empire. However, when they realized that Christians would not sacrifice to the emperor as a god, some emperors were determined to stamp out the unpatriotic religion. Tacitus wrote: “First, Those who confessed to being Christians were arrested. Then, on information obtained from them, hundreds were convicted, more for their anti-social beliefs than for fire raising” (Hill, 39). The Second World War brought a temporary change to Church-State relations in the Soviet Union. The Christians encouraged each other to fight against the Nazi tide. The Soviet Government loosened the laws concerning religious expression. However, this trend was reversed after 1953, when Christian support was not as important (Hosking, 236). In Nazi Germany, the reading of the Old Testament was banned, and Church buildings had to have Nazi flags displayed in them, even clustered around the alter (Van Dyke 74). Again, it was presented as a matter of patriotism. The believers in those nations simply did what they could: trusting in God, being salt and light. Christianity was still around when these regimes were not. A spiritual war cannot ultimately be won by physical means. Christians who try to win God’s war in the flesh simply draw condemnation and disgrace to the Christian faith. When Jesus and the apostles walked the earth, they did not join the various zealot movements. “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters” (I Peter 4:15).
Regardless of culture or religion, humans do not enjoy being told what they must do and how. Down through the ages people have thought that if human nature could be retrained, or “returned” to something it has never been, then a model nation could be made. It is remarkable how much faith some of the totalitarian regimes had in humanity, since they had no faith in God; for if there is no God, then men are merely intelligent animals (and animals normally act in their own interest). The people who thought human nature is moldable were right to some extent: it is possible to turn a selfish person into an even more selfish person. The founding fathers had a very realistic view of human nature. This is largely due to their reading of the Bible. James Madison made the famous quote, “If men were angels, then no government would be necessary”.
Much is made of recent beheadings performed by Muslims. However, as late as the 1950s hundreds of Chinese college students were being beheaded because they would not compromise their faith to follow the Maoist regime (Benge, 198). Empires engaging in warfare against other nations have caused much bloodshed, however, the anti-God regimes of the 20th century massacred their own people. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of people within the Soviet Union. The cultural cleansing of Mao-Tse-Dong was devastating to China’s rich historical heritage. Those killed for dissenting in Communist China numbered more than in Russia or Hitler’s Germany.Centralized government has perpetrated more violence than pure religion. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction and to keep unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3:17). Secularists should pay attention to the examples of anti-Christian governments of the past. The nations under their sway were unpleasant places to live for non-Christians as well. There is usually a state religion, or at least a de facto state religion. Where there is none, the Government has to come up with a set of standards and goals for people to follow and believe in.
“Human rights” is a relatively modern term, but not a totally modern concept. The ancients did ponder questions of how to govern people ethically. The Ancient Israelites were commanded to care for widows and orphans. The coming of Christianity brought some protection to the helpless outside of the Jewish culture. The coming of Christianity ended the practice of leaving infants outdoors to die of exposure. Contracts became more binding, as well as the marriage covenant. The third century Christian writer Tertullian mentions these changes that took place in the lives of people which had accepted the truth of the gospel of Christ (Pearse). Tradition holds that after a righteous man was killed while trying to stop a gladiator combat, these public murders ended (Foxe, 28).
“Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). Without this concept of God as master and judge there are many concerns. Everyone knows that human justice is imperfect. Some people are accused falsely, while others who are guilty go unchecked. However, knowing that everything a person does is seen by God, and that some day, He will judge those actions and motives for everyone to see, makes a big difference in that person’s life.
While religion will never be eradicated, it is possible to turn a religious society into a secular, anti-religious society. People around the world should take a serious look at what they believe. For those for whom God and faith have been a boundary experience, or something to “fill in the gaps” of their understanding, other things, such as comfort or security or pleasure, may become more important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness… The Church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the midst of the village. (Van Dyke,172)
The apostles said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). However, I Peter 2:15-16 must also be remembered: “For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God”. Christians would be wrong to disregard the ordinances of men. However, they are free to be the servants of God, even if this means being labeled as fanatics.
In this day, when Bible believing Christians are being equated with suicide bombers, Christians must remember that the enemy is Satan, not other people. Jesus never told His followers to kill anyone. He did say, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation: of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels”(Mark 8:38). Christians should pray for leaders (not hate them) and seek peace, knowing that if God has charge of their spirits, they need not fear any word or deed from men.
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