Where religions have gone wrong, and so often turn deadly, is in their focus on what to believe and whom to exclude rather than expressing love and working for justice for all. Although there are numerous examples of this phenomenon across a variety of religions throughout the world, for the purposes of my reflections I will focus on my own religious tradition of Christianity.
From my experience in Christian ecumenical work and interfaith collaboration, I have come to the conclusion that we will be hopelessly divided and perpetually at odds with one another if our primary goal is for all of us believe in the same way, but I do see hope for a commitment to shared values and actions that might allow us to live together in peace and love.
The institutional church in collaboration with empire has turned Jesus into an object of worship in its effort to control the world rather than seeing him as a person to follow to bring love and justice more fully to life in the world. In other words, Jesus as an object of worship has become an idol that hinders many Christians from actually following the way of Jesus.
To think that God would not fully accept a person unless they believed the empire-enforced Nicene Creed is a projection of religious and political institutional insecurity onto God. It lowers God to the meanest and most small-minded aspects of humanity rather than respecting the mystery and grace of the Divine. The empire used enforced belief to control the masses in opposition to Jesus’ call for action to liberate the oppressed.
The Roman Empire weaponized Christianity through the codification and enforcement of beliefs for the maintenance and expansion of its power, and other expressions of empire continue to do so to this day. It is likely not an accident that persons who seem to be longing most for a full-blown return of some form of imperial Christianity are also those who are most strongly clinging to their own personal weapons. Imperial Christianity has conditioned them to believe that it is appropriate to use violent force to maintain and expand their misguided understanding of Christian power.
It is within this context that those of us who call ourselves Christian are ironically often the least like what Jesus is portrayed to be in the Gospels because we are more focused on what the institutional church tells us to believe than we are on what Jesus calls us to do and be in the world.
The codification and subsequent enforcement of beliefs and doctrines about the nature and being of the Mystery that we commonly refer to as God have more often than not been used to define who is in or out of the community rather than as a way to create beloved community for all. If fhe Sermon on the Mount is an accurate expression of Jesus’ vision for the world, Jesus would weep deeply at the sight of a church that claims to follow Jesus while using beliefs about him in order to exclude, control, and even violently and murderously conquer others rather than following the way of love, service, justice, and peacemaking.
The world needs the shared values and actions for love, peace, and justice of the Sermon on the Mount much more than the world needs to conform to the beliefs and doctrines of the Nicene Creed. The Good News is that we are all created for Beloved Community, not adherence to Christian dogma.
When religions require conformity of belief, they become more about controlling lives for the sake of religious institutions and their political patrons than about transforming lives for the sake of Beloved Community. The shared values of mutual respect, loving kindness, and justice for all are much more important for the creation of Beloved Community than uniformity of religious belief.
The obsession with right religious belief has led to persecution, inquisitions, executions, crusades, religious wars, colonialism, and genocide. We don’t need to be right about our religious beliefs. We need be right about how we love one another and how we do justice with one another; and if we really believe in religious freedom, we will stop coercing others to share our religious beliefs.
I am agnostic about beliefs in the nature and being of God and find our human attempts to define God infinitesimally too small to adequately symbolize the Mystery of the Cosmos; but I am a firm believer in the way and values of Jesus that call us to love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies, be peacemakers, bring good news to those in poverty, liberate the oppressed, bring healing to the sick, provide food and drink for the hungry and thirsty, be present with those in prison, welcome the refugee and the stranger, protect the most vulnerable, turn over the tables of corruption, resist the power of empire, and bring justice to all creation.
The well-being, survival, and flourishing of humanity and other species of life on earth do not depend on us all having the same religious beliefs; but they do require at least some level of shared commitment to doing no harm, expressing compassion, and working for justice for all. Together, may we find the wisdom and courage to make it so, no matter how we orient ourselves to religion or to religious beliefs.