Is Religion a Force for Evil?

Bad news is good news for the media. But it is only so because bad news is more interesting for the public. It is hardly news that yesterday millions of people didn’t murder, rape, attack or rob someone else. Nor is it news that millions of Christians are decent sincere people who love their neighbours.
No, but it is news if some Christians are hypocritical and unpleasant, immoral or even criminal. It is easy, especially for opponents of religion, to say that religion has caused and does cause a great deal of trouble and suffering in the world.  They conveniently forget that millions of religious people perform countless acts of caring every day, bringing love, joy and peace into a needy world.

However, I sometimes joke that, when I write my next book about over 50 years of professional Christian ministry, having met many thousands of Christians, I shall need a good lawyer!  Yes, I’ve met some bad’uns. But the vast majority have been good, kind people who are a credit to their Lord and Saviour. And by the way we should all wear T-shirts with the logo: “Be patient with me, God hasn’t finished with me yet!”

Some of the bad’uns I met were in Jerusalem. So I read with sadness about the dispute between Christians over maintenance at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which threatens to bring the building crashing down.  We used to live just a few hundred yards from that church which is probably the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.  I remember walking the Via Dolorosa one Good Friday and reaching the church just after there had been as punch-up between young men from different churches. This was not an uncommon occurrence – always over secondary issues. Actually it is really over power and conflicts with the teaching of Jesus that we are to be servants not power-seekers. Such behaviour is all but blasphemous on the site of Jesus’ death for the sins of the world.

However, what the media won’t tell you is that every August many of the different churches in Jerusalem meet daily for an hour of united prayer for peace in the Middle East.  Religion can be and has been a real power for good. But, all too often, it has been and is a cause of strife and even violence.

Consequently, one of the most important needs in our world is the promotion of peace and understanding between religions. Don’t misunderstand me: this does not, for a moment, mean compromising our beliefs. I believe Jesus is the only Saviour and that eternal salvation comes only through trust in him. 
But religious people need to dialogue in order to remove misunderstandings and causes of strife and unnecessary division. I was pleased therefore, at the initiative of my bishop, to be part of a small group of clergy who were guests of 50-60 Muslims, at a local university. We also had a Jewish rabbi with us. It was great (though a tad uncomfortable for an old codger like me) to sit on the carpet, after observing their very reverent worship and enjoying their generous hospitality, and talk with young men from places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Libya and East Jerusalem. 

Most Muslims are decent, ordinary and very hospitable people, not bomb-bearing fanatics. They don’t persecute Christians as some extremists are doing in the Middle East today. (Perhaps I should add that most Hindus don’t viciously persecute Christians, as some are doing in India today).

The media play a vital role in our democracy but they also cause problems, not least by their focus on extremists, fanatics and nutcases, which influences us to think quite wrongly that whole religious communities or people groups (especially Arabs) are suspect or even dangerous. Such is the power of ignorance, suspicion and paranoia.

So as a Christian on the one hand totally committed toJesus being the only Saviour and to wanting everyone to come to know and trust in him, on the other I am committed to interfaith dialogue, understanding and co-operation. The world desperately needs both of these aspects.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction