(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
To download and listen to the message, click here:
Thank you for visiting our website and our Sunday messages. The principal outreach activity of The Gathering is the support of homeless youth in our area. If you would like to assist but are unable to attend our services, you can make a tax deductible donation to: The Gathering, 1431 Main St, Cincinnati, OH 45202.
John Milton, in his sixteenth century poem Paradise Lost, describes in detail the mythic fall of humanity. Adam and Eve are granted total freedom within the perfect realm of Eden except for one rule not to eat from the Tree of All Knowledge. Of course, they break this rule and are forever condemned by that defiance. Every one of their future offspring, including all of us, are said, according to Milton’s poem, to inherit that condemnation. As humans, we are born sinful, evil and separate from the company of God.
In a direct rebuttal to Milton’s poem, however, William Blake wrote his series of poems, Songs of Innocence, over two centuries later in 1789. In his poems, Blake celebrates the inherent purity of infants, children and youth. We are not born as terrible sinners, he wrote, but instead as innocents, much like little lambs. In contrast to Milton’s dark view, Blake’s perception of humanity is hopeful, encouraging and positive. Songs of Innocence is a beautiful expression of ideal human spirituality.
But beautiful is not a word to describe the most enduring of human institutions – that of religion. Not only is religion the source of most fear and guilt, as we discussed last week, its historic record as an institution can only be described as ugly and sinful. On almost any issue of human progress, religion has stood in the way. Religion’s stain upon history is far from being a source of enlightenment. Killing, despair, intolerance and hatred are the legacies of man-made religious organizations. From ancient religions that demanded human sacrifice, to Greek and Roman religious worship of torture, sexual orgies and war, to the Inquisition when alleged heretics were burned at the stake, to modern day religions that justify hatred or the mass murder of non-believers, ALL religions are branded by their acts of death, intolerance and enslavement. None are pure. None are without sin. None are historically good. Indeed, man-made religion has been the sly serpent in the grass, tempting us and leading us away from the light of a natural spirituality into the dark and sinister realm of lies and injustice. It is by religion, not by any mythic devil, that our human innocence has been lost. It will only be through enlightened spirituality that we find it again.
It is for such reasons that I have put religion on trial in my message series this month. Last Sunday, we found the defendant, religion, guilty for its imposition of fear, shame and guilt on humans. Today, I sharply question the claimed innocence of that same defendant which veils itself in supposed purity.
Indeed, the sins of religion are many. Of importance to us as Americans, however, has been historic religious intolerance in our nation of blacks, women and homosexuals. Indeed, Judaism, Islam and Christianity have for centuries used their religious beliefs and their scriptures to justify and sanction racism, slavery, sexism and homophobia.
Many Jews, Muslims and Christians throughout history have found reference in the Old Testament story of Noah to define their view of blacks and Africans. According to the story found in the Biblical book of Genesis, after the ark landed safely following the flood, Noah retreated to his tent where he celebrated his survival by getting drunk and taking off all his clothes. Sprawled naked in some form of sexual degradation, Noah is discovered by his son Ham who thrills at this sight of his father. He gossiped about it and even celebrated it. In deep shame and anger, Noah used his influence with God to cast eternal condemnation on Ham’s son and all of his later progeny. He declared a curse on Caanan, Ham’s son, saying he shall be a servant to all his fellow humans. Interpreting the twists and turns of convoluted Biblical myth and genealogy, many Jews, Muslims and Christians interpret ‘Ham’ as a Hebrew word for ‘dark’ or ‘black’. They also believe Cush, the grandson of Ham, to be the first human to populate Africa.
From this very ancient myth, one that lacks any relevance to actual history or to any rational and scientific fact, three of the major world religions have often relegated the African and black race to a degraded status. That status was used to justify their enslavement. Africans and blacks are cursed by God to forever be sexually sinful and to forever be a servant to the rest of humanity. It almost defies our ability to comprehend how anyone, ancient or modern, could use the Noah myth as a basis for racial hatred and bigotry. Whether this is an accurate interpretation of the Noah story or not, it is simply evil.
Jefferson Davis, the President of the southern Confederacy, referred to this interpretation when he said, “Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. Slavery has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
From George Whitefield, the famed evangelist credited with the religious Great Awakening in America, to Robert Dabney, an influential late 19th century Presbyterian minister, the humiliation, bondage and degradation of blacks has been based on religious and Biblical grounds.
While it must be said that religion was also the source of the anti-slavery, abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, it cannot be denied that religion and the Bible have historically been used to justify racism and slavery. In his letter to Titus, found in the Bible, the apostle Paul wrote, “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.”
The Catholic Church and many Popes held slaves. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin all upheld the religious doctrine of racial slavery claiming that while it was not a part of God’s original plan, it is a legitimate and useful part of a fallen world. Certain races, these supposedly great men of Christian history implicitly claimed, are destined to be slaves because of their original sinful heritage detailed in the Bible.
Such religious racial views still persist in modern religions. Tami Winfrey Harris, an African-American author writing in Psychology Today, cites a landmark study of over 22,000 white Protestants. The study was conducted over a forty year period. This study, recently published in an academic psychology journal, indicates high levels of racism in those who are highly religious.
About ten years ago, I myself sat in a Bible study lecture presented by a Christian fundamentalist who endorsed the racist interpretations of blacks as cursed and condemned to forever be servants. Even in my then religiosity, I was shocked and disgusted. To my lasting shame, however, I did not walk out of that lecture. And, while it is not explicit in what they publically proclaim, such views are also those of many leaders of the Creation museum, sitting only a few miles from here. While it is wrong to say all religious people are racist, it is absolutely correct to say that racists have throughout history found justification for their views in religion and the Bible.
Much like racism, sexism also finds extensive expression in religion. For centuries sexist and paternalistic views of women have been justified by world religions. While ancient cultures were, by their nature, male dominated and paternalistic, religion offered those cultures justification for their beliefs. Once again, for many Jews, Muslims and Christians, sexist views are validated by the Adam and Eve myth. Eve was the one who was tempted and who first fell victim to the blandishments of Satan. Many religious commentators and theologians have blamed only Eve for the fall of humanity. Adam was blameless in their view but was seduced by Eve. She used sex as a weapon to tempt and lure Adam. Once again, Biblical myth has been used by many Jews, Muslims and Christians to cast women as gullible, unintelligent and sexually depraved. They use sex to manipulate men, thereby implicitly endorsing male sexual control and even rape of women. Women, in this view, are seen as religiously unclean and cursed because of childbirth and menstruation – curses that the creation myth says God imposed upon Eve because of her sin.
The New Testament also offers little solace to women. While the historic Jesus must be credited with his outreach and compassion for the condition of women, Paul and the early church cannot. Indeed, most of modern sexist Christian beliefs come from the writings of Paul. He echoes interpretations of the creation myth by saying women were specifically created solely for the use and benefit of men. He ordered that women be subservient to their husbands in ALL things. They are to remain silent in church, he demanded. They are to never have authority over any male older than twelve. Their primary role in life is to bear children and to serve as a hard-working keeper of the home.
While there are clear examples in the Bible of women who were leaders, like Queen Esther, and women of character and intelligence like Rahab, Ruth, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Lydia, the Bible is clearly full of sexist stories and teachings. While those teachings are the product of ancient male dominated cultures and therefore logically reflect those ancient values, the problem is that such verses and stories have historically been used by religions to demean and control women.
Indeed, even in many contemporary and fundamentalist Synagogues, churches and Mosques, women are denied roles of adult leadership or public ministry based on Paul’s writings. In many fundamentalist families around the world, religion is used to justify keeping women and girls proverbially chained to the stove and the crib. Obtaining more than a rudimentary education is deemed worthless since females only need to know how to cook and clean. Just as racism is linked and justified by religion, so is sexism.
In the trinity of major religious sins in our nation’s history is also that of heterosexism and homophobia. I need not detail religious and scriptural beliefs about same sex relationships. We have discussed them many times. But the premise for such intolerance is rooted in the same religious myths and stories as that for racism and sexism. Adam and Eve were created as male and female. God intended, according to the myth, for love to exist only between the two contrasting sexes. Men who lie with men are an abomination and destined for hell. The same is said for women who lie with women. Religions have thus relied on only a handful of scripture verses to justify the murder, imprisonment and discrimination of homosexuals. Indeed, homophobia can only be based on religion. Opponents to same sex relationships have few other arguments. Even applying the test of what is supposedly natural falls apart as nature is replete with examples of same sex romantic interaction. Using ancient myths and teachings written for totally different cultures and in pre-scientific times when an understanding of human psychology, genetics and sexual orientation were unknown, religions justify racial, gender and sexuality based hatred and discrimination.
Today, advocates of gay and lesbian rights are attacked for supposedly denying the right of free religious expression and belief. That right and the freedom of personal faith must never be infringed. But such rights of free religious belief do NOT extend to public and civic discrimination. One may individually believe blacks and women to be inferior, and gays to be evil, but such beliefs are ONLY the purview of personal thought. They have no place in how society as a whole treats the wide diversity of humanity. Bigotry, sexism and intolerance have no place in any culture that celebrates universal human dignity and value. We each may have the freedom to hate but we do not have the freedom to force others to also hate.
We can obviously comfort ourselves with an easy condemnation of religion. After all, it is an easy target based on its countless misdeeds throughout history of which I have discussed just a few. Of importance to us, however, are our own subtle forms of racist, sexist and homophobic thoughts and practices. We each want to grow in our own attitudes and seek a better world that is free from ANY hidden or subtle forms of intolerance.
Implicit racism in many progressive churches, even within the Gathering, is alive and well. How willing are we to be open and diverse in our traditions, services and music? We may hope for a more racially diverse congregation but we hold fast to largely white forms of music, tradition and worship. How often do we trivialize or even demean African-American music and spirituals as simple or less than great compositions? I have often been amused at daylong religious services held by many African-American churches. Instead of being more open to their extended worship, shared encouragement, bonding, and joyful, expressive musical celebration, I comfort myself with the thought that such practices are too extreme for my white, Protestant traditions. Implicitly, my thinking is arrogant and smug. Our way of worship is more enlightened, cultured and, simply, better.
Additionally, how much do I, and any of you – male OR female, default to the subconscious notion that men are better leaders and coordinators? As I have thought about this, I realize that even within the Gathering, in what I hope is a decidedly feminist group, women serve in wonderful but still supporting roles – coordinating our coffee, snacks, cleaning, music and greeters. Men coordinate our worship, our finances and serve as our primary church officers. I do not demean any act of service performed here or in any church. As Jesus said, the greatest of all people are servants. I highlight these roles in the Gathering only to call attention to the potential of our own subconscious sexism.
Finally, how much do any of us hold homophobic beliefs? Indeed, internalized homophobia is a problem for gays and lesbians too. Gays can inwardly hate themselves for being different. Many people, while outwardly tolerant, still consider homosexuality as abnormal and less than ideal. Many believe that if one is gay, acting as straight as possible is best. Highly flamboyant and feminine acting men or highly masculine women are, even among many of us, still considered odd and abnormal. And, how often do any of us suppress inner laughter or even derision of the transsexual, cross-dresser or transgendered person?
All of us want to wear masks of alleged innocence. We might even tell ourselves that we are not prone to racist, sexist or homophobic thoughts. The truth, however, is we all must be on guard against the influences of religious belief that is judgmental, hateful and wrong. We must not judge ourselves and others based on religious thinking.
And that is precisely why the Gathering must continue to work at the leading and progressive edge of non-religious spirituality. Such a spirituality embraces a natural and intuitive understanding of humanity and the universe. As those of us who read the recent Book Club selection Swerve know, the philosophies of Lucretius and Epicurus reject religious superstition. Their revolutionary and pre-scientific understanding of the order of the universe, and our place in it, saw existence as an endlessly evolving but ultimately beautiful process. Such a spirituality remains relevant today. In that regard, there cannot be any qualitative difference between any created thing, much less between blacks, whites, men, women, gays or straights. All are created equal. We are each the stuff of galaxies, planets, canyons, oceans and animals. We are literally their brothers and sisters. The purpose of our lives, therefore, is to embrace its singular uniqueness. We do so not with mutual hatreds but with a COMMON quest to enjoy the here and now – the pleasure of being, the joy of the moment, the celebration of simple food, friendships, nature and peaceful contemplation.
Let us find again the innocence of a life without fear or guilt. Let us find again the innocence of youth that have no perceptions of human differences. Let us banish all vestiges of religious judgment, intolerance and hate that subtly hide in our subconscious thinking. For that matter, let us banish religion itself. Let us embrace, instead, the cause of a natural and simple spirituality that sees the goodness and the joy of life abundant.
I wish all of you, here and listening online, much peace and joy.