Monday, July 28, 2014

Religion as Ammo for Atheists


There are reasons atheists mock religious people.

Religion can serve as the ammunition that shoots holes in our theological pretensions.

Just last Friday, for example, over in Dallas County, one of their county commissioners was arrested and charged by the FBI on 11 counts of bribery and fraud.

Yesterday was Sunday, however, and Commissioner John Wiley Price was in church, being praised by his pastor as somebody to believe in.

"Jesus, justice, and John," proclaimed Rev. Frederick Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church, located in Dallas' mostly-black southern sector.  "That's a hot combination."

Oh?  And what is your scripture reference for that, reverend?  Isn't believing in John Wiley Price about as effective as believing in anybody in addition to Christ for redemption, or justice?  Even if he's white, like Billy Graham?  How about Ronald Reagan?

Either Christ is sufficient, or He's not.  That's authentic Christianity.  And justice?  Hadn't we better be careful for what we ask from our holy and righteous God?

For several years, the FBI had been conducting an investigation into alleged corruption by Price, the county's first black commissioner.  Long an eager firebrand, Price has been a popular figure among the county's poorer blacks because of his often-controversial politics.  In 2011, after a contentious hearing at Commissioners Court, in which somebody called him a "mullah" (an Islamic term for a paid community organizer), he infamously jeered towards a group of white conservatives, telling them that because of their skin color, they should all "go to hell."

Unfortunately, Dallas has a long and bitter history with racism, and the FBI's investigation had already raised the ire of many blacks in north Texas who see it as nothing more than a racist witch hunt to bring down an outspoken civil rights activist.

On Friday, plenty of conservative pundits were crudely crowing over the indictments against Price, but Sunday, his pastor stepped into the fray, assuming a familiar posture for a black church with a prominent member in the public's crosshairs:  unwavering support, buttressed with theological bravado that is technically not supportable by a holy text.

White pastors have probably done the same thing for their downfallen congregants, but when black pastors do it, it generally makes news.  Whether it's Al Sharpton with Tawana Brawley or Trayvon Martin, or Frederick Haynes and John Wiley Price, grace has a tendency to trump the law in a cultural pastiche of protectionism and religious doctrine that elicits howls from atheists.

Granted, Price should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but religion can be such a convenient crutch, can't it?  And a false one, at that.  What happens, for example, if Price is found guilty?  What if the evidence against him is overwhelming?  What if Price is eventually brought to the point of confessing?  What then for the people of Haynes' church?

You believe in Jesus, justice, and who?

This enthusiasm for false doctrine isn't a black church thing.  Or a white church thing.  Consider the fighting between Hamas and Israel, where politics and land ostensibly represent valid things over which human beings should kill each other.  Their's is the war that won't die, no matter how many people do.

Or what about Yoo Byung-eun, the late South Korean multi-millionaire?  Officials believe Yoo was behind the bizarre sinking of the ferry Sewol in the Yellow Sea earlier this year.  Religion was part of his schtick, too.

Yoo started a Baptist sect in South Korea and manipulated his thousands of followers, called "Salvationists," into giving him money to develop a multinational business enterprise which included ships like the Sewol.  Authorities claim Yoo personally directed practices within his companies that caused the Sewol to capsize, killing 304 passengers.  Yet even today, after Yoo was found dead near one of his many properties, his followers blame the South Korean government for pushing the public's vitriol over the tragedy onto his religious and economic empire, to hide systemic failures in South Korea's civil bureaucracy.

Religion strikes again.

Religious figures don't even have to do anything bad to be ridiculed.  Consider the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who was tortured and threatened with death in Sudan for marrying a Christian, and refusing to claim that she is Muslim.  Evangelicals in the United States complained loudly that President Barak Obama's administration wasn't doing enough to free their sister in Christ from such an evil government as Sudan's.  Last week, however, the Italians managed to win her political freedom, and flew her to Rome, where she met with Pope Francis.

Turns out, Ibrahim isn't Protestant, but Roman Catholic.  Conventional evangelicals should be wondering if she's as much of an unbeliever as her Sudanese captors are.  But a lot of evangelicals were both unaware of her true faith, or unaware of the profound theological difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.  American evangelicals hear the term "Christian" used in multi-cultural contexts around the globe, and assume everybody who's a Christian is just like them.

Except they're not.  In many parts of the world, especially where Islam is dominant, the term "Christian" is used to differentiate cultures, heredity, and people groups.  Many "ethnic" Christians may indeed believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who died on the cross for their sins, but certainly not all of them.  It's just like the term "Christian" in the United States today:  most evangelicals know that everybody who calls themselves a Christian here isn't really one.

Not that Ibrahim should have been left to become a martyr to Roman Catholicism.  Freedom of religion is a basic human right, and Americans of all political stripes and religious affiliations should be concerned for Ibrahim and the countless people like her who are being denied the chance to worship their deity without fear of persecution.  Even atheists should be glad that the Italians were able to win Ibrahim's freedom, and they should remain concerned for the many ethnic Christians in places like Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria who still face death for refusing to bow to Allah.

You've probably seen the bumper sticker with the word "coexist" spelled out in the symbols of our planet's major religions.  On the one hand, cynics are correct in pointing out that for all religions to truly co-exist, many of them will have to deny a significant part of their doctrine, since the whole point of a faith-based belief system is choosing what you believe to be true.  And everything can't be true, since all religions eventually contradict each other in some form or fashion.

Yet, on the other hand, true Christianity of the Holy Bible's variety is one of the few world religions that actually teaches its New Testament adherents that while we believe ours to be literal truth, our faith can still exist with others.  At least in the sense of us not being commanded by our Deity to slaughter those who don't believe in Christ.  We're to obey our government leaders, regardless of whether they share our faith, as long as they don't force us to do things that directly oppose God's Word.  And even then, we're not commanded to kill or persecute.  But we are instructed to resist.  And perhaps even die for the sake of Christ.

If and when we're persecuted, we don't suffer for our own merit, or some works-based, rule-bound, performance-oriented religious construct.  Religion, theology, and doctrine exist to help explain the mechanics of our faith.  But true believers in Christ believe in Christ, not on traditions, formulas, or methods.  And we let His Holy Spirit create within us a worldview and lifestyle that please Him.

We're taught in the Bible that, whatever we do, God is looking at our heart, to see our motivation.  Are we acting in His truth, and is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit evidenced by our attitude?  Once His people receive His salvation, God wants us to honor Him, and while certain patterns will develop among us, those patterns and shared convictions won't save us.  But they will be different from the belief systems of  Roman Catholics, and Muslims, and Jews.  And atheists.

That's why it's easy to categorize a faith in Christ as a religion.  And name it "Christianity."  Yes, it's a sloppy way to define Christ-based faith, and misleading.  But part of the misleading sloppiness comes from the way self-professed Christ-followers live their faith.  They live it like it's a religion, and they put their faith in the religion.

Maybe it sounds like semantics to you, but if you're going to take your faith seriously - whether it's faith in yourself, or in Christ, or in Mohammad, or whomever and whatever - won't you want to know what you're putting that faith into?

Do you want your faith to rest in a religion?  Or a cultural system that looks like a religion?  If you do, you're simply giving atheists plenty of ammunition to prove their point.


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