The first years of the new millennia have not been kind to us. Weíve endured tragedies, disappointments and dwindling fortunes. Now we are faced with war in a part of the world where the children of Abraham have always had difficulty getting along. Charles Kimball is an ordained Baptist minister from Oklahoma whose grandfather, a Jew, immigrated to Boston from the Polish-Russian border in the 1880s. His doctorate is in the history of religion with specialization in Islam, the Middle East and Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. With over thirty years of experience and scholarship in the subject, Kimball has crafted an intriguing study into the ways that religion can be corrupted.
As I read this marvelous book, one of my favorite Archie Bunker lines came to mind. To paraphrase, ďFaith is what no one in their right mind would believe.Ē Dr. Kimballís definition is less earthy than Archieís but not that different. Faith is what canít be explained logically. Since it reflects the believerís culture, geography and history, there are innumerable variations and interpretations about the nature of manís relationship with God. Although this diversity is natural, it can also be problematic in certain situations, given differing definitions of what is sacred and what is profane.
Like humanity itself, interpretations of what is ďGodís willĒ can be flawed and lead to tragedies like the Crusades, the Nazis, Jim Jones, David Koresh, the on-going Arab-Israeli conflicts, and the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. How can something that brings peace and comfort to so many people around the world turn into something so evil? Dr. Kimball discusses five warning signs of corruption in a religion: Absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the "ideal" time, the end justifies any means, and declaring holy war. In reviewing these signs, Dr. Kimball gives examples from history and current affairs.
Absolute truth claims are comforting to some who feel that whatís right for them is by definition whatís right. There are radical Christians, in Dr. Kimballís examples, who believe all other religions are false. This arrogance has led them to target Jews, Hindis and Muslims for missionary visits on important religious holidays. Kimball describes this practice of trying to convert Jews on the high holy days as being insulting and more of a spiritual attack than a true attempt to share the Christian message. However, Christians are not alone in having extremists who believe that their principles are superior. Most of the worldís major religions have subgroups exhibiting claims that they and they alone know the truth. The results have ranged from merely annoying to serious mistreatment of non-believing neighbors in the name of God.
Blind obedience is another danger signal. Checking your intelligence and common sense at the door can lead to situations like the Jim Jones tragedy, where nine hundred believers followed their charismatic leader to Guiana where they committed mass suicide at his command. Dr. Kimball warns against uncritical acceptance of any popular belief -- especially if it advocates violence.
Establishing the ideal time presumes that better times are coming. People are awaiting Armageddon, the Antichrist, the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, the end of time, etc. There are those who try to bring about an Islamic state or a Jewish state or even a Christian state by gaining control of the government so that religious precepts become the law of the land. Dr. Kimball cites the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example of this behavior. Based on narrow interpretations of the Quran, morality police punished people for small infractions of Islamic law with beatings, mutilations and death. Kimball also warns of right-wing Christian sects in the United States who wish to impose their radical sense of morality on the general population, and who have established a political agenda to achieve those goals.
The end justifying any means was recently demonstrated in a series of suicide bombings in Israel as an expression of racial and political hatred fed by religious fervor. Fanatics murder doctors while protesting abortions. The hijacking of four airlines on September 11, 2001, by Muslim radicals who crashed them into major U.S. buildings and landmarks was another example of this philosophy.
Declaring a Holy War is the final sign. Dr. Kimball points to the recent conflict between Muslims and Hindus over the politically sensitive area of Kashmir. There is the ongoing fight between Palestinians and Israelis over the Holy Land. Furious with Americanís role in the Gulf War, Osama Bin Laden launched a jihad that resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. George Bush feels justified in his search for the "evildoers". Dr. Kimball discusses the lengths people go to square the concept of war with their religious tenets. First, there is the "just" war, which implies that believers are morally justified in participation due to the noble nature of their cause. This type of warfare is usually a defensive battle where the participants have a good chance of winning without excessive causalities on either side. A second type of war is a "crusade", where people feel that attacking others is sanctioned by God and supported by their own righteousness.
Americans are diverse racially and culturally. As a country, we guarantee freedom of religion as well as freedom FROM religion by ensuring separation between church and state. With improved communications, the world is a smaller place where all kinds of ideas mingle. Unless we can learn to respect each otherís approach to God, we risk slaughtering each other in Godís name. Dr. Kimballís When Religion Becomes Evil is a quick, easy read. He looks unblinkingly into the chasm and points a finger at those who would step over the line and use religion to unduly influence others. His book is thoughtful and well-researched, and his inner truth envisages a reality where there are many paths to God.