Religion can make the good better and the bad worse
Everything that is healthy can get sick, including religions and churches. Particularly today that we are afflicted by the disease of fundamentalism, that contaminates important sectors of virtually all religions and churches, including the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes there is a true religious war. One need only follow some religious programs, especially those on television of a neo-Pentecostal tendency, but also some conservative sectors of the Roman Catholic Church, in order to hear how they condemn people or groups of certain theological tendencies, or demonize the Afro-Brazilian religions.
The main expression of this war-like and exterminating fundamentalism is the Islamic State, ISIS, that turns violence and the murder of those who are different into expressions of their identity.
But there is also another religious vice, found in the mass media, especially on radio and television: the use of religion to recruit people, to preach the gospel of material prosperity, to extract money from the faithful to enrich their pastors and their self proclaimed bishops. We have to deal with commercial religions that obey the logic of the market, namely, competition and recruitment of the greatest possible number of people, with the greatest possible accumulation of cash.
If we look carefully, the majority of these mass media churches rarely mention the New Testament. The Old Testament predominates. This is understandable. In the Old Testament, except in the Prophets and other texts, material well being is emphasized as an expression of divine pleasure. Wealth holds centrality. The New Testament exalts the poor, preaches mercy, forgiveness, love for one’s enemy and boundless solidarity with the poor and the downtrodden. Where does one hear, even in Roman Catholic radio and TV programs, the words of the Master: “Blessed you poor, because yours is the kingdom of God”?
There is too much talk of Jesus and God as if they were something found in the market. By their nature, these sacred realities demand reverence and devotion, respectful silence and devout unction. The most prevalent sin is against the Second Commandment: “Do not take the holy name of God in vain”. That name is affixed on car windows and even found in people’s wallets, as if God were not everywhere. And having Jesus this and Jesus that in an irritating trivialization of the sacred.
What is even more painful and truly scandalous is that the names of God and of Jesus are invoked for purely commercial ends. Or worse, they are used to cover up embezzlements, the theft of public funds and money laundering. Someone has an enterprise whose title is “Jesus”. In the name of “Jesus” millions are amassed in bribes, hidden in foreign banks, and other forms of corruption occur involving public goods. And this is done with absolute shamelessness.
If Jesus were among us, without a doubt He would do what He did with the merchants of the temple: He took a whip and chased them away, trashing their money bags.
Due to these distortions of the sacred reality, we lose the humanizing inheritance of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, particularly of the liberating and humane character of the message and practice of Jesus of Nazareth. Religion can make the good better, but it can also make the bad worse.
We know that it was not Jesus’ original intention to create a new religion. There were many religions at the time. Nor did He contemplate reforming Judaism. What He wanted was to teach us to live our lives guided by the values of his main dream, the kingdom of God, comprised of unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness and total surrender to a God, called “Father”, (Abba in Hebrew), with characteristics of a mother of boundless goodness. He set in motion the creation of the new man and new woman, humanity’s eternal search.
As the book Acts of the Apostles show, initially Christianity was a movement more than an institution. It was called “the way of Jesus”, where reality was open to the fundamental values Jesus of Nazareth preached and lived. But as the movement grew, it was inevitably converted into an institution, with rules, rites and doctrines. And then the sacred power (sacra potestas) became the organizing principle of the whole institution, now called Church. The character of the movement was absorbed by the Church. Through history we know, however, that where power prevails, love disappears and mercy vanishes. Sadly, that is what happened. Thomas Hobbes warned that power protects itself only by seeking more and more power.
And this is how Churches appeared that were powerful by virtue of institutions, monuments, material wealth and even banks. And with power comes the possibility of corruption.
We are witnessing something good that we must welcome: Pope Francis is retaking Christianity for us, more as a movement than as an institution, more like an encounter between people and the living Christ, and more as mercy without limits than discipline and orthodox doctrine. He has placed Jesus, the person, at the center, rather than power, dogma, or the moral framework. This allows everyone, even those who are not part of the institution, to feel that, to the degree that they opt for love and justice, they are on the path of Jesus.
Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia, http://www.servicioskoinonia.org.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.