Religion is a bloody disgraceThe Abrahamic family of faiths is now frighteningly dysfunctional
Tony Bayfield -- Saturday September 11, 2004 -- The Guardian
In 1982, I was down at an interfaith centre in the West Country. A friend, an Anglican priest, suggested we went to meet his bishop. Since this particular bishop lived in a proper palace, I was really up for the visit and spent a lot of time gawping at the moat, crenellated walls and power-portraits.
The bishop was charming but suggested, en passant, that the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps did not represent Judaism's finest hour. Being a small but bolshy Jew, I pointed out that the massacres had been perpetrated by Lebanese Christian militia and what did he have to say about that? He looked at me with genuine bemusement and said: "Obviously they weren't Christians because Christians don't do things like that. So I suppose we say, 'the blighters'."
I didn't think it was a terribly adequate response but it was only a couple of sentences in a long exchange about the common problems faced by Christianity and Judaism in Britain.
Even in the 1980s, Matthew Arnold's 150-year-old Dover Beach poem about the tide of faith receding still deafened us all. We worried about the death of God, being honest to God, and religion evaporating into the secular air. Perhaps that's why it didn't seem to us to play a significant part in most of the troubles of the world - with Belfast and Jerusalem as only partial exceptions. I remember giving sermons about the derivation of the Hebrew word for war - milchamah - which is from the word lechem, bread. The Marxists, I said, had a point when they saw economics as the basis for all struggle. It's poverty, not religion, that is the problem "out there". But the real problem, here where it matters, is the receding tide of faith.
With hindsight, I can see what a staggeringly insular perspective it was. Because faith is not on the retreat from most of the beaches of the world, only in northern Europe; because religion continues to be a hugely significant factor in global conflict. What is happening today isn't new, it's just that we faith leaders in this country didn't see it, didn't see what was coming and didn't have a clue as to our part in it all.
Nineteen years later, Tony Blair consulted 25 faith leaders at Downing Street shortly after September 11, but before we went into Afghanistan. It was a touch harder to be blind to global realities. Indeed, I did wonder out loud why he was wasting his time on religion, which seems to me to have come far too close to discrediting itself for anyone's comfort, let alone God's.
We have singularly failed to face up to the inescapable truth that faiths only exist relationally. That is that they simply cannot continue posturing as monopolistic corporations, smugly proclaiming themselves as the finished article, the last word and the ultimate truth. They surely should have discovered by now their own provisionality, fragmentary nature and deep flaws.
It is bizarre that we should still affirm a God who would bestow the totality of Her truth on any one group of human beings, and still more bizarre that we should believe in groups of human beings as being capable of grasping the totality of God's truth. Yet when my great friend Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tried to say this in a very, very mild and cautious form the outcry within a section of his own constituency almost overwhelmed him.
We have made desperately poor progress on the practical agenda of pooling what is best in our respective traditions for the good of humanity and the globe because we cannot bring ourselves to face up to the theological disclosure implicit in our diversity.
In fact, though most religious traditions are big on humility in theory, we do not seem to have a clue what it means. I half-expect to be invited to an international conference on humility and religion in which there are endless papers seeking to demonstrate in which faith the concept of humility originated and who should be awarded the gold medal for being the most humble.
But clinging to old imperialistic and triumphal notions in the face of glaring reality is not the only charge against us. We have utterly failed to stand up against the fearful, exploitative and reactionary forces - to be labelled for shorthand and convenience purposes only as "fundamentalist" - and allowed them to dominate each of us and the world stage perhaps as never before. I hope it is sufficient to say "settlers", "far-right churches in America", and "Islamic extremists" for us to be clear about whom I am talking.
The alibis and excuses - they are not really Christians or Muslims because proper Christians or Muslims do not believe/do those things; you mustn't tar everyone with the same brush, some of them are nice, sincere, peace-loving people; people are entitled to their beliefs, you should listen to them; or, worst of all, "What can we do?" - simply underline our moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Wimps, the lot of us.
In fact, the situation is getting worse and worse. Except in northern Europe, both Christianity and Islam are growing at a rate so staggering that Matthew Arnold must be spinning. What is emerging is a phenomenon that the Anglican theologian John Bowden has described as "terrifying", forms of faith that are "very hostile to other faiths and driven by a sense of malevolent activity by hostile powers that have to be combated". Religion which is aggressive, triumphalist and thrives on conflict.
Even in Judaism, which is far too small to consider converting Africa or the Far East, it is the "born again" proponents of inerrancy who read the texts as divine licence to advance and impose their views by whatever means are necessary.
I look at Indonesia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Sudan, and each instance of bloody conflict has a strong religious dimension. The people involved are Muslims, Christians and Jews, however much they may be behaving in a way that the best or main thrust of their respective traditions contradicts.
Lest you jump to the conclusion that I am a naive pacifist, I am not. My Jewish experience tells me that oppression and subjugation don't go away if you acquiesce. Nor am I a self-hating anti-Zionist. I am a Zionist who believes that unless two, viable states are established in Israel/Palestine, the very future of Judaism is threatened and time is rapidly running out.
What I do argue is that all faiths, particularly the embarrassingly dysfunctional Abrahamic family, have to acknowledge that no faith tradition is supreme, that no one has a monopoly on God or truth, and that the reality of pluralism discloses a theological obligation to be humble and self-critical, to pool resources, to work together for the good of humanity and the globe rather than fuel its blight and destruction.
If only we were able to assert a shared platform that transcended the platitudinous, to stand up to those who pervert our traditions, and to work together for a justice that involves compromise and humility, we might even end up stemming the decline of faith in northern Europe. By demonstrating that religion still offers meaning, purpose and human values, rather than being at best an irrelevance or at worst a bloody disgrace.
· Rabbi Tony Bayfield is the head of the Movement for Reform Judaism