The word “Protestant” is generally misunderstood. Martin Luther’s protest that led to the Protestant Reformation was not, in fact, a protest against the Catholic Church. Properly understood, it was a protest for God. God, in Luther’s view, was being manipulated to serve human and ecclesial self-interest. His protest was a plea to respect God’s transcendence.
We need a new protest today, a new plea, a strong one, against connecting God and our churches to intolerance, injustice, bigotry, violence, terrorism, racism, sexism, rigidity, dogmatism, anti-eroticism, homophobia, self-serving power, institutional self-protection, security for the rich, ideology of all kinds and just plain stupidity. God is getting a lot of bad press!
A simple example can be illustrative. In a recent book that documents an extraordinary 50-year friendship with his former coach (John Wooden), the basketball legend and present-day exceptional writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shares why he became a Muslim. Raised a Catholic, a graduate of Catholic schools, he eventually left Christianity to become a Muslim. Why?
In his own words, because “the white people who were bombing churches and killing little girls, who were shooting unarmed black boys, who were beating black protesters with clubs, loudly declared themselves to be proud Christians. The Ku Klux Klan were proud Christians.
I felt no allegiance to a religion with so many evil followers. Yes, I was also aware that the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was also a proud Christian, as were many of the civil rights leaders. Coach Wooden was a devout Christian. The civil rights movement was supported by many brave white Christians who marched side by side with blacks. When the KKK attacked, they often delivered even worse beatings to the whites, whom they considered to be race traitors. I didn’t condemn the religion, but I definitely felt removed from it.”
His is only one story, and by his own admission has another side to it, but it’s highly illustrative. It’s easy to connect God to the wrong things. Christianity, of course, isn’t the only example. Today, for instance, we see perhaps the worst examples of tying God to evil in the violence of ISIS and other such terrorist groups who are killing, randomly and brutally, in the name of God. You can be sure that the last words uttered, just as a suicide bomber randomly kills innocent people, is “God is great!” What a horrible thing to say as one is committing an act of murder. Doing the ungodly in the name of God. And yet we so often do the same thing in subtler forms, namely, we justify the ungodly (violence, injustice, inequality, poverty, intolerance, bigotry, racism, sexism, the abuse of power and rich privilege) by appealing to our religion. Silently, unconsciously, blind to ourselves, grounded in a sense of right and wrong that’s coloured by self-interest, we give ourselves divine permission to live and act in ways that are antithetical to almost everything Jesus taught.
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