A Theology of Rage

a sermon by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– October 28, 2001 –

Two Readings:

A World Out of Touch with Itself: Where the Violence Comes From
By Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine

There is never any justification for acts of terror against innocent civilians–it is the quintessential act of dehumanization and…the visible symbol of a world increasingly irrational and out-of-control.

It's understandable why many of us, after grieving and consoling the mourners, will feel anger… Let's not be naive: these are evil people who planned this and perpetrated it…[and] they should not be excused or forgiven for their act. Whatever cause they claim to espouse is only dirtied and discredited by these disgusting acts of violence.

Yet in some ways this narrow focus on the perpetrators allows us to avoid dealing with the underlying issues. When violence becomes so prevalent throughout the planet, it's too easy to simply talk of "deranged minds." We need to ask ourselves, "What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?"

We in the spiritual world will see this as a growing global incapacity to recognize the spirit of God in each other–what we call the sanctity of each human being. But even if you reject religious language, you can see that the willingness of people to hurt each other to advance their own interests has become a global problem, and it's only the dramatic level of this particular attack which distinguishes it from the violence and insensitivity to each other that is a part of our daily lives… We live in one world, increasingly interconnected with everyone, and the forces that lead people to feel outrage, anger and desperation eventually impact on our own daily lives…


The Battle for God (from the forward and afterward)
By Karen Armstrong

One of the most startling developments of the late 20th century has been the emergence within every religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as "fundamentalism." Its manifestations are sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshipers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government. It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state…

Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values…[thus they have created] alternative societies…demonstrating their disillusion with a culture that could not easily accommodate the spiritual.

Because it was so embattled, this campaign to re-sacralize society became aggressive and distorted. It lacked the compassion which all faiths have insisted is essential to the religious life and to any experience of the numinous. Instead, it preached an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and even violence. But the fundamentalists [do] not have a monopoly on anger. Their movements [have] often evolved in a dialectical relationship with an aggressive secularism which showed scant respect for religion and its adherents.

Secularists and fundamentalists sometimes seem trapped in an escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination. If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience and which no society can safely ignore.


Sermon: A Theology of Rage

by Barbara Wells – Paint Branch UU Church – October 28, 2001

There has been a lot of talk about God since Sept. 11. You can hardly escape hearing "God Bless America" anywhere you go. Surveys show that Americans are praying more, going to church more. Generally, I am a proponent of prayer. I pray frequently. And I certainly believe that going to your church or your temple or your mosque or your synagogue is probably a really good idea right now. But let me tell you when I start to get worried. I get worried when people say things like, "God needed more angels in heaven." Or, "This is God’s punishment on us for being such a sinful nation." Or, "God will punish those evil terrorists when he lets them rot in Hell." I worry because I wonder which God people are talking about. I worry because the terrorists who perpetrated these horrible crimes believed it was God’s will that they kill innocent women, men and children. And any kind of God who would encourage such a thing is not my kind of God.

I do not believe that what happened on Sept. 11 was God’s will. When people say it was, it makes me edgy. It makes me edgy because I more and more believe that at the heart of this horror is an unwavering belief among many that God takes sides. A God who takes sides is a God who hates. A God who hates wants us to hate, too. And God can’t really mind if we kill those he hates, can he? It’s a perilous passage down a slippery slope.

Ok then it must be the Devil. Didn’t we see his face in the clouds around the World Trade Centers? Christians have for centuries called Muslims "devil worshippers" and both religions have regularly thought that about Jews. Calling these acts demonic might make us feel better, but I don’t believe in that kind of devil any more than I believe in a hate-filled God. Osama bin Laden calls America "the Great Satan." His followers think we’re demonic and many Americans feel the same way about the terrorists. But I believe it wasn’t God or Satan who did these horrible deeds. It was people.

I find it very hard to say that but I have to. Human beings, despite our inherent worth and dignity, can be truly nasty. Throughout history people have perpetrated acts of terror–with far too many of them done in the name of God. Need a few examples? Think Crusades, think slavery, think witches, think colonialism, think Trail of Tears, think bombed abortion clinics, think Jerusalem, think Sept. 11. The list is huge–and terrifying. We human beings like to see ourselves as loving, kind, gentle people. But there are far too many examples of human beings’ cruel and inhumane behavior to not recognize what we are capable of. We are capable of evil and that reality might just make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But there it is.

I’m sorry if this is distressing. But I firmly believe that we must acknowledge our own human weakness in order to move in a more loving direction. And my thoughts on this have been greatly influenced by psychologist and writer Sam Keen. In the mid-1980s he wrote a book called Faces of the Enemy. Faces of the Enemy begins as a study of propaganda–in particular the kind of propaganda used during times of war. This study led him to look closely at human nature–and why it seems so necessary for us to hate. Keen writes, "Generation after generation, we find excuses to hate and dehumanize each other, and we always justify ourselves with the most mature sounding political rhetoric… We refuse to admit the obvious. We human beings are Homo Hostilis, the hostile species, the enemy-making animal."

Keen, in his role as a psychologist and student of human nature, acknowledges that human beings are indeed not all sweetness and light. We get angry, we feel weak, we act out, we become enraged. That’s who we are. It’s not only who we are but it is a part of human nature to feel these kind of negative feelings. I know I don’t like to think of myself in this way–you probably don’t either. But I don’t have to dig too deep into my own psyche to find at least a few examples of my ability to hate.

It’s very hard for generally good people to acknowledge this in themselves. But Sam Keen suggests that when we deny these feelings in ourselves–which we likely will, at least some of the time–they have to go somewhere. And far too often we put them square on others. And we do what humans have done since time began. We create an enemy. The enemy is all things we aren’t: mean and stupid and cruel. Most of us don’t turn our hate into violence. But there are those who do, particularly if their religion tells them that some people are in God’s favor and others aren’t. If God says it’s okay, it’s far too easy to see the enemy as no longer human, something, as Keen says, "that we can kill without guilt, slaughter without shame."

I think that the men in those planes, who killed themselves and others in these terrorist attacks, had these kinds of beliefs. The terrorists saw the people on the plane and on the ground as things that could be killed without guilt, slaughtered without shame. It’s a terrifying image but it is one we have to come to terms with if we are going to get through this. There are those in the world who hate enough to do such terrible things. We have to understand why if we are going to get through this to a place of true peace as a nation and as a world.

Sam Keen gives me a place to start. Human beings are complex creatures capable of great love and great fear and hatred. We saw that love in the aftermath and we saw that hatred in the attacks of Sept. 11. Now that we’re at war, what will we do as a nation? Will we make the people of Afghanistan into a terrible enemy to fear and hate and kill? So far, we seem not to be doing that, at least not as much as we did in other times, in other wars. But what happens when they start killing our soldiers? Will we then hate them? I pray that we won’t. For I believe that war will not cease until we can truly see the other as ourselves.

The radical commandment to "love your enemies" has never been more true. If we can fight this war with as little hate in our hearts as possible, and grieve the deaths of even those whose beliefs we abhor, we might begin to move away from our human tendency to hate the "other" and make them our enemy. It won’t be easy. It goes against so much we have been taught about war. But another interesting thing Sam Keen discovered in his research is that is really is very difficult for people to kill each other, even in war. We may be hardwired to hate but we are also hardwired to love. And I believe that it is love that will prevail; it just may take a long time.

But we do need to understand some of the reasons that people hate us, even as we carefully reflect on our own tendency to hate. There are many scholars both here and abroad who have written and spoken on the situation in the Middle East, and why it is so toxic an environment for peace. I encourage you to read what you can and learn as much as possible.

One scholar I have learned a great deal from is an historian of religion, Karen Armstrong. In her book, The Battle for God, Armstrong suggests that, in European and eventually American culture (which she usually just calls "the West"), our values, such as democracy, freedom and the primary worth of the individual, emerged slowly, allowing people in our culture to adjust to the enormous transitions in religion and politics such a sea change brought. In the Islamic world, on the other hand, western values were thrust upon Muslims through conquest, without any long-term cultural preparation for what these huge changes would bring.

It’s important to remember that the Middle East was colonized, broken into pieces and ruled by the arrogant leaders of France, England and Germany. As Armstrong writes, "This colonial penetration was a severe shock, which meant, in effect, the destruction of the traditional lifestyle of those countries, which were reduced immediately to secondary status." While some in the Arab world initially enjoyed the gifts of Westernization, it wasn’t long before the condescension and outright bigotry of the colonizers began to weigh on the spirits of a proud people.

In response this kind of bigotry, is it not surprising that they would turn to something uniquely middle eastern to give them hope? Islam, a religious tradition tied by culture and heritage to the Middle East, became even more important to its adherents during this painful period in history. While the bulk of Muslims maintained the commitment to social justice and compassion their religion taught, others turned to more radical forms of it. As was true in all three "Abrahamic religions"–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–this period during the 19th and 20th centuries saw an enormous rise in what became known as fundamentalism.

Contrary to what some may think, fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. Karen Armstrong suggests fundamentalism arose in direct relation to the rise of modern science and technology. While most people saw such insights as helpful and exciting, there were many that distrusted the radical change in perspective brought about by science. Many religious people longed for a world that made sense spiritually, so they created one by bringing an extremely literal approach to religious texts. Occasionally, such literalism bled over into absolutism, and religion became radically extremist.

While fundamentalism generally claims to abhor modernity, and may rail against modern culture, they are absolutely modern in their approach. Just look at how Osama bin Laden has used television so much to his advantage, even as he tells his followers of the evils of it. Radical religious extremists in America have used the Internet very effectively to spread their hatred of Jews, African Americans, gays and lesbians, and people like us. And radical fundamentalists in Israel have been quite happy to protect their interests with the latest generation of weaponry.

What all these radical religious groups share is a belief that God is on their side. They know that they are absolutely right. There is no room in their theology for change, for compromise. Instead of recognizing and honoring the loving aspects of their faith tradition (and this is present in all faith traditions), they choose instead to turn religion into narrow rules that must be followed precisely. When these rules are not followed, then the rule-breaker become not just a fellow human who has made a mistake, but an anathema that even God rejects. It then becomes acceptable to hate the rule-breakers, and punish them harshly, even with death. In my experience, absolutist religion–from any faith tradition–can far too easily move from being strict and legalistic to hate-filled and violent. Instead of a theology based on love, it becomes a theology of rage and hatred.

When absolutists run the government, the dangers become even more pronounced. Absolutist politics breeds oppression, which in turn means loss of freedom, dignity and hope.

As I reflect on the world situation today, I can’t help but wonder if we are fighting the wrong enemy. Yes, terrorism needs to be stopped. But from where do terrorist tendencies emerge? From absolutist regimes, both religious and political. I believe this rigid approach to religion and politics can destroy much of what is good and right in the human spirit. I have seen the kind of hate fundamentalist Christians such as Pat Robertson foment in our own nation. Such hate is dangerous to the hated and hater alike. In Afghanistan, children are taught to hate Americans. In Israel, Jewish children are taught to fear Palestinians. In some parts of America, children are taught to avoid people whose skin color is different than their own. Who loses when this kind of enmity is foisted upon our children? Everyone, not to mention the future of our planet.

Our religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, teaches just the opposite of rigid fundamentalism. While not always doing it as well as we might, we at least try to honor diversity, encourage debate, and act out of a sense of justice and compassion. We celebrate that the spirit of holiness that most humans worship in some form is too large, too complex, too mysterious to have only one name, or only one creed.

I remind you of this because I am more and more convinced that the most important thing we can do right here and now is to share our good news more clearly and openly with the rest of the world around us. And the next most important thing we can do is to find allies in the religious community. There are many allies around us, from many different spiritual paths that also put love at the center of their faith. How we practice that love may vary, but there are Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Baha’is and Pagans and others around the globe who know as we do that the only safe path through this morass of fear and hatred is the path of hope and love. It has become ever more apparent that we must create not a global world run by corporations for whom money is the bottom line, but a world linked by love where justice is the bottom line.

Do I think it’s ever going to be possible for such love to guide us on a global or even national scale? It’s hard to say. The events of Sept. 11 are sobering, to say the least. On the one hand, few Americans are willing to own our part in this tragedy. Most Americans seem to think that we have a God-given right to use as many of the earth’s resources as we choose, that our economy is more important than workers’ rights in other lands, that our right to drive SUVs is more critical than preserving the wildlife of the Arctic. And there are a lot of Americans who are absolutist in their religious and political perspectives. Just remember that it was our president who left no middle ground to our allies when he effectively said, "You’re either fir us or agin us."

But there are things that give me hope. Even as we fight a war against an impoverished and suffering nation, we are trying to build bridges to people within our own land who are Muslim and Arab. That’s a big change from the Gulf War, and a positive one in my view. While some say the food drops are merely symbolic and are not truly helping the people of Afghanistan, symbols matter and this is a good one. And I don’t see much of the angry, hate-filled propaganda that Sam Keen’s book makes such note of. For the moment, at least, we do not seem to be demonizing the people of Afghanistan or ordinary Muslims, and that also gives me hope.

The place where I draw the most hope, however, is from ordinary people, who, in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, are managing to act courageously, humanely and with love. The courage of the firefighters and police on Sept. 11 is well documented and appreciated. I also applaud the courage of such people as the rabbi in my town of Greenbelt, who came together with Muslim leaders of Prince George’s County and others of us, to hold candles and grieve and be with each other in solidarity against terrorism and against hate.

I see it in such people as Senator Russ Feingold, who had the courage to not let popular opinion sway him from his belief that the anti-terrorism bill is also anti-liberty; and I see it in people like George and Ruth Koch, who, even after the death of their daughter and her family in the plane that hit the Pentagon, refuse to hate. And I see hope in people like you, who struggle to be open to different opinions, who try to maintain your values in a shaky time, who teach your children to love, who stand up for what you believe.

It is important that we keep up our courage and not lose hope. Absolutism breeds on despair, and our challenge is to not let ourselves give up. What we value here, in this church, this community, and this nation is extremely important. The principles of liberty, justice and compassion, which are part and parcel of our religious tradition and the tradition of our nation, are worth fighting for. The weapons we use, however, must not always be weapons of war. We can and do have the ability to make a difference in this world of ours. How might we do that? Let me conclude by reiterating a few important things that I think are critical for us as Unitarian Universalists and as Americans in this changed landscape, post-9/11.

First, let us remember the role America and Europe played in the Middle East as colonizers and conquerors, and be sensitive to the very real grievances those in the Islamic and Arabic worlds have against us. Let us call on our leaders to continue to practice diplomacy, something few of them seem to know much about.

Second, let us remember that absolutism in religion and politics often leads to hatred and oppression. As Unitarian Universalists, our religion challenges us to stand up to such absolutism both personally and as a nation. Let us call on all religious leaders to speak out against hate in all forms.

And third, let us remember that the inclination to hate and create enemies is a human tendency and does not generate from God. We are challenged to acknowledge our own ability to turn the "other" into an enemy. We are challenged to remember that we are also capable of great love, which is the most holy thing in all the universe. This is our personal task, and I call on all of us to do the hard spiritual work that may be necessary if we are to maintain a loving spirit in the midst of war.

I think it’s going to be a long and difficult period we are entering into as a nation and as a world. We have not yet unlearned our warring ways and it seems we will continue to use violence to try to preserve what is worth preserving. But my prayer is that we will do so with a new kind of humility, which recognizes our own tendencies toward evil, as we try to do good. It is my prayer that we will remember that those with whom we fight are human, and cease to turn them into demons that can be killed without remorse. Our grief for those we fight cannot cease. They are mothers and fathers and children just as we are.

It is my prayer that we here in this room will realize that the most important thing we can do at this time in our history is to spread the gospel of love wherever we go. Our religion teaches us to honor diversity and to see the holy in all of life, not just in our little piece of it. It is a message that needs to be heard. It is a message that might just save the world.

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