I'm not particularly religious, nor am I appreciative of religion in general. Where Karl Marx has been soundly criticized for writing that "religion is the opium of the masses" (I have seen various versions of that statement), I agree that religion has often been used to help hold persons or peoples in intolerable situations.
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Another side of that coin is the Christianity that I learned as I was growing up. I was born in the 1930s, and my beginnings of religious or Christian self-awareness rooted in the 1950s. God and Jesus (we didn't know what to do with the Holy Spirit) were primarily sources of blessings for our post-World War II attempts at building the good life. We saw God more as the encourager of our social forms and cultural commitments than the challenger of our values. The Fifties were a decade of what some saw as religious revival. We realized that God was not an Englishman; God was a middle-class American who preferred rural and suburban living.
But I notice that whenever Jesus began to look successful, by today's standards, he would begin to talk about carrying crosses and leaving family and blessing enemies and being wary of wealth and reconciling rather than retaliating. He challenged the religious establishment on behalf of the judged and outcast.
When I listen to my Jewish friends speak of commitment to monotheism and to radical justice in response to a God of steadfast love who called them out of slavery and gave them the great prophets Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, I hear deep challenges to our cultural and social ways, challenges that require courage.
My Muslim friends speak of a radical monotheism that is strangely far out of step with so much of modern practice of living. I hear them committed to the kind of open and welcoming society that sounds diametrically opposed to our perceptions of life in the Middle East.
I have had Buddhist acquaintances chuckle at themselves for how far out of step they are with an extroverted, acquisitional era. When reading People magazine is about as reflective as some people get, and shopping is a primary spiritual practice, my chuckles are short-lived.
In this age of ardent nationalisms, religious exclusivisms, racial and gender inequities, who could be more odd than Baha'is? They envision a world that looks a long way off. Our world would be a better place if there were more Baha'is like the ones I have known.
The religion that Karl Marx knew was indeed embodied in institutions that maintained oppression of the people, and it is cause for anguish to see how forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are oppressive. It is painful to see how much religion is little more than an approval of narrow ethnocentrism and dreaming of the good old days when ignorance is remembered as bliss.
But all of the spiritual movements I have mentioned above - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i - really are intended to be transformational rather than conformational. No expression of any of them should be a confirmation of the status quo or a cultural buttress. All of them are intended radically to move our world toward greater mercy, kindness and justice. All of them are true to themselves only when challenging societal values and practices.
Though some might be uncomfortable with the language, many of us see that it is from God that come the calls to a greater sense of kinship among the world's peoples; concern and compassion for the downtrodden, oppressed, and outcast; wariness with institutions and systems of power; and opposition to appeals to the baser human predilections.
We would not find universal agreement regarding good religion or bad religion, healthy spirituality or unhealthy spirituality. As a Christian I try hard to take a close look at Jesus to understand what Jesus said and did.
Dan Wanders is pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.