Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Deuteronomy 20) transports me to the alarm clock radio, which woke me up this morning blaring out the latest details of the gunman who walked into Oikos University in Oakland and went on a shooting spree, killing seven people execution style and wounding three others. The school attracts people from the Korean Christian community and prepares them for ministry and nursing and eastern medicine practice. The killer had apparently been expelled, and was possibly seeking revenge. School shootings are nothing new in our country, and unfortunately, violence in the context of faith communities is nothing new in our world. That the same faith tradition which is able to bring healing grace to the hurting and freedom to the captives and encouragement to the downtrodden has also been known to bring vengeance to the embittered and bigotry to the prejudiced and delusions to the psychotic is one of the saddest ironies of life. A synopsis of the findings of the venerable Dr. Harold G. Koenig, Professor of Psychiatry at Duke Medical Center, would be laughable were it not so serious: While about one-third of psychoses have religious delusions, not all religious experiences are psychotic. In fact, they may even have positive effects on the course of severe mental illness, forcing clinicians to make a decision on whether to treat religious beliefs and discourage religious experiences, or to support them.
We may fool ourselves into thinking that these connections between anti-social behavior and religious faith is a product of modernity, fabricated by the Freuds and Koenigs of the world. The roots, in fact, go much deeper, as we see in today’s passage from Deuteronomy. From the earliest recorded histories of the faith tradition, people were hearing voices they interpreted as the voice of God, telling them things like this: When you go to attack a city, offer them peace. If they accept your offer, capture them all as slaves. If they don’t accept the peace of God, then butcher all the men, take the women and children and cattle as plunder, and have your way with them. This is God’s will only for distant cities you go to attack. For the neighboring cities, take no prisoners. Kill everything that breathes. And in the fashion of Braveheart and Gladiator the priest encourages the troops: Don’t be fainthearted – this is God’s doing. If you don’t have the stomach for killing and looting and slave-catching and rape and pillage, go home.
Passages like Deuteronomy 20 provide much fodder for the patients on Dr. Harold Koenig’s psych ward. I’m sure some of his patients (maybe one-third of them?) have heard similar voices and have gone to do the Lord’s bidding against some perceived enemy. What amazes me, given the proclivity of religion to weave its imagery into psychotic disorders and massive violence, is the miracle of those possible “positive effects” the good doctor described. That the Hebrew prophets could have emerged from this history, preaching peace and advocating disarmament, that a Messiah could have emerged from this tradition, offering himself as the ultimate symbol of peace and reconciliation between enemies, is an amazing miracle. That Quakers and Mennonites and Baptist Peacemakers and Mother Teresa and nurses and eastern medicine practitioners from Oikos University could have emerged from this history, demonstrating the grace and peace and mercy of God to a hurting and conflicted world, demonstrates the breadth of this miracle. That Martin Luther King could have emerged from this same tradition and gone to Memphis to give a speech 44 years ago today, the day before he died, demonstrates the depth of this miracle. Here are the final words of that historic speech, more evidence of the positive effects of a faith tradition, even as that same tradition fueled the hatred of those who wanted him dead and gone: Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Google+, FB, Twitter, etc.