Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 58) transports me to 2002 and the campus of Mars Hill College, my alma mater, and my place of employment for 12 years. Like virtually all liberal arts schools with a denominational affiliation, Mars Hill faced the challenge of holding rigorous academic study and devout religious fervor in balance. Two academic scholars of world renown came to the campus that year to address issues of religious faith. Within months of each other, Huston Smith and Charles Kimball had published books looking at the role of religion, through very different lenses. Smith, the father of the study of world religions, published Why Religion Matters, a manifesto defending the important value of religion in human societies, in the face of ever-growing materialism and attacks from the scientific community. Kimball, a second-generation scholar in the field, published When Religion Becomes Evil, a treatise outlining the dangers of religion when it veers from its original purposes and becomes a tool for destruction. I wish the two scholars had been there on the same day; it would have been a fascinating conversation to overhear. While these academicians were presenting the findings of their research, the campus was playing out its own drama of the tension these two viewpoints represent. The college chaplain, Reverend Paula Clayton Dempsey, was facilitating intercessory and centering prayer in weekly gatherings that included fellowship time around bowls of soup, under the auspices of the Advent Center for Spirituality. During the college’s weekly chapel service, another type of prayer was being lifted up, as a group of students began circling the chapel, kneeling and praying fervently for God to bring about change. Their prayers were very pointed; for one thing, these particular students, who were skeptical at best of women in ministry, did not feel the chaplain was evangelical enough, and secondly, they felt the chapel services were not meeting their spiritual needs. At least one of their prayers was soon answered; the student prayer warriors found an ally in trustee leadership, who pressured the president, who abruptly fired Reverend Dempsey. Religion does matter, and religion can become evil.
Chapter 58 of Isaiah gives us a good summary of what the conversation between Huston Smith and Charles Kimball might have sounded like. The prophet begins with a Kimball-like indictment of religion that has gone evil. The people are fasting, they are praying; as the Message translation puts it they are busy, busy, busy at worship and love studying about God. To all appearances they are a nation of right-living, law-abiding, God-loving people. And yet, their fasting ends in quarreling and strife, striking each other with fists and exploiting workers. In a word, their fasting becomes evil. But that’s not to say religion doesn’t matter. In a Huston Smith-like turnaround, the prophet describes the fast that is acceptable to God; it is the fast that loosens chains of injustice and unties yokes of oppression, that shares food with the hungry and gives the poor wanderer shelter. This is the religion that matters, the religion that shines light in the dark places and brings healing and wholeness to families and communities. There you have it. Exploitation and economic justice. Violence and peacemaking. These divergent threads all come from the same prayer cloth.
Whenever we hear about religious evil these days, the talk is usually focused around militant Islam and the various circles of terrorism Islamists foment around the world. It would nice if those of us in the Christian world were immune to such perversions of the faith. We only have to look at Christian militia groups in our own country, such as the Army of God or the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord to know otherwise. Or we can look around the world; perhaps the clearest example is the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by the infamous Joseph Kony. He has recruited somewhere around 100,000 child soldiers to participate in crimes against humanity, all in the name of the Holy Spirit and Christianity. Yes, religion of any and every creed has the capacity for great evil. And yet it matters, in a profoundly positive way; every one of the world’s great religions has within it the potential to be a force for good, bringing an end oftentimes to the very same evils perpetuated in its name, freeing slaves, ending genocides, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger. So we pray on, sometimes sitting around a table as we share a bowl of soup and hope for a better world, sometimes on our knees surrounding a chapel in militant protest of those who don’t meet our needs. All in Jesus’ name.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.