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Religion and violence

by on October 23, 2015

bloody handsThis has been so much in the media lately that I think it’s good to see that the Bible has a lot to say about it. Here’s our bible talk on Acts 26 from last Sunday.

ACTS 26;  also   ISAIAH 1:10 – 2:4;  MATTHEW 12:9-14

Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do everything I could to fight against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is what I did in Jerusalem: with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.

By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

This is Paul’s confession before the court. He has been accused by his enemies of stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. His response? “Once I was a trouble-maker; a violent man; a religious fanatic, bloodthirsty, angry, driven to hurt others by my zeal for God. That was when I worked for you.”

So we’re going to talk about religion and violence. It’s a pretty hot topic isn’t it. For thousands of years humans have killed and hurt each other in the name of God. did you know that in many ancient cultures people would sacrifice children on altars to their gods? Since those times, people have confiscated property and land, mutilated children or stolen them, put people in prison, burned them alive, tortured them, and done it all in the name of God.

The crusaders marauded across the Middle East with the cross on their shields. When the Spanish went to South America they took with them the sword in one hand and the cross in the other. In England in the past if you were the wrong religion you were barred from university.

And today religious extremism is fuelling war, terrorism and bloodshed in many places. Most obvious is in the Middle East, from Syria to Iran and down to Saudi Arabia. People do these horrific things and they say, God is telling us to do it.

So religion easily becomes a cloak to cover up wicked things. Whether it’s greed and fraud, or child abuse, religion looks so holy on the outside, but underneath it’s oppressive and harmful.

The prophet Isaiah indicted Israel for this very thing: Yahweh said through him, “You lift your hands to me, but they’re covered in blood!” That just about sums up many people’s experience of religion today: they see hands of prayer lifted, but those are red hands. Blood red.

We can see in the story we heard before (Matthew 12) how dehumanising religion can be, how it turns us into hard hearted monsters. The synagogue leaders only cared about one thing: keeping the rules of the sabbath. Never mind about the man’s hand. They just didn’t care. And when Jesus healed his hand, well how shameful, now they want to kill him. Why? For breaking the sabbath rule. That’s what religion can do.

And people look at this and they think, well, religion is simply evil. I don’t want my children to grow up to hate people in the name of God. So I’ll keep them from even hearing that name. Many people in the West have said that over the past 200 years. They’ve thrown away religion because of its violence. There have been secular prophets like Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins who said if we can just get away from the scourge of religion, the world will be peaceful and beautiful, everyone will be friends again.

How has that gone for them? Since Europe and the West gave up on religion, has the time of peace arrived? Nothing could be further from the truth. In that time we have had 2 world wars, tens of millions killed – a thing never known before in the history of the world. The Nazis, without the help of religion, tried to destroy all the Jews and Gypsies and several other minority people-groups. We developed nuclear weapons. We used them straight away. The Soviet empire murdered 50 million of its own people. Since then we have invaded country after country and dropped millions of tons of bombs on them. We’ve done it in Korea, Vietnam, Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the list goes on. And we know in our hearts that we will do it again in the next place. We are addicted to violence.

Nothing has changed. The secular prophets turned out to be just as false as most of the religious prophets were. With religion or without religion, the hardness of heart that upset Jesus so much, it stays the same. We don’t love our neighbour. Sometimes we hurt him, or if we are provoked, we might even kill him. Like Paul did.

And so Jesus’ disciple Paul stands before his judge, King Agrippa and admits, I used to be just like that. I was a violent man. A tormentor. I hated in the name of God. When I worked for these guys, my accusers.

But things changed for Paul. That’s why he’s standing here, accused in court. At some point he switched from being the hunter, and sided with the hunted. He went around healing people, and fundraising for the poor.

So we want to know what happened to Paul and why he changed. And in fact Paul loved telling that story. He told it over and over, we get to hear it at least 3 times in Acts. If we can grasp it we will have to key to this man – and maybe the key to our worries about religion also.  v.12-16

It’s not that Saul had a new idea. No one re-educated him. He wasn’t sent to a correctional facility or a shrink. He didn’t receive counselling to de-radicalise him. No, Saul just met someone. On that road to Damascus Saul met Jesus. He saw Jesus, alive from the dead. Spoke with him. And he realised, God has raised him up. He’s the one God has chosen! All my religion was wrongheaded and foolish. From now on I’m following Jesus.

And so Saul stopped preaching hatred and started preaching Jesus. Telling people “we have to change. We have to stop the hating and violence. We have to welcome strangers.” To use his words, he started ‘preaching that we must repent and turn to God, doing the good works that go with repentance.’ And he started doing those good works. In particular he started collecting money for the poor. Saul the furious became Paul the fundraiser.

And Paul looks at his accusers and he says, I used to be a violent man. But that’s not why they are after me today: they’re after me because I stopped.

You see, what happened when Paul was baptised into the name of Jesus, was he got a fresh start.  A new spirit came into him, the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of compassion. The Spirit of healing. The Spirit of peace, not violence. When Paul got to know Jesus, it just turned his life around.

It’s like this: imagine a jug, you fill it up with water and it starts pouring out. Saul was full up and overflowing with hatred. Religious hatred. Jesus tipped that jug upside down, and emptied him right out. Then he refilled him with his Spirit. Now new things started pouring out of him. It was like Jesus had promised: springs of living water welling up and bubbling over with eternal life.

That’s what Jesus does. Takes angry, divided communities, and turns then upside down, makes them into places of love and fellowship, of help and compassion. That’s what he’s done for us here in Canterbury. We used to be the divided, angry, prejudiced ones, full of resentments, suspicions. I remember in the past how I used to look at people whose skin was a different colour. How I used to distrust and dislike them. Religion can so often be a divider. A bringer of darkness and superstition, of hatred and fear.

But Jesus is making us new. He’s making us into a new family, open to everyone. A new community where all are welcome. And now in the place where I used to feel disgust, now I find love and friendship starting to spring up. I’m not afraid of those people any more. And I feel that I’d like to know them. I’d like to hear their stories. Try their food. Sit in their home. That’s what Jesus does.

And so Saul became Paul. He probably had the two names all along, but it’s a handy way to tell his story of before and after.

Saul the violent-became Paul the peaceful man

Saul the extremist – became Paul the sober man, speaking reasonable words.

Saul did works of destruction – but Paul did the works of Jesus

The prophet Isaiah, after that indictment about Israel praying with bloodstained hands, went on to tell of a vision he had in which everyone took up their swords and beat them into ploughs. They hammered their weapons into a new shape, so that instead of taking life those tools could sustain life. And they said ‘We’re not going to study war anymore.’ What a wonderful picture of the difference Jesus makes: swords into ploughshares.

And now you and I need this same transformation in our lives too. So I want to commend to you Jesus. For you and your family. Religion can’t stop the violence, can’t bring in peace. Atheism can’t stop it. You might think you’ve got clear of it, but it’s inside us all. Only Jesus can stop it. The new life he brings is peace and healing and a fresh start. Peace with God, all our sins forgiven. No more shame or guilt or hiding away. And peace with each other, all our hatreds melted, all swords beaten into ploughshares.

Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus as you did with Saul, so open our eyes also so that we may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that we may be released from our sins and, by trusting you, find a place among the people who belong to you. Amen.

From → General

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