Q: In the 20th century, humans killed, by most estimates, about 150 million other humans, and that’s just the death count. The religions of the planet have had thousands of years to create a moral order that people could follow and produce that elusive “peace on earth, good will to men.” Can you honestly imagine 150 million corpses of little children, young people in the prime of life, grandparents, mothers and fathers and deny that religions have failed miserably? Religious leaders like you bear an enormous burden of responsibility for the slaughters past, present and future. Perhaps it’s time for people like you to look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are doing more harm than good. If the answer is the former, than isn’t it time to sell people on the idea of leaving their religions behind and becoming humanists, and by doing so, lowering one more barrier between people that leads to mass graves?
— M from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, via email
A: So, before I defend myself for every mass slaughter of the past, present and future; before I remind you that Hitler and Stalin and Mao were all anti-religious and that Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa were not only religious but professionally religious, let me ask you if you have ever visited a soup kitchen either as a hungry person or as a volunteer to serve others who are hungry?
My guess is that if you had made such a visit at any time in your life, and if you looked around, you would have immediately realized that the place housing the soup kitchen was a church or a mosque or a synagogue or a Sikh temple. You also would have realized that most all the volunteers serving the soup and cleaning up afterward were religious people from other churches or houses of worship where what you believe to be genocidal religion is taught.
At some point, your preconceived anti-religious prejudices must shatter before the towering fact that most of the places producing mass healing in our world are the same places you have labeled as places producing mass slaughter.
I sometimes think that the last acceptable prejudice in our world is the prejudice against people of faith. It is true that religion can be perverted and used to kill, but by any measure this is the exception and not the rule. The places where Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Christians live together in peace, has a far greater scope and a far longer history than places where religions are at war.
Without the belief that we are all made in the image of God, there is simply nothing that makes us the same. Faith alone rises above nationalism and tribalism (see Isaiah 40). Religion is not the source of the world’s limitations, but the source of the world’s fulfillment and redemption.
Perhaps these stories will help you to see a different side of faith.
Early one morning the Rev. Tom Hartman and I visited the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province on 31st Street near Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. We were there to help these holy men at the St. Francis Breadline that has served food and water and love to homeless people every morning outside on their front steps at 6:30. They have done this seven days a week, 12 months a year, in any weather, without a break for a single day for more than 80 years. After service we were sitting on the steps of the church when a homeless woman sat down next to us. It was close to Thanksgiving and I asked her what she was thankful for. She was smiling and said, “I am thankful that today I was given a bottle of water that did not come from the trash and that nobody drank from before me.”
The Mary Brennan INN on Long Island began in a church and now is run by the saintly Jean Kelly along with a host of mainly religious volunteers. One day a little girl named Maria, who was living in a car with her mother and brother, came to the Inn for food. Even so, Maria passed up the chicken and the green beans, the rice and the salad and stood staring and crying in front of a cake decorated with the words “Happy Birthday.” Emil at the Black Forest Bakery in Lindenhurst had donated the birthday cake because the person who ordered it never showed up. The servers asked Maria why she was crying and Maria said, “How did you know that today was my birthday?”
The woman who lives on the street but that day got her very own water, and the little girl who lives in a car but that day got her very own birthday cake both received their gifts from religious people.
May God soften your heart.