Who's to Blame?
By Farell Till
(The Skeptical Review)
When skeptics refer to the inquisitions, witch hunts, and other persecutions that Christianity has left in its wake as reasons to oppose the religious right's intrusion into civil and political affairs, many Christians will argue that those who were responsible for such atrocities as these were not "real Christians." They do the same when terrorist acts are committed by those who have links with organizations that have biblical terms like "God," "Yahweh," and "Phinehas" in their names. We have seen this most recently in the assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian and the beating death of Matthew Shepard. Christians piously condemn these actions (while silently approving them, we suspect) and declare that Christianity cannot be blamed for the violent activities of radicals.
Christianity is not to blame? Then just who is to blame? Christianity is based on a book that depicts racism, brutality, massacre, and homophobia as the will of the very god Christians worship. If Bible-believers read in their "word of God" that Yahweh chose one nation to be "his own possession above all peoples that are on the face of the earth" (Dt. 7:6), why should it be surprising that some of these would see this as justification for preaching racial superiority, which necessarily entails the preaching of racial inferiority? If Bible-believers read in their holy book that their god many times commanded his "chosen ones" to exterminate entire tribes and nations (Dt. 20:16; Josh. 11:20; 1 Sam. 15:1-3), why should it surprise anyone that armies comprised of men who believe the Bible is "God's word" would engage in "ethnic cleansing"? In such cases, the very things that these people are doing were in times past approved by the god they worship. Well, of course, any rational person knows that there was really no deity ordering such atrocities as these. The people who wrote the books of the Bible merely thought that their god was so commanding them, because they were barbaric people living in barbaric times, who had created their god in their own image, but try telling that to someone who has been indoctrinated all of his/her life to believe that the Bible is "the word of God."
In an article entitled "Don't Blame Pulpits for a Few Irrational Acts," Michael Miller, religious editor of the Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star, said in reference to the murders of Matthew Shepard and Dr. Barnett Slepian, "The people who blame these acts of violence on the anti-abortion movement and on those who preach that homosexuality is wrong have no evidence whatsoever to back up their claim" (Saturday, December 12, 1998, p. E5). Oh, really? Mr. Miller sounds like the type who would say that the inquisitions, persecutions, and witch hunts of the past cannot be blamed on those who preached that heresy and witchcraft were wrong. Such simplistic reasoning as this ignores the obvious fact that hatred of this kind begins with religion and is fanned by religion, and more than any factor, the direction that religion takes is determined by what its leaders preach.
Why would anyone preach against witchcraft in the first place? Could it possibly be that witchcraft was condemned from pulpits because preachers knew that the Bible said, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex. 22:18), and so they preached what their inspired word of God said. In a time when superstitious people thought that witches were real and witchcraft was being condemned from pulpits, is it any wonder that a colony under the control of a government of Bible believers would have allowed the Salem witch trials to take place and 20 people to be killed and many others imprisoned for a sin that the Bible considered worthy of death? To argue that such atrocities as these should not be blamed on "pulpits" is absurd. Cotton Mather was probably the most influential clergymen in New England at the time of the Salem witch hunt, and anyone who reads his book Wonders of the Invisible World will see that he approved of both the trials and the hangings that followed. One would have to be hopelessly naive to think that what a preacher of his stature said from the pulpit had no influence on events like the Salem witch trials. In the same way, it is ridiculous to think that when preachers today rant and rave against abortion and homosexuality, they are completely blameless when someone decides to give God a helping hand by planting bombs in abortion clinics and gay bars.
If Christianity is not to blame for the activities of radical elements in our society, then why is it that these elements are almost always associated with organizations that have Bible-based beliefs? When has the bombing of a public or private building ever been traced to a humanistic or atheistic organization? When has the assassination of an abortion doctor ever been traced to an atheist or religious skeptic? Somehow it always seems to turn out that the perpetrators of atrocities like these have connections with Christian organizations and the buildings that were targeted for bombing were used for activities that are openly condemned from Christian pulpits? Are we to think that all of these connections were purely coincidental?
In matters of public morality, it seems that Christians want to play both sides of the street. They will point to the good that is being done by Christian organizations and people engaged in charitable and humanitarian work and say, "See all of the good that is being done by those who follow what the Bible teaches!" I have yet to hear a preacher or the religious editor of a newspaper say, "Don't credit pulpits for the good works being done by those who do what is preached in our churches," but when Fred Phelps and his Kansas-based Baptist flock parade around the country with their God Hates Fags signs and even insensitively picket the funeral of a gay man who was brutally beaten to death by homophobics or when a Paul Hill shoots an abortion doctor in cold-blooded murder, Christian leaders quickly rise up and scream, "Don't blame us! These are the violent acts of radicals." Well, they can't have it both ways. If they are going to take the credit for the good that comes from preaching that people should love their neighbors and help those in need, they should take the blame that comes from preaching that focuses on the seamier aspects of the Bible. Some preachers see love, mercy, and kindness taught in the Bible and teach their congregations to practice the same, but preachers like Fred Phelps see where the Bible says that homosexuals should be killed (Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:27, 32) and think that this too should be preached. They're not responsible when someone takes them seriously enough actually do what the Bible says? Why aren't they?
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