Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, in his book, “Yes, And…,” wrote, “Many things that Christians feel are non-negotiable today are at major variance with what Jesus taught and emphasized.” To go back and reread the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount is to be reminded that Jesus of Nazareth taught compassion, non-violence, justice, forgiveness, mercy, loving our enemies, humility, faith and living simply.
Rohr wrote, “None of the Christian nations have a record for peacemaking,” and it can be added that their record is pretty mixed on the rest of Jesus’ teachings. The Islamic nations also have proven incapable of meeting these teachings, though Islam’s Quran mentions Jesus more than any other human, and he is seen as the ultimate prophet and messenger from God (although not the divine son of God). And the Quran is as brutal as the biblical Old Testament.
What to make of these religious institutions and nations’ longtime failures in good behavior? Is it just religious hypocrisy? Moral failure? Or is it honest human striving but, due to the aggressive nature of our species and the fears and longings of our egos, simply a predictably chronic “missing of the mark?”
Islam and Christianity are subject to the same moral and ethical limitations as any other human organizations. Having been created and maintained over the centuries by groups of humans, they became flawed: corrupted hierarchies, unchanging dogma, stagnant thinking. However, it needs to be said that these two faiths do many good things in the world, including creation of charities that serve the poor and the hungry, (including a number of Muslim charities at work here in the US), and their worship protocols still give peace of mind to millions of people.
At the same time, a number of these two faiths’ different branches or sects shun LGBTQ folks, despise faiths other than their own, demand adherence to mandatory religious legalisms (“straining out gnats”), all while honoring and following an authoritarian US “president” or covering up clerics’ child molestations or other crimes (“swallowing camels”). See gnats and camels: Matthew 23:24.
However, individual humans can come closer to meeting those moral and ethical standards that their religious organizations often fail to meet. What are those standards we as individuals can strive to meet, though never perfectly? The Beatitudes, paraphrased below, provide a good description.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Not “poor” but modest and humble, for they have developed a temperament that often is able to put others’ interests ahead of their own.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Those who see their own shadow selves; they mourn their own wrongdoing. They hope for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and hope for healing.
“Blessed are the meek.” This is not the timidity of a “doormat” personality, but a thoughtful quietude, a reflective silence when such behavior is appropriate. When justified, the “meek” are quite capable of roaring and acting with conviction.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This does not mean excessive piety or self-righteousness, but a quest for personal redemption and justice and fairness for everyone.
“Blessed are the merciful.” This requires learning truly to forgive those who have wronged us, and seeking ways to show kindness to them and others.
“Blessed are the clean of heart.” This requires development of a clean inner spirit, a way of thinking and acting in the world that makes us want to do the right thing in life’s different (and difficult) situations.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” This urges us to create peace in this life, to soothe and quiet anger, bitterness and conflict—and resist those leaders who manipulate us and cry war.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Those who stand up for justice and mercy and kindness often are mocked by the world’s cynics. It is better to try to take right action in a world full of injustice, regardless of the personal cost.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister in Germany who wrote and spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis. He preached against the Nazis’ rise in Germany, participated in the German resistance after the Nazis came to power and was involved in at least one of the several plots to kill Hitler. Invited to the US to teach, Bonhoeffer came. However, his conscience troubled him for being in a safe place when so many of his countrymen were suffering under the Nazi regime.
He returned to Germany and was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. In his “Letters and Papers from Prison” he wrote ““the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
Bonhoeffer, witnessing the capitulation of the German Evangelical Church to “Nazification,” began to envision a “religionless Christianity,” one without clerics, strictured rites, holy objects, specified beliefs, or narrow morality. All which would be left, Bonhoeffer advocated, was a devoted faith, the only elements of which would be prayer and righteous action to mend the world’s wounds. (However understandable his vision, many people need more formal structures of worship.)
He had seen firsthand the easy readiness of people and their religious organizations to yield to the Nazis’ political power—an immense institutional surrender to evil on the German churches’ parts. Here in the US, the earliest manifestations of such surrender already are evident: many white evangelical churches’ actively support our current authoritarian “president” whose impulses and instability, so far, are held in check only by courts of law.
In the US, mainstream protestant churches have been declining in membership for decades, and the Roman Catholic church has suffered repeated scandals reaching from some local priests all the way up the church hierarchy.
An American former priest and member of the Paulist Fathers, James Carroll, wrote in “The Atlantic” (June 2019) that lay Catholics need to dismantle the priesthood and take back their church. “Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, it theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and it hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.” He also wrote, “Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest.”
India’s activist Mohandas Gandhi said, “You in the west, please feel free to bring us your Jesus, but not your Christianity.”
As for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at dawn on April 9, 1945, he was stripped naked and hung at Flossenburg concentration camp just as the Nazi regime collapsed. His body was not identified when two weeks later American soldiers liberated the camp. They dug mass graves for the many emaciated dead; probably Bonhoeffer’s corpse was among these.
The Old Testament biblical passage, Micah 6:8, simplifies everything: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of thee, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” How many priests and ministers and higher church authorities, or marvelous cathedrals, written legalisms, golden robes and purple sashes are required to accomplish that?
Men and woman in what is called the “emerging” church already offer the bread and wine to each other on their own. Will they also come to describe themselves simply as Jesus’ first acolytes did: “Followers of the Way?”