Just a little over a month ago, I visited the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi and Louisiana on a radio road trip across the deep south. When I arrived on Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans – with its sex shops and year-round Mardi Gras drunkenness – I told my listeners, jokingly, that no doubt the Big Easy (as New Orleans is known) would one day be swallowed by the Earth in some awesome display of the divine wrath. The joke became all-too-real in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans submerged in a terrible deluge reminiscent of Noah’s flood.
To be sure, I have no idea why God allows such terrible calamities to befall, and kill, innocent people. Indeed, those who suffer the most in these natural catastrophes – the poor and the destitute – are usually those to whom life has already been unkind, and it was an added misery that Mississippi, already the poorest state in the Union, bore the brunt of this monstrous storm.
But a famous evangelical pastor who is a regular on my radio show said that, while he did not quite know why God sent the hurricane against the New Orleans area, he did know that a city-wide gay pride parade which was scheduled for next week had been cancelled by the storm. Not surprisingly, many of my religious callers, while refusing to say outright that God had punished the area between Biloxi (gambling) and New Orleans (sexual immorality), they certainly reminded me that the Bible does say that God’s wrath will not rest forever. (The discussion became positively painful when two callers insinuated that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the Jewish rejection of Jesus).
What is at issue here is not just the rancid old chestnut of some religious people attributing natural disasters, like last year’s tsunami, as being the consequence of sin, but something far more insidious.
It was Karl Marx who famously argued that religious people are drug addicts whose barbiturate of choice is God. Far from being bold and courageous, the homo religiosus was a weak individual who used religion as a crutch even as his faith rendered him passive, feeble and subservient. Religion taught people not to challenge, but to submit. Not to question, but to obey. Not how to stand erect, but to be stooped and bent in the broken posture of the meek and pious. Indeed, secular historians have made the case that only the emancipation from religion in the modern secular age has allowed for the explosion in technological innovation characteristic of the age of science. Science boldly ask the questions which religion is afraid to answer.
There is some truth to this criticism. Many religious people I know have had their will broken by what they perceive to be God’s overpowering yoke. As many of my friends have become more religious, they have allowed their personalities to atrophy and have been rendered colorless. From the many religious couples who write to me that their sex lives have been undermined by inhibition and a discomfort with carnal indulgence, to the conformist trends of the religious clergy which has made so many rabbis and priests dull and uninspiring, religion has snuffed out the spark of many of its adherents. Rather than charismatically leading their congregations with the spark of their own individuality, they put them in comas with empty platitudes of faith.
For many of the faithful, the closer they come to God, the more they become enemies of man. When a cataclysm renders tens of thousands of innocent people homeless, it is the victims who are guilty while God is always innocent. Perhaps these communities tolerated large homosexual populations. Maybe they allowed an abortion clinic in their midst. While God is perfect, man is inadequate. While God is righteous, man is sinful. I call this the submissive man of faith, the man or woman who believes that the foremost calling of religion is the erasure of their individuality and total blind obedience in the face of the divine will. And the principal characteristic of the submissive man of faith is to always implicate man and exonerate God.
The unique contribution of Judaism to world religion is a total rejection of a dejected and compliant religious posture in favor of a brash and audacious spirituality that is prepared to wrestle even with God in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice. In Christianity grace is not achieved without the total surrender of the believer to Christ. Likewise, the very word Islam means to submit. But “Israel” translates literally as “he who wrestles with God,” the man or women who is prepared to rattle even the foundations of the heavens in the name of life and justice.
Judaism gave rise to the defiant man of faith, the man who like Jacob spars with angels and defeats them. The Jew is a child of Abraham, who went so far as to accuse God of injustice when the Almighty sought to the destruction of both the righteous and the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah at once. He or she is the disciple of Moses who thundered to God that he wished to be disassociated with God’s holy Torah if the Creator would proceed with His stated intention of wiping out the Jewish nation after the sin of the Golden Calf. Like King David who declares in Psalms, “I shall not die for I shall live,” the Jew has achieved immortality through an impudent insubordination in the face of historical inevitability, daring to defy fate and forge an audacious destiny.
The world today is replete with too many negative religious stereotypes that have gravely harmed the cause of faith. Secularists point to fanatical Islamic terrorists who blow themselves up as proof that religion is dangerous to the body. On the other side, they point to crazy statements like that of Pat Robertson – who last week said that the United States should assassinate Hugo Chavez – as proof that religion is equally dangerous to the mind, causing one to suspend rational judgment in favor of the irrational and the idiotic.
What is finally needed, after thousands of years of religious unrest, is the defiant man of faith, who believes that his principal religious calling is to defy the heavens in defense of human life. The orthodox Jew, who when Israeli soldiers die never seeks to blame such deaths on Israeli desecration of the Sabbath. The religious Christian, who does not see America as a land of abortions and homosexuality that may therefore be punished by terror, but as a benevolent land whose soldiers fight and die for complete strangers on the other side of the globe. The moral Muslim, who despises and condemns Islamic terrorists who defile his glorious religion and commit an abomination against God by murdering in His name.
It is high time that religion live up to its principal calling of establishing forever the infinite value of every innocent life.