Colonial/imperial religion is a matter of identity. Constantine used a Christian symbol as an insignia for his army – it was like a flag under which he fought and conquered. Religion becomes a marker, a way to identify “us” (those of the same religion) from “them” (those of differing religion). It can even be seen as a matter of God’s approval: those of the correct religion are the saved, and those outside the boundary are those who are damned.
There is terrible irony here: religions that teach love as the core of ethics are, instead, used to divide people into us and them. Religion becomes a reason to demonize others, or at least their differing religion, and becomes a justification for whatever action might be required to make “them” more like “us” – including, for instance, a residential school designed to kill the Indian to save the child (cultural genocide practiced on children). Love is twisted to become whatever we feel we need to do to another to save them from hell (a hell that is entirely a product of our own imagination).
This attitude also makes religion rather static: the sole purpose of one’s religion can be simply to get “saved,” to get inside the boundary line, to become one of the insiders, to get the divine stamp of approval. Once in, there is nothing further to do.
The idea of religion as a boundary-line or identity marker is profoundly challenged by at least two stories in the New Testament (and several in the Old, but I’ll save those for another time). One story, less well known, is told about Jesus, and the other, perhaps the most famous of all, is told by him.
The less famous can be found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. In it, Jesus encounters a Gentile or Canaanite woman who pesters him with a request to heal her daughter. Jesus responds in a shocking way, first by simply ignoring her, and then with a racist epithet – telling her that his efforts would be spent on the “children” (his people, the Jews) rather than the “dogs” (Gentiles, people like her). A gracious, wise, witty response on her part leads Jesus to grant her request, and in both gospels Jesus becomes much more inclusive of Gentiles from this point on. But for the gospel writers to put this kind of racist epithet on the lips of Jesus, of all people, makes it clear just how inappropriate it is. The woman’s wise and gracious and much more faithful response drives home the point. In this story, unlike any other I know of, the (non-Jewish, non-Christian) woman is the teacher and Jesus is the taught. There are no “dogs” here. No outsiders.
The most famous story is the one we often call “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10). A teacher of the law discusses the greatest commandment with Jesus and both agree that to love God and love neighbour is the heart of the law. But the teacher then asks, “who is my neighbour?” A wise teacher of mine noted that this question is really asking, “who is not my neighbour?” Who can I get away with not loving? The story that Jesus tells in response is of insiders (the priest and Levite) ignoring the plight of the traveller in need, while the outsider, the Samaritan, the one of another religion, the despised one – the Samaritan does provide care and attention. Like the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan becomes the exemplar – the outsider is the model of faithfulness. It is not simply that we are called to love even our enemies – the story hits even harder than that, by showing an outsider who is more faithful than the insiders.
It’s like asking Jesus: who is your most faithful follower? And he answers, “Gandhi, the Hindu. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist.” I think Christianity may be unique in the sense that the one we follow, Jesus, was a lifelong practitioner of a different religion. We need to take that seriously. Insider/outsider or saved/lost boundaries based on identity religion do not seem to exist for Jesus.
What if religion did not separate us into tribes at all? What if we saw it not as identity, but as path? “Christian” not as who I am, but as how I walk, the particular path I take towards transformation, growth, maturity, towards what Jesus named “the Kingdom of God?”
This is the first big thing to be taken to the trash: religion as a marker of identity, as a boundary between “us” and “them.” That’s what Empire needs and wants from religion – to use it as a tool of statecraft, to identify enemies and whip up emotion against them, to solidify loyalty and a sense of privilege among the insiders. Those aims are inimical to all religions, not just Christianity. Instead, let’s look at religion as a path, a teaching, a discipline of study, that calls us to transformation in a particular way. It may differ from other religious paths, as biology differs from physics which differs from psychology. But there’s no need for physicists to take up arms against psychologists. There is just more to learn.
One last note: there is certainly (we see it regularly in the news) both healthy and toxic religion in this world. I do not mean in this to suggest that any and all religion is acceptable and equally good – “whatever you believe is fine as long as you’re sincere.” No! Weeding out some of the toxicity from Christianity is what a lot of this blog is all about! There is bad religion – and that probably exists in every tradition. But there are no bad religions. Religion should not be a flag to divide us into “us” and “them.” Let’s take that to the dump, and see if it makes the air a bit clearer.