by Chris Struble
The holidays can be a time of joy, beauty, and hope, but they can also be a time of contradictions. On the one hand, Americans genuinely wish for “Peace on Earth, good will toward men”. At the same time we fill the air with song declaring how great it is that our religion is the one true religion and that our personal diety is the one true God. It doesn’t seem to occur to most people just how discordant these messages really are.
With the Cold War now over, the greatest remaining threat to Peace on Earth is paternal, rewards-based religion. From the street battles between Muslims and Jews in Palestine, to the sectarian strife between Christians in northern Ireland, to the Taliban’s systematic erasure of an entire generation of Afghani women, religion-motivated violence springs from the same source: the idea that God will eternally reward those who follow the one true faith and eternally punish those who believe differently, regardless of their conduct or moral behavior. The stronger this belief, the more likely a person is to diminish others who have different beliefs, and the easier it is to violate the human rights of others.
When adults teach children that God himself is a bigot who will condemn good people to eternal suffering because they don’t call him by the right name (or don’t talk to him at all), should we really be surprised when some of those children grow up to plant bombs in buses, shoot their neighbors with automatic weapons, or leave a young man to die on a barbed wire fence in Wyoming because God supposedly doesn’t approve of his behavior? The doctrine of hell is a doctrine of eternal violence.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie Gandhi portraying a story of a Hindu man who came to the Mahatma during the sectarian strife between Muslims and Hindus after India declared independence from Britian. The man confessed to doing something so terrible he was doomed to hell. Because Muslim fanatics had killed his son, the man had killed the child of a Muslim family in a fit of rage. Gandhi declared “I know a way out of hell,” and told the man to find a Muslim boy whose parents had died in the troubles, and raise the boy as his own son, but raise him in the Muslim faith.
In a world where no religion is in the majority, and over a billion people have no religious belief at all, the measure of how close we are to achieving Peace on Earth may not be how many people put up Christmas lights, or how many people are shooting each other in the West Bank, but how many of us could do what Gandhi asked this man to do. If you adopted a child from overseas, could you raise it in the beliefs of it’s native land rather than your own? If not, why not? At the dinner table, what do you tell your own children about people whose beliefs are different?
This year, every person who truly wants Peace on Earth should resolve to learn more about other beliefs. Study the texts of another belief not to condemn it but to find beauty in it. Once this year, attend a synagogue, mosque, or interfaith service. Soak up the thundering oratory of Robert Ingersoll for a glimpse into the agnostic mind. Travel the cosmos with Carl Sagan. Spend a reflective evening with the Dalai Lama. Experience the diversity of man’s attempts to find meaning.
Along the way, we might understand what Gandhi probably really meant when he said (again, from the movie) “We are all Muslims, and we are all Hindus.” We are all human beings, and human beings are much more precious than any symbol, or doctrine, or church.