The Pulpit of Fear

How Religious Leaders Inflame Violence in America

BPL, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“Billy Sunday” George Bellows, 1915; Wikimedia Commons

[Editor's Note: In identifying the immoral acts taking place in many Churches in America, we at Tikkun acknowledge that provoking or supporting violence is not the message many Christians attending other kinds of churches hear. We know the passion for peace and justice in many Christian denominations, just as there are in Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and other denominations. And it is important to remember that way more people were killed or wounded in the capitalism and nationalism-generated 1st WW, 2nd WW, the wars of colonialists trying to hold their power, the Communist purges and oppressions in Russia and China than in any religiously inspired wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. So while we challenge violence and oppression whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., we know that it is also important to challenge the ethos of global capitalism and its various manifestations in toxic nationalisms around the world, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and Jew-hating (read my essay on Jew-hating here) please do read the important article by Dr. Smelcer below and circulate it widely together with this Editor's note! And please consider coming to our High Holiday services --at the very beginning of September to experience a Judaism which Challenges Zionism, Capitalism, Materialist Reductionism, and all other forms of oppression, details soon at Beyt Tikkun. Let me know what you think of Smelcer's article and this introduction to it. 
--Rabbi Michael Lerner  rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com]


The Pulpit of Fear

Millions of Christians across America attend church every Sunday morning. For the most part, they hear sermons about Jesus’s two thousand-year-old message of love, kindness, charity, forgiveness, mercy, and non-violence. They hear how Jesus said, “those who live by the sword perish by the sword” and “Love thy enemies.” They hear uplifting sermons about “The Prodigal Son,” “The Good Samaritan,” and the story of how Simon of Cyrene helped to carry Jesus’s burden—stories that teach us how to be better people. But in some churches, the preacher’s thunderous sermon is vitriolic, inciting hatred, divisiveness, suspicion and aggression toward others, and ultimately violence. These preachers are out of touch with reality from consuming too much right-wing media. Does any of the following sound familiar to you:

“Democrats are all part of a global cabal of Satan-worshippers who kidnap babies as part of a child sex trafficking ring. They abuse them and then eat them in the basements of pizzerias and wear their skin to make them look younger. They want to steal away all your freedoms. They want to make it against the law to drive gas-powered automobiles or to eat steak and hamburgers. They want to make it illegal for you to worship in church. The liberal media is the enemy of the people! We are the real Americans. They are enemies of America and of Jesus who must be destroyed in the name of God!”

I know of no parallel dehumanizing and violence-inciting narrative told about Republicans by Democrats. Things are so bad that some clergy have complained that the persistent presence of conspiracies among church members is “like an infection.” Some have said they are “exhausted” from dealing with their conspiracy-crazed members. Overwhelmed, a few preachers have even left their church for a kinder and more rational denomination.

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As if perpetuating such absurd conspiracy theories is not enough, some of those fearmongering preachers, including televangelists, go even further and proclaim that Jesus has returned in the form of a corrupt and obese old man whose vanity knows no bounds, who more than once pushed aside other world leaders just so that he could be in front and center during a photo op. They idolize an adulterous man who has told us in his own words that he can violate any woman he wants whenever he wants, who lies, bullies, name-calls, cheats, and even separates children from their parents—a man who told us that the most important thing in his life is money: “When I see money, I want it all!” he said, while gesturing as if scooping up armfuls of cash. (Photo: “Greed” Liz West, 2008; Wikimedia Commons) What happened to Jesus’s admonishment that a person cannot serve both God and money? What happened to “it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?” He once told us the biblical characteristic that he most admires is revenge. “I do whatever it takes to win!” the obese false prophet once told us. We later learned that he was true to his word when it was revealed that his campaign did in fact conspire with a hostile foreign government to influence an American election in his favor. What happened to the lesson we teach every child about how winning isn’t important; it’s how you play the game that matters?” Honesty, integrity, compassion, humility, sportsmanship, selflessness, generosity . . . traits to which we should all aspire.

Emboldened by the serpent-like whispers of some religious leaders in his ear, this vain man proclaimed that he is “The Chosen One” as he slyly gazed heavenward with a mischievous glint in his eyes. (Photo: “Serpent whispering to Eve” Walter Crane, 1899; Wikimedia Commons) “Only I can save you!” exclaimed the wannabe dictator to his Christian followers who conveniently forgot that the most fundamental tenet of their faith says that only Jesus can save you. Oblivious of the contents inside, the fake news prophet once celebrated the violent clearing of peaceful protesters with tear-gas and rubber bullets by holding up a bible on the steps of a church. Like Machiavelli, this would-be despot believes only in force and cruelty, deceit, instant gratification, and power for the sake of power. He and his followers forgot that Jesus was a protester of color. If he were here today, Jesus would likely stand on the side of Black Lives Matter. Jesus often drew on the long tradition of Old Testament prophets chastising the powerful when they exploit or fail to protect the vulnerable. He resented the way Romans oppressed Jews and ruled them as if they were second-class citizens with few rights in their own country. With little or no agency, Romans could do anything they wanted to Jews without accountability, similar to the way Blacks have historically been treated in America.

Photo: “Palestinian Iraqi IDP family near Jordanian border” Graham A. Paulsgrove, 2006; Wikimedia Commons

It also seems those preachers and their congregants have forgotten that Jesus and his mother and father were once refugees, immigrants looking for a safe place to live their lives without the threats of famine, drought, war, rape, enslavement, and violence. They were like all the parents today in search of a safe haven to raise their children, a land with the promise of opportunity, a land where a father might be able to support his family. Where would Christianity be if Egypt had turned away Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus and delivered them into the waiting hands of Herod’s murderous soldiers? (Photo: “Palestinian Iraqi IDP family near Jordanian border” Graham A. Paulsgrove, 2006; Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing I have said here is new. As the Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Great religious thinkers have always known that faith breeds violence. Thomas Merton warned us of it in his last book, aptly entitled, Faith & Violence (1968). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and staunch critic of Hitler’s euthanasia program and his genocidal persecution of the Jews knew firsthand how faith can be turned into violence. More recently, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks warned us of it in Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015) in which he calls the kind of evil that turns “ordinary non-psychopathic people into cold-blooded murderers” altruistic evil.  Just as Nazi members swore allegiance to Hitler, too many Americans of faith have sworn allegiance to a flawed, corrupt, and power-hungry would-be despot instead of to the Constitution. These people oppress and injure and slaughter with vicious delight, certain that they are doing God’s work. As proof, many of the violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol wielded bibles, enormous crosses, and signs that stated that they were doing the violence in the name of God.

Don’t pretend to deny it. It’s really quite simple. Faith pits one religious group against other groups. In fact, the term for such behavior is called “Group Think.” Our tendency to “groupishness” makes us to believe, “We are righteous and know the true Word of God, while They are wicked sinners in league with Satan who preach a false gospel!” The “Other” is dehumanized, made to be less than human, the way Nazi propaganda posters vilified Jews as caricatures of lasciviousness and evil. It’s easier to hate that way. That terrible sentiment is at the heart of most violence and death in the history of the world. In simple terms, by its very existence, religion creates a “We versus They” or “Us versus Them” tribalism. “If you are not with us,” so the saying goes, “you are against us.” Oftentimes, the differences are minuscule: which hymnal to use during service, the use of religious iconography in church, the use of musical instruments, and so forth. Anyone who believes or thinks differently is called an extremist, a radical, a traitor, and even a terrorist. Sound familiar? It is the rationalization for all violence and oppression, including two thousand years of persecuting Jews. It also explains the recent surge (up more than 60% this year) of violence against Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. John Lennon of The Beatles knew this to be true when he penned the lyrics to “Imagine,” considered one of the greatest songs in the history of popular music. He knew that a peaceful, heaven-like world was only possible in a world without religion—a world in which members of one religion do not force their beliefs and opinions on other, sometimes violently. Lennon got a lot of criticism for saying that. But God is not a Republican. God does not love America more than any other country. Nowhere did Jesus say to hate those who voted differently from you in a democratic election. It is always wrong for one group to believe they must force their beliefs or opinions on everyone else, especially regarding matters as personal as religion. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. To be free means to have the ability to choose. Democracy sometimes dies slowly, in increments: loss of the freedom of the press, loss of freedom of intellectualism, loss of individual rights, loss of the ability to vote, etc. The list is long.

Parroting the Republican lie to shield the obese, false prophet, some preachers and priests told their congregation that the global pandemic was fake. They instructed church-goers not to wear masks or to practice social distancing. Courting conservative Christians, one deceitful Republican congresswoman erroneously compared wearing a mask to help save lives during a global public health crisis with the horrors of the Holocaust. The Vatican recently removed one American priest for endangering the health and lives of his parishioners and the community at large by perpetuating the lie. The result of so much disinformation has been partially responsible for the death of 600,000 Americans so far. And later, once efficacious vaccines were widely available, these Covid-Deniers urged people not to get vaccinated. In their idiocy, they expounded conspiracies that the vaccine was really a government tracking system, and they even claimed that it made you magnetic. What would Jesus think about such utter selfishness, such lack of concern for the well-being and lives of others? We know what Jesus would say. He told us so. He said, “Above all, you will be known as my followers by your love for others.” Love means compassion and compassion means taking action to alleviate suffering. If Christians were like Jesus, they would have cared about their neighbor’s health, if not for their own safety or the safety of their own family. They would have gladly worn masks to protect others and to demonstrate their love for their neighbors. Instead, too many Christians flouted all attempts to save lives. “I have a right to get my hair done!” they bellowed from trucks and cars blockading access to state capitols.

As much as deceitful and power-hungry politicians are responsible for what happened on January 6, so too are some Christian preachers partially responsible. (Photo: “Tear gas Capitol” Tyler Merbler, 2021; Wikimedia Commons) For years, some of them have abused their authority from the pulpit to espouse hatred and fear and to perpetuate lies. More than a few preachers have told their flock to stockpile guns and prepare for a civil war, whereas Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and to love everyone as a neighbor and to love even our enemies. One preacher recently told his flock to hoard guns to shoot our fellow Black American citizens, whose only crime is they want a safer and more equitable world to live in for themselves and for their children.

It is our mutual trust in shared truths and common knowledge that holds a society together. A society based on lies cannot survive for long. Despots around the world follow the same authoritarian handbook, which instructs them to muddle the truth so much that citizens can no longer tell truth from lie. They exploit all forms of media to spread their campaign of disinformation. “Divide and conquer” is their mantra. In the confusion, the irrational masses are seduced by conspiracy theories, hidden symbols, and secret language that seem to explain everything. “Just listen to me!” exclaims the Great Manipulator. “I alone will tell you the truth!” And the duped masses with poor critical-thinking skills applaud wildly, unable or unwilling to recognize their role in the destruction of democracy. At the same time, they swear they would die for America. Being a nationalist does not make one a patriot. A patriot is someone who is concerned for the well-being of his or her fellow citizens—the love of neighbors. A true patriot cares more about the continuation of democracy and America than they do about a political party or a single voting issue.

How do we dial back the heated rhetoric, you ask? Walk away. For one month stop consuming news . . . all news. Give it up cold turkey the way some people try to end their addiction. Reset the dial. Allow yourself the chance to look at the world with optimism. See your neighbors for who they really are—fellow human beings, fellow Americans, who just want to live in a safe and just society with fairness and opportunity to pursue happiness as the Declaration of Independence promised all of us. Smile more often. Wave at your neighbors on both sides of the fence. If nothing else, you’ll sleep better.

Any preacher who incites hatred, divisiveness, prejudice, and violence instead of proclaiming Jesus’s message of understanding, tolerance, unity, mercy, forgiveness, love, and peace is violating the sanctity of the pulpit. They are not Children of God. They are not ambassadors of Jesus. They are not Vicars of Christ. They do not know the Word of God, for the words never made their way into their callous heart. They have no business standing in the pulpit. Instead, they should be working in a politician’s election campaign office selling baseball caps, yard signs, and bumper stickers. If you are a member of a church like the ones described above, it’s time to find another church with a pastor who espouses Jesus’s messages of love and compassion and tolerance and mercy. Tell them you left because you wanted to live by Jesus’s example of love, not hate. Tell them there’s already enough hatred in the world. 


News Flash

Southern Baptists Elect Ed Litton
as New President--June 16th, 2021

The Alabama pastor, known for his inclusion of women and work on racial justice, beat out Mike Stone of the Conservative Baptist Network in a runoff.

The Southern Baptists have elected an Alabama pastor known for his reconciliation work as their new president. Ed Litton's win required a run-off, and it was something of a surprise. His winning margin was one of the thinnest in recent history, a result that reflects what some are calling a divided denomination. Example of great localize national religion story.

A relative unknown, Litton has made racial reconciliation a hallmark of his work since at least the 2014 riots after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. His election is considered a defeat for hard-right conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent battles over race, sexual abuse, and gender roles.

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