Peace on Earth and Religion Poisons Everything

“Religion Poisons Everything” as some like to say. They go on to claim that without religions the world might have a fighting chance at attaining peace and harmony. We find this sentiment has been especially strong since the events of 9-11 in 2001, but it goes back further than that. John Lennon long ago, or long ago relative to my life, asked us to imagine a world without religion:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Peace on earth is a theme that naturally comes up at Advent as we reflect on Bible passages such as the one that speaks of the Messiah as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or the song of Zechariah saying that Jesus is “to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79 NIV), or the announcement from the angels to the shepherds of “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14 NIV). Peace is to be close to the heart of the Christian and so we may find ourselves at odds with those who would say that peace will only be possible if we get rid of religion, that far from bringing peace, “religion poisons everything.” So what are we to do? Should we ditch our religion in order to seek peace? Or should we ditch peace and keep our religion? Or are those the only options? Let me suggest a few ideas:

  1. Recognize that religious wars are rarely that. Dig deeper and you can often find that there are other, even deeper and stronger motivations at work. It was lamentable to be reading an article recently on the troubles of Northern Ireland (the place of my birth incidentally) but refreshing to have no mention of Protestants or Catholics. The issue is not which approach to scripture and tradition is correct, the issue is over which flag flies over Ulster, Irish or British. At root it is political, not religious. Most so called religious wars are like that and it is a safe assumption that even the most fundamentalist of religious organisations, Al Quaeda, has political intentions that would be there even if Islam didn’t exist. Conflict is a people thing. It always is.
  2. Figure out what kind of peace you would like. What do we even mean by peace? Do we merely mean the absence of conflict and war? If so history has repeatedly shown that the best way to achieve peace is through the threat of violence. The so-called Pax Romana, the Peace-of-Rome was held through the power of the cross, that is, step out of line and be crucified. What kind of peace is that? Imagine a world without religion, it isn’t hard to do, just look at the former Soviet Union and ask if that “utopia” is for you. Peace in the Bible is something much deeper for it is not just the absence of conflict, a balance held by threat of violence, it is about presence. It is about things working as they should, about harmony and completeness, about pure relationships, it is shalom.
  3. Look at the Beginning and the End. Go way back into Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and ask which religion exists at the beginning of the world and human life. There is no religion then but there is peace, not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of shalom, and the presence of pure relationships, even with God. Then go the end of the Bible, to the last two chapters of Revelation and ask what kind of religion we see there. Again, there is no religion there, but there is peace, not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of shalom, the presence of pure relationships, even with God. Imagine a world without religion, it isn’t hard to do, in fact I for one look forward to it.
  4. Look to Jesus and the peace he brings. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27a NIV). The world thinks it has attained peace when conflict has ended, but the kind of peace Jesus brings goes way beyond that to the presence of harmony, the presence of shalom, indeed the very presence of God. In fact this statement of peace from Jesus is couched in the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, the promise of God’s presence. In His Kingdom there is not just the absence of war, there is the presence of shalom, and the presence of God. Our peace with God and others is by the power of the cross which is used in a much different way when Christ’s hands are laid on one in an act of love than when Caesar can get his hands on one to kill in an act of hate. To pray “Thy Kingdom come” is to pray “let there be peace on earth” in God’s way, not Caesar’s, and let it begin with me, that is with my peace with and reconciliation to God.
  5. Stand on the common ground. Yes, we have common ground with those who would say “religion poisons everything,” but we would use different terms. We are, along with the religion haters, likewise appalled when people behave badly and justify their actions and inactions with religious belief. Having a son with Type 1 diabetes I was dismayed to hear recently of a Type 1 parent letting their child die because they believed in the power of prayer over the benefit of insulin. Surely religious belief is a poison in such a case. But if we are attuned to the Word of God, we will not say “religion poisons everything,” but rather “idolatry poisons everything.” The ‘nuts’ in religious nuts cannot be traced back to Jesus and discipleship, but to idols and idolatry.

I can and do, along with John Lennon, imagine a world without religion, a world at peace. But I can not imagine a world without the Prince of Peace, Jesus our Saviour and Lord. If idolatry poisons everything, Jesus can redeem anything. And anyone.

(Credit goes to Bruxy Cavey and Brian McClaren for stirring up some of the thoughts I have on this topic)

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