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The Danger of Religious Fanaticism

[Editor’s note: This piece was written for Martin Luther King weekend several years ago, and refers to specific events occuring at the time it was written. However, its insights remain relevant over a decade later.]

This week, we arrive at the final portion of the book of Genesis as we watch the last of our patriarchs, Jacob, pass from this life to the next. He seemingly has the things we would all wish for. He has lived a long life, and although he suffers from an unknown illness, all his children are present with him as he dies and he is able to bless each of them.

Of particular interest to me are the contents of each of these blessings. For each of the twelve sons Jacob praises the good and right things that they have done, but also strongly rebukes the wrong that they have done. Perhaps the most significant of these rebukes is the one given in the blessing of Simon and Levi.

Earlier in our Genesis story, when Jacob was a much younger man with several wives and children, he was living near Shehem with his family. Dinah, his daughter was kidnapped and raped by the prince of the city. Jacob and his sons are furious and go out to meet Hamor, the king and his son. There they strike a deal to allow the people of Shehem to intermarry with Jacob’s clan and Dinah is given to her rapist as a bride in order to preserve her honor. But there is a catch.

The other part of the deal is that the men of Shehem must circumcise themselves and Simon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, take advantage of the pain the adult men endure and on the third day after the circumcision, when our tradition tells us the pain of circumcision is at its worst. They sneak into the city of Shehem and massacre all of the men of the village in order to avenge the wrong that has been done to their sister! In addition, the brothers seized all of the animals and took all of the women of the city as captives. At the while, Jacob remained silent; he never uttered a single word of condemnation.

However, from his deathbed Jacob is able to finally describe his complete revulsion at what was done at that time by his own flesh in the name of his own God. He says: “Simon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly.” At the time, Simon and Levi had attempted to justify their actions. They were trying to uphold the honor and purity of their sister as well as that of their people. But Jacob ain’t buyin’ it and dismisses their claim. He rebukes them: “For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless.” Jacob isn’t fooled. What motivated Simon and Levi to murder was not obligation and justice, but rather anger and revenge.

People who act reprehensibly in the name of honor, justice and religion like Simon and Levi have been around for a long time and never seem to understand the reason for their heinous actions. They always offer an explanation for their crime which pushes the blame onto the victim, but the source of their offense is their own uncontrolled nature. To that end, Jacob, speaking from his death bed at the end of our story, seems to offer us the first warning of the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Daniel Boorstin, an American historian from the last century wrote that: “I have observed that the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake of torture.” I would agree. Although the world has risen up to fight for freedom and liberty, more often in our history nations rose up in the name of God to kill those whose beliefs did not match their own. God is big enough to make God’s own arguments without religious fanatics. Yet still there are those in the world who shroud their hatred for others in the cloak of religion and we should not tolerate it. Women who are forced to live lives of silence and solitude and who are subject to their husbands should be liberated. Not just individually, but as a society, we don’t seem to give more than a few moments of our attention to the world’s most unfortunate people.

In Darfur, where one people is trying to blot another from the face of the earth, 400,000 Africans have been slaughtered at the hands of Sudanese government militias and more than two million are displaced and dependent on international aid for food and water. Yet the American media runs dozens of stories about Madonna and her latest CD or Ashton Kutcher’s new relationship for every mention of the genocide being perpetrated in Sudan. And no one has stood up and said enough! I personally am sick and tired of reading how Brittney Spear’s baby is being dressed and all the other stuff that passes for real news.

And although in our part of the world we no longer murder people for acting in a way that we disagree with, I see more and more fanatical religious beliefs passed off for moral judgments in our society without question. Last week while flipping channels, I happened across a show on TBN, the Trinity Broadcasting Network which boats a viewer base of millions of people, in which fundamentalist Christians went out and were videotaped witnessing to people. One man, while speaking to a young woman, asked if she was gay. When the young woman answered in the affirmative, the man’s tone changed. He became angry and aggressive, and spoke of the young woman’s place in eternal damnation for her lifestyle and that if she would just choose to let Jesus into her heart, that she could yet change her ways and lead a normal life. On CNN, I recently saw a clip of a Jerry Fallwell, a fundamentalist preacher from Kansas, in which he claimed that hurricane Katrina was a punishment from God for the perverse and Godless nature of our country. Pat Roberts recently said on his show, The 700 Club, that Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was the cause of his massive and debilitating stroke. “Sharon was dividing God’s land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or the United States.” Can you imagine the hatred that it must take to make such a statement?

And the saddest thing is that peace and tolerance is preached by all three of the Abrahamic faiths. “The greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all your heart, and the second is like unto it, to love your neighbors as yourself,” Jesus taught. The Torah holds that “he who turns away from a stranger might as well turn away from the most high God.” And the Quran echoes, “Allah put different peoples on this earth not that they might despise one another, but that they might come to know one another and cherish one another.” These universal religious teachings offer, in the language of the heart, a set of ideals that enjoins neighborliness and may therefore help to save us not only from our enemies but also from ourselves.

And so we return again to our story at the end of Genesis. What is the punishment that Jacob gives to his sons, Simon and Levi? He says: “Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.” Why are they scattered? I believe that Jacob scattered them in order to protect the rest of the world from their anger. To kill them would have been just as wrong as their murdering of the men of Shehem, yet not punishing them at all and having them remain together would have been worse, since it would have given them the opportunity to grow strong in number and spread their radical nature. They would most surely become the fundamentalists of ancient Israel.

Yet I believe that this dispersing also plays another role. Although religious zeal is a bad thing when taken to the extreme and without balance, religion itself become meaningless if we lack passion altogether.

Jacob knew this too, and by dispersing the descendents of Simon and Levi, he allocated a dash of spice and fervor for each of the twelve tribes. And that is what we should take away from this portion on Martin Luther King weekend. That we, like Martin Luther King, should have passion for our faith and come to God with intensity. However we should not let that intensity become overshadowed by those who would use religion as a tool to preach hatred. We should bring the liberal religious world out of the closet and preach the values we believe in. We should make our voice heard! Today we should take a stand to help all peoples who are oppressed, no matter if the bigotry and prejudice against them is blatant, and especially if it comes in the guise of safeguarding our country or protecting the “moral fabric of our society.” Let that be the legacy of Jacob. And let us take the passion and zeal of Simon and Levi, which was once used for hatred and destruction, and use it to preach tolerance and justice for everyone.

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