A friend recently turned me on to South Park. He told me about their religion episodes and one of the ones I saw was the Scientology episode. A ways into the episode the South Park character that is discovered to be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard becomes a true believer and is ready to give Scientology’s secrets away for free. Why? Because that’s the right thing for a “church” to do. It should be all about helping people.
Despite all of the hand wringing about the culture that evangelicals are supposedly doing these kinds of citings actually reveal the deep impact that Christianity has had on our culture, deeper than most are conscious of.
The current great boogieman of the evangelicals, gay rights, equally illustrates the triumph of deeper Christian values. Some Christians may be concerned about the application, but regard for the weak, protection of minorities, tolerance show people by virtue of their being image bearers of God, are all deep Christian values so deeply immersed in the culture that even those who promote banishment of explicit Christianity or the church champion these values.
The roots of this victory actually go back to Christianity’s triumph in the Roman Empire. Here’s a well known point made by a website called Quiet Storm
The Christian movement’s example reached to the Emperor. After the church was legitimized by Constantine, a succeeding Emperor (Julian the Apostate) tried to stem the tide of the Christian faith. He launched a campaign to motivate pagan charities to match the generosity of the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galation that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of the Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “benevolence towards strangers.” In writing another priest, Julian lamented, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galleons [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence . . . [They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, even they can see that our people lack aid from us.”4
Paganism was utterly incapable of generating the commitment needed to motivate compassion and charity. Not only were many of its gods and goddesses of dubious character, they offered nothing that could motivate humans to go beyond self-interested acts of appeasement.
Virtue and Religion
After the shooting at the Sikh temple the Governor of Wisconsin observed the capacity of the Sikh community to face hatred with love.
What I want to observer here is the assumption of the standard, responded to hatred with love, echoing Jesus’ admonition. Now obviously this isn’t embraced nor applied universally, there are plenty of appeals to “don’t let them get away with it” or “hit them before they hit us”, but what I want to recognize is how he doesn’t have to defend the position. Part of this is of course because the work of Dr. ML King Jr. has become the gold standard of public morality in our culture. This isn’t recognized as Christian virtue, it is just recognized as virtue. It is a virtue that Christians are in fact judged by, and often found wanting.
To repeat my point, what is a Christian virtue, becomes a virtue no longer associated with Christianity. The hope of many is then to ask “how can we have this virtue without the difficulties of religion?”
The idea is that the virtue is the meat of the nut and religion is the husk or shell that can be disposed of. The religion, with all of its untestable metaphysical claims, customs, traditions and seemingly senseless prejudices is a problem that causes conflicts, wars, and division. What if we can just generically embrace the virtue leaving the old encumbrances behind, sure that would be an improvement!
The Sikh Religion
This is of course an old idea. We hear it in secularism, atheism and a religious pluralism that wishes to filter all the old religious traditions with one grid, usually love, discarding the parts that fail the standard of love in their opinion and keeping the facets that they find beautiful, helpful and good. This dream has in fact been the genesis of many religions. A bit of reading on the Sikh religion is helpful in this regard. The Sikh faith grew upon along the rift between Islam and Hinduism and has some qualities of both religions.
Here is Huston Smith’s take on it from his classic “The World’s Religions”
That Nanak began by distinguishing his path from both Hinduism and Islam underscores the fact that Sikhism arose in a Hindu culture—Nanak was born into the kshatriya caste—that was under Muslim domination. Sikhism’s homeland is the Punjab, “the land of the five rivers” in northwest India, where Muslim invaders were in firm control. Nanak valued his Hindu heritage while also recognizing the nobility of Islam. Here were two religions, each in itself inspired, but which in collision were exciting hatred and slaughter.
If the two sides had agreed to negotiate their differences, they could hardly have reached a more reasonable theological compromise than the tenets of Sikhism afford. In keeping with Hinduism’s sanatana dharma (Eternal Truth), the revelation that was imparted to Nanak affirms the ultimacy of a supreme and formless God who is beyond human conceiving. In keeping with the Islamic revelation, however, it rejects the notion of avatars (divine incarnations), caste distinctions, images as aids to worship, and the sanctity of the Vedas. Having departed from Hinduism in these respects, however, the Sikh revelation leans back toward it in endorsing, as against Islam, the doctrine of reincarnation.
This relatively even division between Hindu and Muslim doctrines has led outsiders to suspect that in his deep, intuitive mind, if not consciously, Nanak worked out a faith he hoped might resolve the conflict religion had produced in his region. As for the Sikhs themselves, they acknowledge the conciliatory nature of their faith, but ascribe its origins to God. Only in a secondary sense was Guru Nanak a guru. The only True Guru is God. Others qualify as gurus in proportion as God speaks through them.
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World’s Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) (Kindle Locations 1636-1650). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Many attempts today to distill virtue from religion result in exactly what it always has, a new religion.
Naivete of Virtue in Community Without Religion
There are obviously many virtuous, irreligious people. Many secular people who either do not espouse, practice, or even reject religion exhibit virtue. To deny this is to deny the truth.
Both in the cases of the shooting in the Lancaster Amish school and this one in the Sikh temple the public has noted the communal virtue of these religious fundamentalists. The communal expression of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation is startling enough to draw public attention. This once again stands in stark contrast to the “conventional wisdom” espoused by many that religion is evil and a destroyer of character. Both the Amish and the Sikhs have endured centuries of religious persecution and one of the things that their religious practices have formed with in the community is the capacity to return good for evil.
This is a public truth that individualist atheists and agnostics might learn from. Religions have for centuries learned how to create a public virtue and deliver it into individuals. Religions have also done evil, but you should recognize the good with the bad, just like religionists should recognize the bad with the good.
I have little hope that secular, individualistic attempts to form virtue apart from religion will have much success. Broader narratives are needed to live within if the non-instinctive practices of the kind of self-sacrificial love we see in these examples will be realized.
Hard, Difficulty, Costly Love Requires Community and a Larger Narrative
Perhaps the lesson of these two hate crimes (the Amish shooting and now the Sikh shooting) is that it takes a religion to deliver and form the kind of communal virtue on display here. I find little ground in a Darwinistic worldview (strong take the weak, the powerful multiply while the weak are victimized) to afford the kind of beauty displayed by a community struggling to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to return good for evil.
By anyone’s standards the Amish and the Sikhs are fundamentalist minority communities that have endured years of persecution. Their existence bears witness to a power in weakness and the capacity of religion to deliver enduring beauty in the midst of suffering and loss.