In a leaders’ meeting a couple of Sundays ago, our church’s deacon of education, Cathy, told us about a girl who has been participating in our congregation’s youth group.
Cathy previously had learned this child was living with her dad in a shed.
That was bad enough.
Now, Cathy said, the dad had been arrested for drug violations and carted off to jail. She didn’t know what would become of the girl. Trying to tell us this, she was so overcome with emotion she had trouble talking.
Every week, Cathy, several members of her family and other volunteers minister to kids from some of the hardest circumstances in our county. They haul these kids to church, feed them a hot meal, find them decent clothes or new shoes or toys when those are pressing needs, as they often are.
They box up extra food for the kids to take home, and somehow during the ruckus, try to tell them how much God loves them.
They do this — quietly, week after week — in the name of the Lord.
Ministries similar to ours operate in every nook of the United States and, I imagine, in countless nooks and crannies all over the planet.
A few days after Cathy told us about the girl she was trying to help, another group of religious believers opened fire with AK-47s and set off bombs in Paris, killing or maiming hundreds of strangers.
They did their work in the name of the Lord, too.
They didn’t show up to feed and encourage and clothe.
They showed up to kill and steal and destroy.
It’s maddening, this paradox: Faith inspires some to bind up the wounds of the broken, and provides others an excuse to massacre the innocent.
Some people, especially in our area, say that’s the difference between Christianity and Islam. Christianity is a religion of love, they say; Islam is a religion of violence.
Frankly, being a Christian, I’d prefer to think that’s the case.
There’s only one problem. History doesn’t bear it out.
It’s only been a few years, for example, since Protestant and Catholic Christians in Ireland were slaughtering each other with the ferocity displayed by Islamists today. The annals of history are rife with similar orgies of Christian violence.
Just because at this minute Christians don’t seem interested in shooting those with whom they disagree, that doesn’t mean they haven’t frequently done it in the past, or that they won’t again in the future. Ask any Jew what he or she thinks about Christians’ supposed record of love and tolerance.
And when you happen to have met Muslims, as I have, the first revelation you get is that, by and large, they’re nothing like the goons who attacked Paris or, before that, New York City and Washington, D.C.
They’re about as apt as your typical Christian to be generous, peaceable and fair-minded. I say this not from reading politically correct propaganda, but from experience.
Some atheists and related skeptics, on the other hand, argue the problem is religion itself. They say faith in God — in any God, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu — provides the gullible a handy justification for killing at will.
Perhaps there’s a grain of truth to that.
But how do you explain my friend Cathy and those like her? Faith also motivates countless millions to clothe the shivering, feed the hungry and heal the sick.
And if you want to add up the tolls compiled by various death-dealers, let’s compare the furnaces, mass graves and guillotine baskets packed with the victims of Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler and the French Revolution.
By comparison, the religious come away looking almost like saints.
OK, not like saints. But no worse than atheists and anti-clerics.
Which leads me, at last, to my own theory of why religion helps many people act better than they otherwise might, while enabling others to wreak mayhem.
Religion reveals people’s hearts as much as it changes them.
“To the pure, all things are pure,” St. Paul observed. By extension, to the evil, all things—even their supposed faith—serve only to further their diabolic ends.
Religious belief often constitutes a positive, transformative power. I know former addicts and felons whose lives were changed through a spiritual conversion. They kicked meth cold and went legit.
But they truly, often desperately, wanted to be changed. In their hearts — whatever their previous sins — they were softhearted people who longed to become good indeed.
By contrast, a few people are evil from the get-go. Consciously or not, they see religion as a cover for their hatreds. They’re looking for a God, or at least a church, that will legitimize their crimes.
They’re the folks you’d better watch out for.
As Miss Maudie told Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, “The Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of — oh, your father.”
That probably was a fact in Jim Crow Alabama in the 1930s.
It’s certainly a fact in Paris today.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.