"You know all Catholics are going to hell," my mother-in-law told my wife after we married.
"But mother, there are a lot of Catholics in the world," she replied.
"Honey," said her mother, "heaven won't be crowded." Then she added, "It's my duty to judge others."
Much later, after being in our home many times, she mellowed remarkably.
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Growing up Catholic in a small Kentucky town, we were taught and believed that all Protestants were going to hell. The "we-they, white-versus-black" dichotomy was so strong. Catholic boys were forbidden to join the Boy Scouts because all the troop leaders were Protestant. Religion invites us to make our world views absolute. Is this still the main challenge of our civilization?
In both the West and the East, religious faith has assumed a monopoly on God's favor. The result has fueled wars, crusades, inquisitions, massive killing and now, suicide bombers. Religious persecution was so bad in Europe that inhabitants of 12 of our original 13 colonies crossed oceans to find religious freedom.
The superior privilege of Christian faith encouraged us to view native Americans as savages and so justify our actual genocides. Because the Bible accepted slavery, Christians justified the mass importation of Africans for slave labor in the cotton fields of the South. We fought a great and terrible Civil War, each region believing "God is on our side." Nazi Germany had 20 million Catholics and 40 million Lutherans. Some worshiped even in sight of the smoke of the crematoriums where 6 million Jews perished.
Each of the major faiths still claims a monopoly on the mysteries of God. This claim, I suggest, is the source of much hate and violence everywhere, not just in the Middle East. This "power over" attitude easily trickles down into political discourse. Rancor, stereotyping, labeling, misrepresentation and even lying are justified politically. We can too easily demonize those who think differently. Cable news and talk radio are full of this.
All the Abraham religions — Hebrew, Christian and Muslim — are guilty of these exclusive claims today. When we are raised in such cultures, we can easily transfer the absolute claims to other views, moral, social and political. We are so sure of our point of view that we do not need to listen to strangers. Civil discourse becomes almost impossible.
Yet Abraham kept his tent open on all four sides so he and Sarah could see strangers coming from all directions and so have food ready to welcome them. The Hebrew Bible commands us to "love the stranger" some 36 times. Is it time for religious leaders to surrender the exclusive claims of their traditions? This claim divides the world into "us" versus "they" — assuming privilege from God. Yet faith can only be truly accepted as a gift, as an obligation. We are commanded to love one another, even and especially, those who are different from us.
Our country was the first in history to be founded on principle rather than power. We claim power is from the people, not from the top down. Have we outsourced conscience? Should Americans be the first to remind all leaders, "All humans are created in God's image. We have the God-given freedom to find our own way." God now speaks in 7.000 different languages — not merely through the King James version of the bible.
My favorite quote from Christian tradition is from Gregory of Nyssa: "Concepts create idols; only wonder and awe understand anything." When we accept the incredible gift of faith, we are empowered with a vision of compassion, hope, forgiveness and graciousness. In contrast, the exclusive claims of religion divide us. Sadly, they are causing us to lose a generation of young people from our faith communities.
Human nature seeks power, but religion and power do not mix. We should stand up to religious leaders whose teachings serve to divide us. Can any of us presume to understand the heart of God if we have no heart for those who are unlike us?