Compassionate or Vicious

I had an interesting lunch today with my Christian friend, Ray. One of the things we discussed was the idea expressed by Karen Armstrong that there is not one form of religion in human history. Instead, there are two. She refers to one of them as “compassionate” religion. For want of a better term, I will call the other form as “vicious” religion.

For compassionate religion, the example she uses is the Second Isaiah (most Christians do not realize that Isaiah was actually written by two different authors, and their works were later combined). Second Isaiah was relatively annoyed with the Jewish authorities (particularly the King of Israel) because they were “oppressing the fatherless and the widow”. In other words, Second Isaiah was opposed to powerful, rich people and supportive of the weak and poor. In a Christian context, I suppose St. Francis of Assisi would come to mind. Certainly, Francis’s life was a blessing to everyone who knew him, from what we can tell given the records we have of his life. He fed and bathed lepers, for example. Francis of Assisi uniformly and tenaciously represented the interests of folks like lepers, widows and orphans, consistent with Second Isaiah. The film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is a great recounting of the life of Francis of Assisi, if you are interested.

For the vicious form of religion, Karen Armstrong chooses the OT King Josiah. I found this choice interesting, because in evangelical circles (where I have hung out a lot), King Josiah is typically a pretty popular guy. (I have met Christians who name their children after King Josiah, for example.) For Karen Armstrong, not so much. King Josiah was a murderous despot along the same lines as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. Certainly, King Josiah was a strong proponent of the worship of Yahweh, and promoted this form of religion over all others, including killing the adherents of other religions. Particularly the folks who liked to worship Ba’al, according to Karen Armstrong. (Apparently, she feels that Ba’al was not such a bad guy, for a pagan god, anyway. And was certainly not deserving of all of the bad press he received in the OT, and most definitely not so bad that it would justify the massacre of his followers.) Josiah exemplifies vicious religion because it combined the exercise of state power, tremendous wealth, pomp and circumstance, and the use of violence and intimidation. In Christian terms, I suppose Pope Urban II would come to mind: He was responsible for the address that launched the Crusades. Another excellent choice would be Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

What distinguishes compassionate religion are the following characteristics:

  • Loosely organized, no official leaders and all leadership is through earning respect of followers.
  • Completely selfless, self-sacrificing attitude of both leaders and followers.
  • Opposed to the rich and powerful.
  • Supportive of the sick, imprisoned, poor, and needy

And, of course, vicious religion is the exact opposite:

  • Rigid, military style organizational structure.
  • Primarily oriented around the production of wealth and power.
  • Embracing and embraced by the rich and powerful.
  • Lip service to taking care of the needy, but little actual action or results.

Of course, this is a range, and each form of religion falls on a point on that range. I have been a member of Christian churches that meet both descriptions, to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly, I am looking for a group that is like the first list.

The interesting thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong is that compassionate religion (in all its forms, at least according to her) has been one of the most positive, if not the single most positive, forces in the history of mankind. At the same time, vicious religion (again, in all its forms) has been undoubtedly the single most destructive force in history.

More later.