The world will remain dangerous as long as there are people convinced they know God's will and feel compelled to impose that on others, Charles Kimball said recently during a lecture sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.
"We have to always have a measure of humility at the way we approach our truth claims and not cross the line into absolutes that lead people to think, 'I am right, you must be wrong,' " said Kimball, author of "When Religion Becomes Evil" and chairman of the religion department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Kimball, a Baptist pastor who has made nearly 40 trips to the Middle East, detailed how extremist religious zealotry in all major faiths has undermined global security and has left a trail of atrocities across human history. He said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, underscored "that it doesn't take very many people to literally wreak havoc on a global scale. Nineteen people hijacked those planes with probably a few thousand behind them."
"Far too often in history, people in all religious traditions have used religions to justify some of the worst things that human beings have done to one another in the name of religion," said Kimball, who has Jewish and Presbyterian roots and who married the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister.
"I believe Jesus taught a gospel of love, but the haunting question is not what Jesus taught," he said. "The haunting question is: What have Christians done with that Gospel?" He cited a rabbi friend who told him, 'You know 2,000 years of Christian love is almost more than we Jews can bear!"
"Religion may be the most powerful force in human society," Kimball said. While it has inspired billions "to do great and noble things, we all know all too often in history," it has been a very destructive force. "I am absolutely convinced that the overwhelming majority of Muslims all over the world are as horrified and offended by acts of violence and extremism in the name of Islam as all the rest of us."
The morning of Sept. 11 remains a "teachable moment," especially about religious and geopolitical dynamics. They compelled Kimball to examine the events from a religious perspective: "What are the forces at work? Are there things we are doing individually or in terms of policies of our own government - the most powerful country in the world - that may be complicating instead of helping in certain parts of the world?" he said.
Kimball offered "warning signs" of where religion is out of balance and dangerous.
He cited people's relentless beliefs that God has imbued them and their theological tradition with the real truth.
"I personally believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, but I think it rests with God and not with any of us," he said. "We as human beings, to use the words of the Apostle Paul, see things through a 'glass darkly' and not yet face to face. . . . None of us possesses the mind of God."
"The danger really begins when people begin to justify violent and destructive behavior sometimes, even behavior toward others based on their convictions - that they are the ones who possess the truth," Kimball said. As a result, he said, health workers in abortion clinics have been shot, innocent people have been killed on buses in Jerusalem, and Buddhist extremists released sarin nerve gas in 1995 in a Tokyo subway killing 12 and sickening thousands.
If true believers are so cocksure about their rightness, he asked, why do they continue to listen to sermons, go to Sunday school or study groups or retreats and search out speakers? "All those things suggest that there is something more to learn," he said. Kimball noted how clergy wince at rereading their old sermons, admitting that they would have to rewrite them today. To stick steadfastly to past thinking would be like saying, "I haven't had a new thought in the last five years."
He suggested that people should continue to learn, unlearn, grow, mature and reevaluate and not be afraid to change their minds even in religion.
Blind obedience to powerful religious leaders is another warning sign, he said. "Any time you have too much power concentrated in too few hands, particularly in the hand of charismatic religious leaders and have blind obedience on the part of the followers, you have a disaster waiting to happen," he said.
Kimball cited the more than 900 deaths of followers of the People's Temple of cult leader Jim Jones in 1978 in Guyana and the 80 Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, who died in a compound in 1993 near Waco, Texas.
"Ultimately, no matter how structured or how hierarchical the system may be, we are all responsible for ourselves," he said.
"Healthy religion always requires checks and balances. Healthy religions always invite questions. In any religious system, when you reach a point that 'I don't need to think anymore,' somebody else is going to do the thinking for you," he said. "When you abdicate your responsibility to think for yourself, then you run the risk of serious abuse of religion."
Among Kimball's other points in his 90-minute talk to a packed audience March 25 at College of Law Great Hall:
"Fundamentalist Christians often care little about Middle East peace efforts, believing instead that war and conflict must be played out as part of biblical prophecy. "Why would you be working for peace when you know the end is very near?" he asked.
"Christians too often ignore the "greatest commandment" that Jesus urged: "To love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself."
Instead, they are consumed with "putting together the piece of the theological puzzle" about the date Jesus will return. Rather than feeding the poor and visiting the sick, he said, they are trying to calculate Christ's return. "The responsibility for those seeking to follow him has much more to do with how you love God and love your neighbor."
"I believe religion offers a promise and the best hope for a shared world community," he said, suggesting that God deliberately created humankind to be widely diverse. He quoted the fifth chapter of the Quran: "Unto every people, God appointed a law and way of life. And if God has so willed, he could have sure made you all a single community."
Instead, Kimball said, God wants all people to do good works regardless their tradition and even compete in the quality of their devoted service to others.
"Be the best Christian, be the best Jew, be the best Hindu, be the best Muslim," Kimball said. "Let that be your competition. . . . God will sort out the truth."