Just a little over a month ago, I visited the Gulf Coast states of Mississippi and Louisiana on a radio road trip across the Deep South. When I arrived on Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans, with its sex shops and year-round Mardi Gras drunkenness, I told my listeners, jokingly, that no doubt the Big Easy (as New Orleans is known) would one day be swallowed by the earth in some awesome display of divine wrath. The joke became all too real in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans submerged in a terrible deluge reminiscent of Noah's flood.

To be sure, I have no idea why G-d allows such terrible calamities to befall, and kill, innocent people. Indeed, those who suffer the most in these natural catastrophes-the poor and the destitute-are usually those to whom life has already been unkind, and it was an added misery that Mississippi, already the poorest state in the Union, bore the brunt of this monstrous storm.

But a famous evangelical pastor who is a regular on my radio show said that, while he did not quite know why G-d sent the hurricane against the New Orleans area, he did know that a city-wide gay pride parade which was scheduled for next week had been cancelled by the storm. Not surprisingly, many of my religious callers, while refusing to say outright that G-d had punished the area between Biloxi (gambling) and New Orleans (sexual immorality), they certainly reminded me that the Bible does say that G-d's wrath will not rest forever. (The discussion became positively painful when two callers insinuated that the holocaust was a divine punishment for the Jewish rejection of Jesus).

What is at issue here is not just the rancid old chestnut of some religious people attributing natural disasters, like last year's tsunami, as being the consequence of sin, but something far more insidious.

It was Karl Marx who famously argued that religious people are drug addicts whose barbiturate of choice is G-d. Far from being bold and courageous, the homo religious was a weak individual who used religion as a crutch even as his faith rendered him passive, feeble, and subservient. Religion taught people not to challenge, but to submit. Not to question, but to obey. Not how to stand erect, but to be stooped and bent in the broken posture of the meek and pious. Indeed, historians have made the case that only the emancipation from religion in the modern secular age has allowed for the explosion in technological innovation characteristic of the age of science. Science boldly asks the questions that religion is afraid to answer.

There is some truth to this criticism. Many religious people I know have had their will broken by what they perceive to be G-d's overpowering yoke. As many of my friends have become more religious, they have allowed their personalities to atrophy and have been rendered colorless. From the many religious couples that write to me that their sex lives have been undermined by inhibition and a discomfort with carnal indulgence, to the conformist trends of the religious clergy that have made so many rabbis, ministers, and priests dull and uninspiring, religion has snuffed out the vitality of many of its adherents. Rather than charismatically leading their congregations with the spark of their own individuality, they put them in comas with empty platitudes of faith.

For many of the faithful, the closer they come to G-d, the more they become enemies of man. When a cataclysm renders tens of thousands of innocent people homeless, it is the victims who are guilty, while G-d is always innocent. Perhaps these communities tolerated large homosexual populations. Maybe they allowed an abortion clinic in their midst. While G-d is perfect, man is inadequate. While G-d is righteous, man is sinful. I call this the submissive man of faith, the man or woman who believes that the foremost calling of religion is the erasure of individuality and total blind obedience in the face of the divine will. And the principal characteristic of the submissive man of faith is to always implicate man and exonerate G-d.

The Jewish genius for arguing with God
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  • The unique contribution of Judaism to world religion is a total rejection of a dejected and compliant religious posture in favor of a brash and audacious spirituality that is prepared to wrestle even with G-d in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice. In Christianity grace is not achieved without the total surrender of the believer to Christ. Likewise, the very word Islam means "to submit." But "Israel" translates literally as "he who wrestles with G-d," the man or women who is prepared to rattle even the foundations of the heavens in the name of life and justice.

    Judaism gave rise to the defiant man of faith, the man who, like Jacob, spars with angels and defeats them. The Jew is a child of Abraham who went so far as to accuse G-d of injustice when the Almighty sought to the destruction of both the righteous and the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah at once. He or she is the disciple of Moses who thundered to G-d that he wished to be disassociated with G-d's holy Torah if the Creator would proceed with His stated intention of wiping out the Jewish nation after the sin of the Golden Calf. Like King David who declares in Psalm 118, "I shall not die for I shall live," the Jew has achieved immortality through an impudent insubordination in the face of historical inevitability, daring to defy fate and forge an audacious destiny.

    To be sure, there are many Jews who have rejected this message of life-affirmation and defiance, and an untold number of rabbis and theologians have written that the Holocaust was in recompense for Jewish sin, specifically the desire to blend in to German society and lose all Jewish uniqueness. But such blame being placed on the victims of Nazi genocide, implying as it does that Hitler was the instrument of G-d while the Jews were His intended targets, is the foulest sort of abomination, heaping upon the victims the final indignity of denying them even compassion for their suffering. One can only imagine the degree of abandonment of the faith of Abraham by those who would employ it. While Abraham defended even the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, these so-called spiritual leaders who claim to speak in Abraham's name would condemn the innocent masses of Hitler's ovens.

    The world today is replete with too many negative religious stereotypes that have gravely harmed the cause of faith. Secularists point to fanatical Islamic terrorists who blow themselves up as proof that religion is dangerous to the body. On the other side, they point to crazy statements, like that of Pat Robertson, who recently said that the United States should assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, as proof that religion is equally dangerous to the mind, causing one to suspend rational judgment in favor of the irrational and the idiotic.

    What is finally needed, after thousands of years of religiously inspired unrest, is the defiant man of faith who believes that his principal religious calling is to defy the heavens in defense of human life. The Orthodox Jew who, when Israeli soldiers die, never seeks to blame such deaths on Israeli desecration of the Sabbath. The religious Christian who does not see America as a land of abortions and homosexuality that may therefore be punished by terror, but as a benevolent land whose soldiers fight and die for complete strangers on the other side of the globe. The moral Muslim who despises and condemns Islamic terrorists who defile his glorious religion and commit an abomination against G-d by murdering in His name.

    It is high time for religion to live up to its principal calling of establishing forever the infinite value of every innocent life.
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