Charles Kimball is a religion professor at Wake Forest University who was director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches from 1983-90. He made more than 35 visits to the Middle East and has for the last 20 years worked with Congress, the White House and the State Department. From this perspective, he wrote When Religion Becomes Evil in the months after September 11 and leading up to the Iraq War. The book outlines warning signs of when a religion is "turning evil," while also describing corrective measures that religions can take, particularly now, with the world worried about an Islamic-Christian "clash of civilizations."

How does a religion become evil?

Well-intentioned people can do things and justify behavior that contradicts what's at the very heart of their religious tradition, and it can descend into cruel and violent behavior.

One example is a belief in absolute truth. People who believe they have God in their pocket and know what God wants for them have proven time and again that they're capable of doing anything because it's not their will but God's will being carried out. You see this most obviously in a suicide bomber-someone who is convinced he or she knows what God wants, and can end up doing the most horrific things to innocent people.

Another example is blind obedience to a leader. When people become so convinced of a particular person or charismatic leader that they blindly will follow that person, it can lead to Jim Jones and Jonestown. It can lead to the Buddhist group Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo in 1995 that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. There's a pattern in sects, and also in local churches, where power is concentrated in too few hands with not enough checks and balances. And you can have a charismatic leader who gets out of control.

One of the scariest examples is the belief that the end justifies any means. Every religion is predicated on the notion that something in the world is terribly wrong. If we weren't ignorant we wouldn't need the Buddha to enlighten us, and if we weren't sinful we wouldn't need Jesus to save us, and if we weren't forgetful we wouldn't need Muhammad to guide us. The presupposition that something is wrong is premised on rectifying that wrong, overcoming obstacles, and moving toward a more hopeful future or meaningful end, whether that's heaven or nirvana or whatever. And often that has a component of making life more just and peaceful. That's normal.

The problem is when people become convinced they know the route to the peaceable kingdom and they are God's agents to make it happen. And here is where you get groups of extremist Jews whose messianic mission leads them to tunnel under the Dome of the Rock and try to blow it up in order to facilitate the building of the Third Temple. Or Christian fundamentalist groups who long for Armageddon to the point that they will support violent extremists trying to destroy the Dome of the Rock. Now, pious Orthodox Jews pray for the coming of the Messiah and the Third Temple, which they believe God will bring down from heaven. But that's a very different thing from saying, "I'm going to give God a helping hand and blow up some buildings in the process."

And this behavior is dangerous in a place like Israel and Palestine. You have millions of Christians fixated on Armageddon theology. They spend a great deal of time watching TV preachers, picking apart Bible verses, looking at headlines in the news, patching together pieces of information to create a sort of image that "Jesus is coming on Tuesday." But when I read the New Testament it's pretty clear Jesus says nothing like, "On Judgment Day how much of your puzzle did you piece together?" He says, "When I was hungry, did you give me something to eat, and when I was thirsty did you give me something to drink?" The mandate of following Christ involves reaching out to people in need, and peacemaking. Whether Jesus comes next Tuesday or in a thousand years is really God's business.

Even worse, there are many well-intentioned Christians who actively oppose any kind of reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians because it's theologically counterintuitive to them. They say, "Why would you work for peace when we know Armageddon is about to occur?" In their theology Israel is part of God's plan. This is one of the most dangerous things because you put that over against 50 million copies of the Left Behind series, which makes good reading, but a lot of people gobble this up as though it's God's truth.

So you're saying that even though these kinds of Christians aren't literally acting out violence, they are as scary as, say, Islamic jihadists?

Well, not more scary, but potentially a very destructive force. I saw a female evangelist interviewed a few weeks ago on this very topic, and she was claiming, "I love the Jewish people. These are God's people." And someone said, "Yes, but in your theology all but a remnant of them are going to be wiped out. If things unfold the way you believe, most of the Jews are going to be killed." She smiled into the camera and said, "Well this isn't me talking--this is God talking." Now, from where I sit this is not the kind of friends the Jewish people need. She's perfectly willing to watch the slaughter of Jews because it's part of "God's plan." That's only a half-step removed from people who are putting dynamite under the Dome of the Rock.

You sometimes hear that the histories of Islam and Christianity aren't in sync, because Christianity came first and went through its worst violence earlier. And maybe, the theory goes, Islam is going through the same kind of violent spasm that Christianity went through during, say, the Crusades.

Well, there are Christians shooting doctors at abortion clinics.

But it's not the same kind of numbers as militant Islamists.

I don't want to be in the business of saying you're worse than me, or this isn't as bad as that. I call September 11 Exhibit A of religion becoming evil. This is a classic example of people preparing to meet God and feeling justified and righteous in doing a horrific thing, not only for the people in those buildings or on those planes, but the enormous consequences for people all over the world. Who knows how many tens of thousands of people died because of economic dislocations that happened in the aftermath?

So I don't want to in any way say a TV preacher is just as bad as someone flying an airplane into a building. But we can see some of the ways well-intentioned people lose sight of the central focus of their religion and justify evil behavior.

For example, Charles Stanley at InTouch Ministries is preaching that governments are in power because God has them in power. Then he quotes the Hebrew Bible and says that if you don't go to war when God wants you to go to war, God will punish you. I'm no fan of Saddam Hussein-in the 1980s when I was working the Middle East I gave Congressional testimony railing against the U.S. Government because we were supporting Saddam Hussein. He is one of the worst thugs on the planet. Yet I've also seen the tremendous suffering of the Iraqi people. When I hear Christians in this country essentially glorify massive bombing attacks and say this is what God wants us to do, I think we're moving on a continuum that is hard to square with the Gospel message.

But why is it now Muslims in a literal sense acting out with violence?

I don't want to equate suicide bombing with Charles Stanley's sermons, though I have a lot of trouble with Charles Stanley's sermons. But let's take a step back to a few years ago. We had 20,000 documented cases of rape and murder of Bosnian Muslim women and children at the hands of Serbian Christians.

Were they acting as Christians?

They certainly were united and attacking people because they were Muslims. And there were atrocities that went the other way, too--it was so bad that the U.S. Government and many Christians were telling the Serbians "stop this."

But were the Serbians saying, "I want to glorify Jesus and therefore I'm going to rape Muslim woman?"

There were pretty strong statements by Serbian Orthodox and Catholic leaders supporting whatever was being done in the name of Serbian nationalism. The church was endorsing it. They weren't endorsing rape and murder, but they were also denying it was happening. It was a blind nationalism that was linked with religion. It's not quite so easy to say Christian violence just happened during the Crusades.

Look at the Phalangists in Lebanon. Who were the people who perpetrated the slaughter of Sabra and Shatila? Those were Christians in Lebanon.

I don't want to be saying all this is equal, but I also want to say that there is a clear pattern in all religious communities. People tend to compare the ideal of their own religion with the flawed reality of everyone else's. So Christians tend to say, "That was in the past" or "We don't really believe that." Here's the classic example in recent memory-Jerry Falwell on 60 Minutes last fall said that Jesus taught a gospel of love, but that Muhammad was a terrorist.

I believe Jesus taught a gospel of love. But if you happen to have been Jewish for the last 2,000 years and on the receiving end of that "love," it certainly hasn't felt very good. That's not ancient history. The Holocaust happened in the last century. It wasn't done in the name of Christianity, but it was done against Jews by a predominantly Christian country. And it was the culmination of a long history of assault on Jews by Christians.

You say all religious groups and sects have the potential to turn evil, but that Christian and Muslims have a much longer track record. Why?

It may be linked to monotheism. I think that's worth really thinking about, because there is a sense in which monotheism and the missionary impulse-common to both faiths--are linked to absolutist claims. I readily admit this is a difficult area to talk about because I'm an ordained Baptist minister and a practicing Christian, and I believe there is one God. But I also believe that even if I possess some "absolute truth" in the sense of a connection with God, and we have to be humble in appropriating what we understand to be absolute truth. I think the problem comes when you lose that humility and think you know the mind of God and that you're carrying this forward oblivious to history.

If monotheism is the issue, why hasn't Judaism become as evil, as often, as Christianity and Islam?

The missionary impulse of Christianity and Islam is part of it--Jews haven't been historically evangelical. And power. When you combine religious conviction with a kind of certainty with political or military power, then you have a much more powerful combination. And Jews haven't been in positions of power until fairly recently. And the excesses that you primarily see have been excesses from Jewish settlers and extremists in the context of Israel-people who have power.

How does "evil religion" relate now to Iraq?

I'll start with my hope, which is that within Islam and Christianity you have teachings about loving God and your neighbor, and living cooperatively with your neighbor. There's a long history of Christians and Muslims living together in Iraq through good times and bad. And they have an opportunity to find new ways of living together with a government that isn't Islamic or Christian.

But when you inject absolutist claims into the mix-people who believe they have all the answers-and we now have an opening for evangelicals to come in and evangelize where before they couldn't do that. Then you have an incendiary dimension.

So you're concerned about evangelical Christian groups doing relief work there?

I'm very concerned about that. This is an extremely dangerous situation. We have groups clearly identified as hostile to Islam coming into a situation where there is already suspicion about the real motives in this war, people who already believe it's between Christianity and Islam.

What incendiary actions might Muslims take?

There are a lot of things. When you have the head of Alazhar University in Cairo calling for a holy war, that's pretty incendiary. There are dangers in all the traditions, but there are many Muslim voices being anything but helpful right now.

Is there some concern they could persecute Christians in Iraq?

No question, and we've seen this in the past. In the former Yugoslavia you had Christians and Muslims living together for a long period of time, and then something went terribly wrong and people were raping and murdering one another.

So you would liken the situation in Iraq as potentially like Bosnia?

It has the potential. Although since the numbers aren't close to equal--the Christian population is very small--Christians could be in a very precarious position. We've seen this in Lebanon, where Christians and Muslims, who were roughly divided, started lining up against each other and taking hostages and developing militias along religious lines.

There are extremists in the Muslim world, no question. There are many millions of Muslims who aren't looking to blow up anything, but they're angry and frustrated and living in situations of oppression, human rights violations, and economic exploitation. A good deal of their anger is focused internally but also at the United States. My concern is if you start lighting matches in a room full of dynamite, you run the risk of driving hundreds of thousands of people into the arms of Osama bin Laden.

Many of the events in the world right now--September 11, terrorism, the war with Iraq, even the Catholic clergy sex scandal--have religion as a major component. Is there any way that religion can play a good role?

Actually, religion is our best hope, and what we have to do is look to the heart of religious traditions to find the guidelines we need to cut through all this. In every major religious tradition you find a teaching that parallels Jesus' teaching to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. That has direct implications for the way you relate to the rest of God's creation. You can't say "I love God" and fly an airplane into a building.

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