One of the suggestions that is being made these days, ever more insistently, is that society is in turmoil because religion has been shunted aside to the margins of modernity. Man's evil inclination is under less and less restraint. Man does not fear God, so nothing restrains him from using the dazzling new powers of modern invention for wicked ends.
This claim, that religion will save us from turmoil and fear, is being made from both ends of the spectrum of faith. In several of the major religious communities, the Orthodox, the true believers, insistently proclaim that, in the words of an old song from the American South, we must return to that "Ole Time Religion." The liberals in the various traditions keep insisting that religion teaches men and women to live not for themselves but for all of mankind. If only believers would agree to live by its law of love, the world would be transformed into the kingdom of heaven on earth.
These outcries are wrong. Religion is as much the problem as it is the solution. Throughout human history, to this very day, the major religious traditions of both East and West have encouraged violence against the supposed "enemies of God" or have countenanced it by looking away. Religions continue to act, right now before our eyes, as the cheerleaders of hatred. In the former Yugoslavia, Croats, Serbs, and Muslims have been slaughtering each other because the extremists in each of the camps reassure themselves that they are doing what the Catholic God or the Orthodox God or Allah of the Muslims wants them to do. In the Middle East, Muslim extremists are certain that by blowing themselves up and taking a busload of civilians with them to death, they are on the road straight to Paradise. A Jewish extremist could shoot Muslim worshipers in the back at prayer in Hebron, and another could assassinate Prime Minister Rabin, in good conscience, because they were helping God keep His ancient promise that the Holy Land would belong entirely to Jews. In India, Hindus and Muslims can kill each other, in good conscience, over the possession of a disputed shrine or over control of disputed territories, and all in the name of God.
Some decades ago, the dominant opinion in the world was that religious fanaticism was waning. The global village was supposedly being created by ever more instant communication and by wide desire to belong to the consumer society. Now, at the end of the century, we know that the global village is troubled and threatened by many conflicts. The wars of religion are becoming ever more dangerous and explosive. They are a major threat to the peace of the world.
This alarm needs to be raised not from outside the religious community, that is, by people who will be heard as the enemies of faith; on the contrary, it needs to come from the very center of the major religions of the world. We who are the believers must lead the way toward a catharsis of the religions. It must begin with a global mea culpa.
At a less primitive point in the history of religion, these outsiders might, at best, be converted or "enlightened." They will be kept in inferior status if they refuse to accept the truth that the self-proclaimed elite puts before them. So it goes, to our own day, where all over the world communities are proclaiming that God is with them and that He is the Lord who leads them in His holy wars and guarantees their ultimate victory.
At some early point in its history, each of the great religious traditions has produced leaders and seers who have taken a stand against this parochialism. In words that are often very nearly the same, Eastern and Western prophets and teachers have insisted that justice and peace cannot be limited to one's own community. All of humankind is our responsibility. In the Hebrew Bible, the religious text that I know best, there is fierce insistence that the slaves who escaped from Egypt would now be led by God to conquer the promised land, destroy the seven nations who dwelt there, and keep the land as their own possession. But in the very text of the Hebrew Bible, these slaves are reminded, again and again, that they must be kind and just to outsiders because they were once outsiders in the land of Egypt. The prophet Amos doubted the doctrine that the Jews alone had been especially chosen by God. He was equally present when the Philistines moved into the land of Canaan from an island in the Mediterranean. Amos added that the children of Israel are no more precious to God than the Ethiopians, or any other people. This prophet of Israel does not stand alone in the history of religion. Such rebels against ethnic parochialism arose in all the traditions to deny that God wants holy wars in His name.
The struggle between these two forms of religion is as far from being won now as it has ever been. It is perhaps more dangerous today because the means of destruction that can be wielded supposedly in God's name are far more dangerous now than ever before. The issue is harder to confront at this very moment because the religions have become largely immune from criticism from within. As in ancient times, those who would call the holy warriors to account are dismissed, or killed, as the enemies of God. The false prophets strut about, machine guns in hand, while the true prophets hide or tremble, but an end must be made of these fears. The word must go out that religion is not a throwback to the fierceness of the faith of cavemen. Religion is the teaching of the soul that makes each of us open to the other, to all the others.