Sacred Journeys

“I believe the Koran teaches violence, not peace.”

— the Rev. Franklin Graham

“Samuel also said unto Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel; now therefore hearken though unto the voice of the words of the Lord.

“‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'”

— 1 Samuel 15:1-3
King James Bible

“Only God can determine who is ultimately good or evil,” proclaims Pastor Carter Pounders of The Body, a Christian house of worship in downtown Asheville.

Terrorists in the Middle East are denouncing America as the Great Satan and calling for jihad, a holy war against what they see as the repressive imperialism of the U.S. and its allies. And in the spirit of the Old Testament patriarchs, President Bush is responding in kind, vowing to rid the world of evildoers in a war that, ironically, was initially dubbed Operation Infinite Justice. Framing the conflict as good vs. evil, he’s calling on the entire world to take up arms and stand shoulder to shoulder with America.

Like President Bush, Carter Pounders is a born-again Christian. His mission, he says, is to “raise up disciples for the Lord Jesus Christ.” The doors of his church are open to all comers; hot coffee and free food are often available for those in need. The sounds of praise and worship spill out into the streets: electric guitars, drums and tambourines.

But Bush’s rhetoric worries Pounders; he’s leery of the implicit danger of tying religion to a specific patriotic response. “To call the war a struggle between good and evil … for me, it’s like Pearl Harbor. When Pearl Harbor happened, everyone saw Japan as evil. It wasn’t because of who they worship or what they espouse,” muses Pounders. “You killed our people, so you’re evil. I’m sure if I was an Afghan peasant and an American bomb went in the wrong direction and killed my people, I would think America is evil.” After a moment of reflection, he adds, “We all have the infinite capacity to justify ourselves and vilify others.”

Asheville resident Eamon Martin is even more explicit in expressing his abhorrence for the president’s uncompromising rhetoric. “We are witnessing a coalition of patriotism and religion in its most barbaric form,” declares Martin, an editor at the Asheville Global Report.

Like many local folks, he claims no affiliation with any particular religion. Martin says he finds the common vernacular of religion and spirituality inadequate to express the meaning he finds in his own spiritual life. But in his opinion, Bush’s words and actions are a gross perversion of everything Christianity claims to represent; the president’s rhetoric, says Martin, serves only to exacerbate the existing hostilities. “One way you rally a mass amount of people to justify slaughtering and killing another mass of people is by dehumanizing the enemy and making them out to be subhuman.”

In this, Martin seems to be in agreement with Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of many books on early Christian history. In her monumental work The Origins of Satan, Pagels documents the birth of the Christian concept of a cosmic war between God and Satan, tracing it to the apocalyptic literature of the first century, when certain Jewish sects in Palestine were in revolt against the Roman Empire.

“The use of Satan [as the embodiment of evil] to represent one’s enemies lends a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation” to conflict, she writes. This technique, continues Pagels, “has proven extraordinarily effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups.” But that same history, notes Pagels, also amply demonstrates how this approach can be used to “justify hatred, even mass murder.”

Pounders is also troubled by recent remarks of the Rev. Franklin Graham, who has publicly denounced Islam as an evil religion. “I don’t see … a pagan or a Jew or a Muslim as the enemy, as the opponent,” counters Pounders. “It’s someone who I’d love to share the good news of the Gospel with.”

Pounders’ own journey to understanding truth, he says, formed in him the conviction that the only way to know God is through Jesus Christ. This conviction, he asserts, requires him to “give myself wholly to it and reject everything that contradicts it.” And through his contacts with Muslims in his ministry in prisons and juvenile facilities, says Pounders, he arrived at the conclusion that Islam contradicts what God revealed to him. “Because it contradicts what I believe to be the truth, I must reject it.”

Pounders, however, is quick to note that “the pastor at 70 N. Lexington Ave. doesn’t determine who goes to heaven or hell.” Unswerving in his belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, Pounders nonetheless reminds himself that “Jesus Christ loves them [Jews, pagans, Muslims] every bit as much as me, died for them as much as [for] me, and if they happen to be the enemy, I have to love them even more. I mean, if I classify them as ‘enemy,’ then I have to go even the extra mile and love them even more and do them even more good.”

Martin, however, contends that Bush and Graham’s inflammatory rhetoric merely serves as a smoke screen for ulterior motives. “Better for them that we sit still and pray and blindly, passively accept authoritarian doctrine than engage in our democratic responsibilities,” Martin maintains. “As always, religion works best to reify stations of privilege and power, and as the stakes get higher, faith and religion become an even-more-indispensable tool for furthering private agendas by the mass manipulation of the people by fear.”

To Martin, “The whole comic-book language of good and evil is a horrific lie. … It’s inherently wrong.” An enemy, argues Martin, makes a convenient scapegoat for people with unstated agendas. “It’s more useful to have an enemy. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history … the American people [being] served up with some Godzilla-like monster like Quaddafi, or Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire.’ These so-called villains are paraded in front of the American republic to justify the globalization of capitalism. That’s why the whole world is outraged. The outside world is more keenly aware of the lies and manipulations of the U.S. government.”

Pagels, meanwhile, laments what she sees as Christians’ tendency to identify themselves with Jesus and their “opponents, whether Jews, pagans, or heretics, with forces of evil, and so with Satan.” But she doesn’t stop there.

At the end of The Origins of Satan, Pagels highlights an alternative approach. She cites the examples of two devout Christians — St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King — whom she says were able to believe that they “stood on God’s side without demonizing their opponents. Their religious vision,” continues Pagels, “inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil, often risking their well-being and their lives, while praying for the reconciliation — not the damnation — of those opposed to them.”

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