“Love for the World” Colchester Federated Church, March 11, 2018, (John 3:14-21) Fourth Sunday in Lent

I’m currently reading a book called Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the United Kingdom for over 20 years.  He’s one of the most important religious voices for our time, not an exaggeration.  In the book, Rabbi Sacks explores the connection between religion and violence.  It’s not a light beach read, though it’s compelling.  Think about it, have you ever heard people say that religion inevitably leads to violence?  Or that religion and violence are connected?  Think of some of the lyrics from the famous song “Imagine” by John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.  Nothing to kill or die for.  And no religion too.”  There are folks who think that this world would be a more peaceful place without any religion.  Because religion inevitability divides people.

When we look around the world today, we can see violence carried out in the name of religion or at minimum with religious overtones.  There’s a refugee crisis happening right now in Myanmar.  (If we only follow U.S. news sources we may not be hearing much about it.)  Muslim Rohingyas are being expelled from their country by the military in this predominately Buddhist country.  It’s estimated that 700,000 people have fled into neighboring Bangladesh seeking refuge because of horrific crimes committed against them by the military.  Just this week, the Holocaust Museum here in the United States rescinded an award that they had previously given to the leader of Myanmar (Aung San Suu Kyi) for failing to denounce and stop the military campaign against the Muslim Rohingyas.  The United Nations has even said that acts of genocide are suspected and at least five mass graves have been found.  This is happening right now where a Muslim minority is being attacked and driven from their own county by the Buddhist majority.[1]

Myanmar is a stark example of religious violence.  Though lest we think this isn’t an issue that concerns our own country, some have said that the most segregated time in American society is still Sunday morning as people go to their various churches.  And consider some of the history of Christianity—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials.  People can use these examples and think that Christianity is an inherently violent religion.  The KKK consider themselves Christian.  Westboro Baptist Church who pickets at funerals and other events holding up signs with hateful messages—consider themselves Christian.  We could argue that they fail to truly understand the teachings of Jesus—“blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” “but love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . . be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[2]

The point is that we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that religion and violence never go together.  Unfortunately current events and history teach us otherwise.  This passage that we heard today in John’s Gospel can give us pause as we contemplate the relationship between religion and violence.  Consider these words from the Gospel according to John: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already . . . and this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”[3]  Light and darkness.  Evil.  Judgment.  The language matters, right?

Now Rabbi Sacks writes about a concept called pathological dualism.  It’s a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the world’s complexities, and leads to some of the worst crimes in history.  (Crimes committed during the Crusades, pogroms, witch hunts, and mass murders.)  Pathological dualism makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies.  It leads you to see yourself as a victim.  It allows you to be cruel, hate, or even kill in the name of God.[4]  Basically it’s us versus them deeply internalized and then violently acted upon.  Sometimes the language used when people are in the depths of pathological dualism is children of the light and children of the dark.  Labeling other people as evil because they are not like us.  Moreover, God loves us and hates them.

When reading Not in God’s Name and knowing that this was the Gospel text this week with all the imagery John loves of light and dark, us versus them, evil deeds, judgment—I had this moment of putting my hands to my head and asking how do we possibly reconcile this in our Christian tradition knowing about the damage this language has done and can do?  People loving light versus people loving darkness.  Yikes!  In addition, the Lectionary in Lent is so heavy.  These Gospel texts don’t lend themselves to happy clappy sermons.  And life is hard enough without feeling burdened at church by the weight of our tradition sometimes not being used to show God’s love for the world.

Well, we’re not alone in this exploration.  God is with us.  Yet we can’t pretend that this divisive language isn’t there.  We can question and wrestle with it.  God gave us hearts and brains to use, for God’s glory.  So we do hear that “people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”  It implies that light is good and lovable and that dark is bad and unlovable.  What are the implications for race?  How does this sound keeping in mind that some people have dark skin and some people have light skin?  Does this imply that light is white is good?  And that dark is black is bad?  It may for some people on an unconscious level.  As Christians grounded in Jesus’ words to be merciful as God is merciful, we can call out the evil of racism.  Texts like this can make us hyper vigilant and aware of how they could be used to demean people.

I majored in History in college for a reason.  I love history, and if I ever have a breakdown and leave ministry my back-up plan has always been teaching history like my mother did.  Knowing the historical context of the Bible really matters.  When the Gospel according to John was written, the community to whom John was writing was in the midst of a difficult time to say the least.  Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us that the Gospel of John was written during an intra-Jewish debate.  We can think of it as being written at the height of a family fight.  There were Jews who came to believe in Jesus as Messiah and they were in conflict with those who didn’t.  Lewis explains that, “John is writing for a community that had been ostracized for belief in Jesus and now needed to hear what Jesus means in no uncertain terms.  The absolution of this Gospel, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me’ is an example of this kind of sectarian language, representative of a community that sees itself as most certainly outsiders, but then in a position of having to justify to themselves and to others their choice to follow and believe in Jesus.”[5]  The us versus them language makes sense throughout John’s Gospel because of the circumstances happening at the time it was written.  This community was the minority.  They were outsiders.  And they got ostracized.  Always, always, always keep this context in mind when hearing this language.

In Christianity we do believe that God loved the world so much that God gave us Jesus.  But does that belief that we hold so close in our own faith mean that we have to condemn every other religion?  I sure hope not.  Because that doesn’t have to be how we practice Christianity.  That doesn’t have to be our God who we know has a depth of love for the world we can’t even begin to comprehend.

This all makes me think of a personal story that a beloved former parishioner told me.  She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and faithfully attended her Presbyterian Church every Sunday.  There wasn’t a lot of diversity in her hometown in the middle of coal country.  When she moved to Massachusetts, she began encountering people who were very different from her.  For the first time in her life, she had neighbors who were not Christian like her.  They were Jewish.  Now she had learned and believed from the time of her childhood in the church that good Christians go to heaven and everyone else goes to hell.  That’s just the way it is and that’s what God intends for humanity.  You’re either with us or against us.

Then one day, she looked out her window and saw one of the neighborhood boys riding his bike around their street.  He was right around the same age as her own sons.  And he was Jewish from a good Jewish family.  My former parishioner looked at that boy out her window and asked herself, “Do you really think God’s going to send that child to hell just because he’s not Christian?”  The answer that came to her in her heart was a profound no.  God loves that child just as much as God loves my child.  God loves the whole world.  She told me this story twice during my time as her pastor because it was such a profound moment on her faith journey.  The love of God and the love God has for us (all of us!) overwhelmed the Christian theology of exclusion she had been taught and it profoundly changed her outlook.  This simple moment of watching that little Jewish boy riding his bike around their neighborhood and knowing deep in her heart that God loved him too profoundly changed her.

Light and dark.  Us and them.  Good and evil.  Heaven and hell.

Our world needs a lot less duality and judgment and a whole lot more compassion.  For God loves this world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Stephanie Nebehay and Simon Lewis, “‘Acts of Genocide’ “suspected against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar”, Reuters, March 7, 2018  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-rights/acts-of-genocide-suspected-against-rohingya-in-myanmar-u-n-idUSKCN1GJ163
[2] Matthew 5:9 and Luke 6:35-36, NRSV.
[3] John 3:18-20.
[4] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, 54.
[5] Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, 5-6.