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Love or terror?

Colin Gibson



A sermon preached at the Mornington and Glenaven Methodist churches, 18 April 2004

I start with the simple question, will we allow love or terror to rule our world?

A passenger train is blown off the rails in Madrid and hundreds die or suffer injuries;  on the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories a gigantic concrete wall snakes across the countryside,  dividing farmers from their fields and people from the villages;  passengers boarding even domestic flights at Momona airport must pass their luggage through an Xray machine and are taken aside and searched if they ping that machine as they go through a security door;  in Iraq, hostages are taken — their captors threaten to burn them alive if their government doesn’t pull out its peace-keeping forces;  in Northern Ireland,  masked men cripple for life someone they suspect to be a traitor to their cause by firing bullets through his kneecaps — loyalty in others is to be guaranteed through fear of such appalling retribution;  the killer of many defenceless Tutsi women and children sheltering in a Christian church in Rwanda calmly explains to a radio reporter that he himself was threatened with death if he didn’t kill his neighbours;  a New Zealand woman pleads before a court that her murder of her partner was a desperate act to defend herself and her children from the nightly and intolerable terror of his drunken violence;  two passenger planes filled with ordinary Americans slam into the Twin Towers in New York in a suicide attack that will kill thousands of innocent victims.

Terrorism:  it fills our daily news,  it preoccupies governments desperate to protect their citizens.   It haunts the lives of millions of people.   If only they’d leave us to read the comic strips.

Of course,  we needn’t worry too much about terrorism.   Terrorism has to do with politics,  not religion.   And if it does involve religion,  it must be the fault of those murderous Muslims,  or revengeful Israelis.   To our minds,  terrorism is something that other people do to populations far away overseas.   Shocking,  but not us.   Unthinkable,  here in peaceful Christian Aotearoa-New Zealand?   Or is it?

You've heard the words of the founder of our faith in today's reading  (Matthew 5:43-48).   Christ speaks of the rejection of hatred,  of quiet submission to injury,  of unstinting love without discrimination: of doing good to all as generously as the sun rises daily over the earth,  as rain descends on the just and the unjust.   Astonishing to think that the Church created to honour such teachings should itself turn so soon to terror as an instrument of power and coercion.   (Possibly only 70 years after the death of Christ,  if the Book of Revelation dates from that time.)

Religious terrorism?   Now there’s a thought.   Yes, terrorism — by which I mean the use of extreme fear to compel another human being into doing what you want them to do.   And the Christian Church stands as guilty of practising religious terrorism as does any other religion,  terrorism practised from time to time throughout its long history,  and occurring even today.

What are the instruments of Christian religious terrorism?   Have you ever thought about these things?
      A terrifying image of God as all-powerful,  all-seeing,  strict judge of the living and the dead;   the final guardian of moral purity;  the one who intervenes in human history to strike down the wicked and guilty;   a father capable of delivering his own son to a dreadful death to satisfy his own absolute moral demands.

A terror-ridden image of all human beings as guilty of sin from the moment of their conception;  creatures who must strive to reach the perfect purity of God,  without any hope of success.   A race which has accumulated an impossible,  mountain-high debt of moral failure,  sin and wickedness — the so-called ‘price of sin’.

The threat of never-ending suffering in a specially created fiendish place of torture called Hell:  the special refinement of cruelty being that that the victim cannot find release in death.

‘Sacred’ scriptures — that is, writings which are presented to us as above any criticism or dispute,  because  (so we are told)  they have the absolute authority of God himself.   Within the protection of such authority,  these scriptures contain texts which describe terrible acts of divine destruction,  authorise violence against sinners,  and demonise whole groups of human beings.

The use by Christians of extreme physical violence,  torture and even murder,  to cow unbelievers into believing,  or frighten believers into remaining loyal to doctrines or the authority of the Church.   This includes such practices as the ritual burning of witches and heretics — remember the Inquisition;  the destruction of the victim’s way of life and property;  in some cases ethnic cleansing.

The use of psychological terrorism,  which plays on the mind and imagination of the victim,  inducing fear and dread to the point where the victim surrenders all resistance and may even be left spiritually and psychologically crippled for life.   Think of the instances of child abuse which are now coming to light in New Zealand.

The practice of economic terrorism:  typically,  threats to withdraw membership and financial support from a congregation or a Church if its practices or beliefs do not suit the terrorist.

A Church which claims the power to ostracise sinners from human society and condemn them to eternal damnation.   A Church which has shown itself capable of devising ritual humiliations and punishments for those who contravene its rules and teachings.   An institution which sometimes actually organises and promotes deeds of religious terrorism.

Ordinary people,  ‘Christian’ people —  church leaders,  ministers,  officials and lay men and women — who themselves act as agents of terror,  or incite oppressive,  violent and hateful behaviour in others.

These are some of the more important instruments of Christian terrorism.   Do we still feel (comfortably) that terrorism never happens in God’s zone?

What are the evidences of such religious terrorism?   The history of the Christian Church in its many forms and denominations,  from its distant past to its immediate present might supply thousands of examples.   But here are just two.

The Wesley Banner and Revival Record for January 1851  (only sixty years after the death of John Wesley)  printed an article for its subscribers headed  ‘Children are Fallen Creatures’.   The writer reminded his readers that 

‘Millions of parents whose children once seemed as lovely as yours,  have seen their lives to an equal extent wicked and their end wretched.   Your children possess the same fallen nature;  and if you allow them to walk in the way of transgressors, this may be their case…

This dear but giddy girl is a child of Satan:  he rules in her vain and trifling heart.   This beloved youth is in subjection to Satan;  and with him,  into his direful place of endless torment,  he must descend if he dies a stranger to the grace of God.

Imagine you see one of your cherished ones sinking into that abyss of woe.   Mortal life has closed;  the spirit has left the frail tabernacle;  the day of grace is ended;  the soul,  laden with its guilt,  has departed;  it is sinking into the burning lake!   Oh,  what are its shrieks,  its wailings,  its horror!   Can you bear this,  mothers?   I ask you — I appeal to you — I appeal to myself — could we bear to think of our precious children sinking beneath the waves of that lake and the wrath of the Lamb?   Can you endure the idea of that now smiling countenance being full of eternal anguish?   Yet it must be,  it will be,  unless your child walks in the narrow way.’


For a modern example take Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion,  which sets out to shock and horrify its audiences into a deep sense of guilt and shame at the sins they have heaped on the tormented body of Christ;  or gratitude that someone else took the rap.   I don’t know whether I am more angered by the implication that we should worship Christ because he out–did everyone else in the agony of his suffering and death;  the doctrine that God’s sense of justice was satisfied by this outrage;  or the morality of churches which sent congregations including children as young as fifteen,  to be edified by such slaughterous violence.

Which brings me to ask:  how can we deal with Christian religious terrorism?   Is our world to be dominated by love or terror?   What can I do about it?

I suggest that the first step is come to terms with the sad knowledge that throughout the life of the Christian Church there have been institutional and individual acts of terrorism;  even whole periods when fanatical Christians have instituted a reign of terror.   Nice,  good souls that we are,  let us learn from that never to be shocked into adopting the tactics of terrorists,  even in the face of outrageous provocation.

The second step is to absolutely refuse to accept fear and dread as legitimate ways of bringing the kingdom of God into existence on earth.   Christ is the Word of Love.   If we are true followers of Christ there can be no justification for terrorizing or demonising other people — whatever the pretext.   Frankly,  I am appalled by the implications of that old saying,  ‘I am going to  ‘put the fear of God’ into someone  (usually by the use of violence).

Do whatever you can to confront,  tear down and replace the image of the Terror–God — even if that means rejecting some of your own long–cherished beliefs and replacing them with saner and more life–affirming alternatives.   I’m going to be provocative here;  but I say that we should consign to the rubbish bag of history talk of  ‘acts of God’  (by which we mean natural catastrophes);  expectations of a Last Judgement which will send the wicked  (that is,  those others,  never ourselves)  to hell as a final place of punishment:  even — dare I suggest — the whole idea of Christ’s death as God’s deliberate infliction of dreadful suffering as satisfactory punishment for the collective wickedness of humankind.

Here is something else we can do.   Stand tall as a spiritual human being,  and teach your children to stand tall,  too.   I believe that I have no obligation to accept St Augustine’s opinion that I was a sinner in God’s eyes from the moment of my conception,  or John Wesley’s estimate of me as a ‘helpless worm’ before the face of God.   I neither accept that,  because I am human,  I am guilty or vile.   Join me.

Get into modern biblical understandings:  learn how to challenge the mindless belief in the literal truth and absolute authority of every word in the ancient texts that fuels fanatical attitudes and aggressive fundamentalism.

Resist and challenge every temptation to practice your own version of physical,  psychological or economic terrorism,  in order to protect your own beliefs or to change the beliefs of others.   It is so easy in a fit of anger or resentment to turn into a little terrorist.   And you can also learn to identify and resist the terrorizing behaviour of other people;  stand up for their victims and be prepared to bind up their wounds.   They will be deep.

Finally,  and above all,  actively practise love,  love of a loving God and love of your neighbours,  whoever they may be.   Love freely given to all those with whom you come into contact;  love like the warmth of the sun rising on a cold dawn;  love like the fresh wetness of rain falling on a dry and dusty plain.



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