August 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 1

The Difference Between Good And Bad Religion

By Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of lightning in the skyJesus was a deeply religious man who had his greatest difficulty with deeply religious people. As far as we know, he never met an atheist in his life.

His problem was not religion against irreligion. It was one kind of religion against another kind. Historically, we have assumed that the conflict was between Judaism and Christianity. But the truth is that Jesus himself was born into, grew up in, and faithfully practiced the Jewish faith.

Both he and his opponents believed in the same God, studied the same scriptures, worshiped in this in the temple, observed the same feast days and accepted the same basic doctrines.

Jesus freely acknowledged the spiritual kinship. He wanted his disciples to "do everything and observe everything" that the scribes and Pharisees taught them. And the reason he gave for their doing this was because the scribes and Pharisees had succeeded Moses as the teachers of Israel.

The conflict between Jesus and his opponents was not one of religion against another religion, such as Jews against Christianity or Christians against Muslims. It was a family feud. It was a disagreement within the same religious tradition.. All faiths have conflict with something and someone in their religious faith.

We Christians have often interpreted this struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel in a very self-serving way. We have taken it to mean that Christianity has always been right and that Judaism is wrong. The issue is not that simple.

One cannot distinguish between good religion, and bad religion by merely checking the labels. If it happens to be our particular brand, that makes it good. If it wears any other label, that makes it bad. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It can clearly be seen today within the Islamic faith. The late Ayatollah Khomeini regarded everyone who opposed him and his policies as an enemy of God. He sent young men of Iran into war, promising them that all who were killed in the conflict would go straight to heaven, because they died resisting the enemies of God. This perverted idea was put forth in the name of Islam.

We are all aware of the violence, suffering and death created today based on that belief. This is a distorted expression of the Muslim true faith. Most Muslims are fair-minded and peace-loving, eager to win converts perhaps, but disdainful of the notion that people of other cultures and other religions are enemies to be killed.

This same disparity has often been seen in our own Christian faith. We know that in our own Christian faith. We know that the 12th and 13th centuries produced those tragic events known as the Crusades. They were military expeditions inspired by religious zeal. Their purpose was to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land and repopulate that region with Christians. The primary result was the senseless slaughter of untold thousands of people. The Crusades constitute one of the darkest chapters in Christian history.

A painting of Saint FrancisBut the same period produced a young man named Francis Bernardone, from the small Italian Village of Assisi. We know him as St. Francis. He is the one who prayed and taught others to pray: "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love."

Two totally different expressions for the very same faith – one inspiring war, the other praying for peace.

Good religion is deeply committed to meeting human need, whenever and wherever it may be found. That objective is always high on its list of priorities.

When a family is of work and out of food, good religion will be there with a sack of groceries and a word of encouragement. When hearts are broken, good religion will be there to share the grief. When sin has devastated a life, good religion will be there to care, to understand and, if need be, to forgive.

Jesus said: "The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest." A serious commitment to practice service is one difference between good religion and bad religion.

Good religion and bad religion - the world has too little of one and too much of the other. What kind is yours and mine?

Remembering that all religions can have both good and bad aspects, we need to discern the good within our own religion and practice it. Remember, it's really a family affair and we must be strong as a member of that family with positive beliefs.