Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Will the real God please stand?

with 2 comments


When Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, or perhaps someone else, played a role in planting a bomb on Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, he apparently felt that he was justified in killing people, since they were deserving for some reason to be punished. When members of al-Qa’eda carried out attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, they were convinced that no innocent people had died. The vary fact that the people who died were either at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center was seen as evidence that the victims were acting against the ways of God and therefore deserved to be punished. The duty of a lover of God, the reasoning seems to go, is to punish those whom God hates and God hates evil-doers. Using exactly that reasoning, the Bush administration initiated the invasion of two sovereign nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the grounds that they were harboring evil-doers who were working against American interests, and therefore against God.

The depiction of God as a wrathful deity who punishes all those who displease him is well represented in the sacred literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was allegedly because God so despised the people of the land of Canaan that he authorized the Hebrews to invade the land of Canaan with an aggressive brutality that today would be called genocidal. Later, the some of the Hebrew prophets were convinced that the brutal assault on Zion by the Babylonians was a natural expression of God’s anger with the Hebrews for their allowing pagan elements to become mixed with the religious observances demanded by God of his chosen people. The Book of Revelations in the Christian scriptures outlines the suffering that will be inflicted on the enemies of God. The Qur’ān warrants the punishment of apostates and the rough treatment of infidels. The claim is made, at least in Islam, that the god of the Hebrews and the Christians and the Muslims is one and the same. This one God is unambiguously punitive. Those who do evil cannot expect to be treated gently.

The punitive God, however, is by no means the only one described in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture. God is also constantly described by the Hebrews as “slow to anger” and “merciful” and “compassionate.” In all three traditions God commands the descendants of Adam to care for orphans, widows, the poor and the powerless. Through (or, for a Trinitarian Christian, as) Jesus, God warns people about to stone an adulteress that the first stone should be thrown by one who is free of sin; no one throws a stone. And Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pas judgment, less judgment be passed on them. John the Evangelist identifies with God as love. The Qur’ān frequently uses the epithets “The Merciful” and “The Compassionate” for God.

It may be less difficult to believe that The Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’ān are all outlining the same characteristics than it is to believe that all those characteristics belong to a single deity. It is difficult to see how the angry, jealous and punitive nature that we read about is some scriptural passages are to be reconciled with the loving, merciful and forgiving nature encountered in other passages. Of course, no one is perfectly consistent, so there is no reason why God could not be as complex and full of contradictions as any human being. The practical problem for human beings arises when they have to decide which of the natures of God they are going to emulate. Should a human being strive to be demanding of perfection and punitive of all who stray into error, or would it be better to strive to be loving and forgiving?

There is no way to answer this question for everyone. Rather, everyone must arrive at his or her own answer. Having arrived at a provisional answer, the next question to ask is whether the answer one has arrived it is divinely guided in some way or whether it comes from other promptings.

If one’s inclination is to be an instrument of divine vengeance and to wield “the terrible swift sword” of God’s wrath, it is worth asking whether one has been chosen to carry out this punitive role or whether one is acting out of one’s own conditioned fear and prejudice. It also worth asking what the consequences might be of being mistaken. What if, for example, one is mistaken in the belief that God wants one to assassinate an abortionist or go to a crowded bazaar and detonate explosives strapped to one’s body? How will one rectify the error? Can one rectify such an error?

If one’s inclination is to be merciful and compassionate and to be an instrument of divine love, it is equally worth asking whether one’s intended actions are truly spirit-led or whether one is acting out of cowardice or moral laziness or a desire to be liked by one’s fellows. And, as in the other case, it is worth reflecting on what the consequences might be of being mistaken. If one were mistaken, would this be an unrecoverable error, one that would lead to certain damnation?

If one cannot be certain of the source of one’s promptings, on which side is it better to err? It is better to err on the side of being too forgiving or on the side of being too harshly punitive? Which sort of error, if an error there be, is least likely to violate the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself and treat others as one would like to be treated?

What seems most likely to me is that most people, if they are acting in an inappropriate way, would rather be remonstrated with and shown a better example to follow than to be stoned to death, shot or bombed. It is difficult for me to see in what way those punishments could be construed as any kind of love. They are certainly hard to see as expressions of love of one’s neighbor. For me, they are equally difficult to see as expressions of love of God. If such actions were to be delightful, or even acceptable to God, then I would have to wonder whether I would be willing to continue my relationship with such a God. I think not.

And because I think I would not be willing to approve of a deity who would require that those who love him mutilate or kill those who are perceived to be enemies of the Good, I am also inclined to think that all passages of scripture in which God commands, for example, that disobedient sons be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death or that citizens of a neighboring country should be put to the sword for their idolatry, are not the words of God at all’ rather, they are the words of frightened, greedy or deluded human beings seeking to justify destructive actions by pretending that those actions have the stamp of God’s approval.

I may, of course, be mistaken. But if I am, it is a mistake with the consequences I am willing to live. And if the mistake is one that forfeits reconciliation with God, I am willing to live and die with that condition.

Where do you stand?

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 17:00

Posted in Faith and practice

2 Responses

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  1. Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
    Marcus Aurelius.

    I think it matches the spirit of tour post perfectly.

    Francisco Peredo

    Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 22:07

  2. Typo: I think it matches the spirit of your post perfectly.

    Francisco Peredo

    Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 22:09


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