It is good to be back with you. I spent last weekend riding motorcycles with the Quaker Oatlaws Motorcycle Club and ended up at the Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home in Lincoln City, Indiana, where the accomplishments of President Lincoln were on full display. When we arrived, I thought it looked familiar and my sister told me it was because our parents had taken us there when we were children. She has a memory for things like that and even told me that I had asked our mom and dad if people would ever visit our house since I had grown up there, and that my brother Glenn had called me a moron and flicked me on the ear. I don’t know how she remembered that, but it does sound like something my brother would have done.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people come see where you grew up, where all the good and noble things you’d ever done were on full display? Of course, you wouldn’t want your less noble actions known. On December 26, 1862, Abraham Lincoln authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, when 38 Dakota warriors were hung, despite being promised they would be safe if they surrendered. The Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home made no mention of that. We’re good at concealing our less virtuous traits. Today, many Americans are up in arms about critical race theory, not wanting the full breadth and impact of American racism taught to our children, believing this knowledge will cause them to hate our nation and feel bad about themselves.
When someone is withholding truth under the guise of “saving the children,” you can be assured they’re chiefly concerned with saving themselves. This is true not only in our treatment of history, but in our religious lives, too. Religions are quick to boast about their virtues, while denying their vices. When we were last together, I invited us to consider whether religion was a force for good or a force for evil. As it turns out, it is both, therefore requiring scrutiny and transparency, a complete and honest telling of religion’s virtues, but also its faults, trusting that in the crucible of full knowledge, a more beautiful faith might be forged. I think those were the words we used.
Today, I want to talk about something religion does well, and something it should never do. It is a common habit of all religions, when talking about their contributions to society, for them to claim they provide a moral foundation for the culture they inhabit. All religions believe they are the arbiters of morality, that their society’s moral code is a product of religion. Religions claim to be the creator of morals, principles and ethics, and that without religion we would be immoral, corrupt and depraved. Religions claim that without them there would be no sense of right or wrong. The political columnist and commentator Ben Shapiro expressed this sentiment when he said, “Without God, there is no right and wrong … Anything goes. Life loses value, and with that loss of value comes a loss of societal strength.” So morality is a product of religion, without which there would be ethical and social chaos. I think Ben Shapiro might be a bit naïve.
This is not to say that religious pronouncements about morality can’t be true, helpful and moral. Of course, they can be. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a wonderful moral code. Some variation of that is found in almost every religion. We are indebted to those persons who gave us that wise and simple counsel. Religion is at its very best when it teaches us to treat our fellow beings with the same grace, dignity and compassion we hope for ourselves.
Unfortunately, the religion that teaches us a moral code sometimes demands we ignore, or even forsake, that same moral code. For example, when I became a Quaker, I was told over and over that there was that of God in every person. By this, I inferred that every person, whether Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, pagan, or atheist was loved and cherished by God, and that God was as present in them as God was in me. This assertion of God’s expansive love thrilled me, eventually causing me to become a universalist. Indeed, it thrilled me so much, I wrote a book about it, only to discover that some of the very people who had taught me that great moral code of God’s universal love, now insisted I forsake it, deny it, reject it. Religion at its best urged me to cherish all people, while religion at its worst demanded I not.
Religion at its best has taught us murder is a sin, while religion at its worst has not only endorsed war, but has been the source of much of it.
Religion at its best has taught us to forgive and be reconciled with one another, while religion at its worst has stoked the flames of hatred, division and recrimination.
Religion at its best taught us to share and told us poverty in a world of plenty was an affront to God, while religion at its worst told us our wealth was a sign of God’s favor and a reward for our faithfulness.
Religion at its best taught us marriage was a gift to humankind, a thing to be cherished, and a blessing from God, while religion at its worst denied that gift and blessing to gay people and interracial couples.
Religion at is best has affirmed every high and noble impulse we have ever possessed, while religion at its worst has excused and defended our basest desires.
We are most morally at risk when we see only the light of religion and never its shadow, when we assume the church’s words can only be holy and never evil. When I was a child, I believed the church’s teachings were infallible, without error, and could never be questioned. But now I believe the more loudly a religion claims to be inerrant, the more likely it is to be false, it’s vision and worldview clouded by institutional hubris. Even Abraham Lincoln, who ardently defended the freedom of the African American, was blind to the bondage of the Native American, failing to see how they too had been robbed of justice and liberty. Even the best of us can act like the worst of us.
Thus did the early Quakers remind us to mind the Light, and walk in it daily.