When Religion Becomes Evil

A propensity toward evil within religious communities always provides warning signs, says Charles Kimball, professor, Baptist minister, and expert analyst on the Middle East. In his new book, he outlines five basic corruptions that all religions are susceptible to: absolute truth claims; blind obedience to charismatic and powerful leaders; the establishment of an "ideal" time in which religious groups and individuals will correct problems in society—a timeframe to which all society members are held; an end goal or outcome that justifies any means of reaching it—"ethnic" cleansing, for example; and declaring holy war, which often occurs when religious traditions are connected to political power. Kimball's book describes all five—and how to recover what is best and healthy in all religious traditions.

As human institutions, all religions are subject to corruption. The major religions that have stood the test of time have done so through an ongoing process of growth and reform, a process that continually connects people of faith—Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others—with the life-sustaining truths at the heart of their religion. The religions differ in many ways, of course, but they converge in teaching both an orientation toward God or the transcendent and compassionate, constructive relationships with others in this world. Jesus captured the essence of this in response to a question about the greatest commandment:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

At the heart of all authentic, healthy, life-sustaining religions, one always finds this clear requirement. Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed. When religion becomes evil, these corruptions are always present. Conversely, when religion remains true to its authentic sources, it is actively dismantling these corruptions, a process that is urgently needed now. Unlike generations that have gone before us, the consequences today of corrupted religion are both dire and global.

The challenges before us are formidable and deadly serious. They do not, however, constitute insurmountable obstacles. The ability to resist evil resides with individuals, and individuals make up religious groups. Human responsibility—for people within religious communities and those with no religious affiliation—is the vital component in any effort to alter destructive attitudes and actions.

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From When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball. Copyright © 2002 HarperSanFrancisco. Used with permission.

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