A Gentle God

I was in my late teens when I first read Henry Barbusse's Under Fire, a novel set in the first world war trenches. It led me to consider the question: who does God listen to when He is bombarded with the prayers of different nations and religions, all equally convinced that He is on their side?

As I grew up, the questions became more problematic: what kind of god are we talking about? Who would want to follow a supposedly supreme being whose followers regularly take up arms in his name?

While Muslim leaders are urging their followers to look honestly at the health of their faith, Christian bishops are silent. There is almost a total lack of prophetic critique of the west's way of waging war on terrorism and no cries for the Israeli government to end its oppression of the Palestinian people. The Judaeo-Christian religion has evidently nothing to repent. God is on our side. Victory is assured. Or, in the words of President Bush: "We will not falter and we will not fail." The western coalition consists of secular states, and yet we are suddenly hearing a great deal about God from some of our politicians.

American currency bears the words "in God we trust". God Bless America is almost a second anthem. Early on in the recent conflict in Iraq, the press was allowed to photograph US pilots praying together before taking off on a mission. But who are they praying to? Bush even summed up his speech to the US congress on September 20 2001 with the prayer: "In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom." What is this wisdom that he invokes?

Bush is still a president with a mission in his second term. The leader of the world's only superpower has a divine vocation to "defend freedom". Prior to his speech to Congress, Bush was blessed by another president, this time of the Southern Baptist convention, with the words: "I believe you are God's man for this war. God's hand is on you." Bush is no Christian fundamentalist. His religion appears to be a primitive kind of theism, popular among many in mainstream American religion. Bush's agenda, sanctioned by his God, is to root out the evil one(s), with salvation in the guise of America close at hand. He declared in a TV interview, soon after the September 11 attack, that "America is the greatest source of good in the whole of human history". But it is humility that helps to build bridges in times of crisis, not self-righteousness.

Human sacrifice, once an integral part of religious expression, gradually gave way to animal sacrifice as a means of placating or pleasing an angry god. We like to think that we in the enlightened west have long since left such practices behind. But we have not. Perverse ideologies spawned by the Judaeo-Christian heritage still accept as inevitable the sacrifice of innocent people for the common good.

Allied soldiers, who have after all been trained to kill, are in "civilised warfare" and protected at all costs, while civilians (and proxy soldiers) are not granted such luxury. God, forever waiting in the wings, has an insatiable appetite for human blood, and he is not fussy what race, creed or ideology supplies it.

Texts celebrating the cruel demands and exploits of this god abound in Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books. It is incumbent on their teachers to look again at how to deal with scripture that preaches intolerance, violence and oppression. We have seen how divisive religions can be. The challenge is to to discover that which unites religious people, and to act upon it.

We need to rediscover the alternatives to the myth of redemptive violence - the belief that violence saves, war brings peace, might is right. According to the Christian scriptures the crucified Jew challenges us to "love our enemies" (Matthew 5). The Jewish teacher, Paul, in his letter to the Romans, declares: "Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12). This kind of love makes "the other", be they friend or foe, a brother or sister.

Such practice is subversive, because in doing away with an "us-them" mentality, my shelter becomes my enemies' shelter, my food a shared meal with another who could be a criminal or a terrorist. A love that is unconditional is exactly what it says. It is that love that builds a firm foundation for peace with justice, a peace that is the dynamic of operation infinite forgiveness. Herein lies the essence of the life and teaching of the Crucified Jew.

President Bush challenged the world with the words, "are you for us or for our enemies?" Words that were in fact first uttered by Joshua, in the Jewish scriptures (Joshua 5) when confronted by a divine messenger holding a sword. The latter replied: "Neither." On hearing this unexpected reply, Joshua knelt in humility. My hope is that all of us, along with President Bush and his supporters, are doing the same as 2005 continues to unfold.

In search of a gentle God -Geraint ap Iorwerth

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