December 08, 2005
Real and phony sacrifice and persecution
It is clear that the people of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who have been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq read the Bible quite differently from publicly pious people like the Pat Robertsons in our midst, who seem to see god as their own personal hit man, carrying out revenge on those who annoy them. Robertson sees nothing wrong with advocating cold-blooded murder of a head of state and seemingly wishing for God to actually punish the people of Dover, PA for their rejection of intelligent design. (See Mike Argento's very funny column about Robertson's "patwahs" against people who offend him.)
CPT members are not missionaries. They instead seem to want to work quietly to bring about reconciliation, even at the risk of personal harm. Their capture in Iraq happened to coincide with the twenty fifth anniversary of the murder of the four churchwomen in El Salvador. Two of them, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, were from the Cleveland area. These women, along with Archbishop Oscar Romero were murdered by the notorious "death squads" in El Salvador during the reign of terror there, when its government was supported in power by the US. For all of them, their only crime was that they worked to uplift the poor and the downtrodden of that country. Another religious group in Cleveland, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America also does wonderful work for peace and social justice in that region.
It is the actions of people and groups like these that make me still have some good feelings about religion, even though I do not believe in a god myself. It is out of respect and admiration for such people that I think I can never be the kind of militant atheist who issues blanket condemnations of religion or actively seeks to undermine other people's faith. If someone's beliefs make them spend their lives in the service of the powerless, righting wrongs, and seeking to promote peace and justice and end oppression even at the cost of real danger to themselves, then it is not my place to seek to undermine those beliefs. Religious people like them are, because of the strength of their faith, doing far more for the good of the world than I have ever done or can hope to do. It is what people do because of their beliefs that matter, not just what they believe, and even less what they say they believe.
When Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O'Reilly and Gibson and Falwell cash in for publicity and money by creating phony issues like the so-called 'war on Christmas,' it is easy to see how fraudulent their actions are by comparison with these genuine martyrs. They seem to think that because store clerks don't say "Merry Christmas" to them, or that "holiday" trees are being lit up and not "Christmas" trees, they are being somehow persecuted, that they somehow see themselves as heirs of Saint Stephen. If I ever met these people, what I would ask them is if they have ever suffered, in any tangible way, for their religious beliefs. Have they ever been threatened with death, beaten up, lost their jobs, or had their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed because of their Christian beliefs? What is the worst thing that has ever happened to them that they can lay at the feet of anti-Christian actions?
It is an insult to the memory of people like Romero, Kazel, Donovan, Rajasingham-Tiranagama, and the CPT members in Iraq, for Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O'Reilly to equate service to Christianity with trivialities such as how people greet each other in December. I think that the kinds of people who get all worked up over trivial religious symbolism are the very ones who will abandon their beliefs with alacrity at the slightest risk to them personally, either physically or materially. I don't think they would even have to be threatened with bodily harm. It would not surprise me in the least if O'Reilly, Gibson, Falwell and their ilk immediately converted to worshiping in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster because they believed that the blessings of His Noodly Appendage would improve their ratings.
I don't think this bunch of religious opportunists realize, or even care, how much they turn people off religion, as long as they have the spotlight on them. When I first came to the US, I was still religious and a believer. But I remember being nauseated by the televangelists with their relentless sucking up to people with money and power, and their lack of serious concern for the poor or for issues of social justice. The public piety of high profile evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, who were subsequently exposed as hypocrites and conmen, was sickening to watch. I was revolted at the crassness and the superficiality of the message such people preached. I won't go so far as to say that these people started me on the path to atheism, but they certainly made it easier for me to break my strong emotional ties to Christianity and the church. The actions of O'Reilly and company, rather than 'saving' Christianity, are simply making it easier for the next generation of atheists to come into being.
POST SCRIPT 1: Who knew?
It turns out that there actually is a war against Christmas. It has been formally declared and everything. There is even a film called The God Who Wasn't There, produced by Beyond Belief Media that was released in May 2005. This organization's President Brian Flemming, a former fundamentalist Christian who is now an atheist activist, says “Christian conservatives complain nonstop about the ‘War on Christmas,’ but there really isn’t any such war. So we have decided to wage one, to demonstrate what it would look like if Jesus’ birthday were truly attacked.”
Jesus' General reviews the film in his own inimitable style.
Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report also comes to the defense of Christmas.
...And Jon Stewart joins in the fun too, ridiculing O'Reilly for his silliness.
POST SCRIPT 2: Speaker about recent events in New Orleans
UPDATE: Due to a car accident involving several aid workers in New Orleans, including one death and several people being hospitalized, Malik Rahim, Katrina activist, will have to cancel his speaking engagement for this Monday, Dec. 12th at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.
From commenter Cathie:
Malik Rahim co-founder of Common Ground Relief Collective in New Orleans will be speaking this coming Monday, Dec. 12th at 7:00pm in the Trinity Cathedral Church at 2230 Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland. The event is free and open to the public and will take place in the church's Cathedral Hall. The event is free but donations to Malik and Common Ground are encouraged
Malik will be discussing the state of the south, and specifically New Orleans, after being hit by two catastrophic hurricanes, Katrina and Rita.
For more information about Mr. Rahim or to get involved with his visit please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Common Ground collective, please visit
Interviews with Malik Rahim can be obtained at