Uniformity, Religio & Solidarity (Psalm 133)

This is the message I gave during our meeting for worship on Sunday August 13, 2011. 

_religion and Norway

On July 22, 2011, a 32-year-old man drove his car into the city centre of his hometown, Oslo Norway, near a number of government buildings. He was not out to file for a marriage license, or pay his bills, he was out to detonated a massive car bomb that ended up leaving eight people dead with many more injured in the explosion. He then took another car out to the island of [ooh-toya] Utoya where a youth camp meeting was being held by a group sponsored by Norway’s Labour Party which is represented by their current Prime Minister (similar to more liberal democratic party in the US). More than 600 of Norway’s youth meet on Utoya ever summer to learn about social democracy. We all know what happened next. Anders Behring Breivik arrived on the island in a police officers uniform and killed 68 people in cold blood. (Wiki) By all accounts this was a terrible massacre and each description of what happened is equally heart-wrentching and baffling. How could someone do something like this? Murder so many people so senselessly?

Now, what caught my attention, as it may have you, were the statements that later arose about Breivik being an “fundamentalist Christian” who was an “Islamaphobe.” As I researched this topic this week, I learned that this claim has been hotly debated, Breivik even said at one point that he was more of a “cultural Christian” than a religious one, but sees cultural and religious Christians as having the same basic goals. From his point of view this includes the eradication of Islam. What we might say he has is a “religion of uniformity,” a form of religion that wants no challenge to its religious and political ideas, that accepts no difference, and is afraid of the other and will use power and violence when deemed necessary. This “religion of uniformity” only recently visited us in this Norwegian tragedy, but I’d stake my claim on the fact that it has been around since the beginning of time.

What are we to make of this? How are we to think of Norway and what’s happened there besides absolute sadness and regret? Are there ways in which we as Americans and church-going-folk have helped to fuel that kind of hatred, extremism and racism? Is religion the real threat here? For many, Breivik’s actions are just another, in a long list of examples as to why religion the real threat to society. And so this is the question I want to try to take up this morning, because regardless of whether he really was a cultural or practicing Christian there was a large amount of finger-pointing at “religion” and a ready-acceptance as that being the main cause of what happened that its clear this is a concern. And, if I’m honest, it’s a concern for me too. It’s exactly where my head went. We’ve seen too many Christian terrorists, as I call them, do too many terrible things to not wonder, what gives?

_religion and religio

If religion really is the problem then “what is religion?” Is it just a bunch of doctrines someone makes you believe with the threat of hell hanging over your head? Is it what the people do who wear the long white robes while reciting liturgical prayers and serving the Eucharist? Is only for those who can date the day they began having a personal faith with their God? Is religion for those who take long pilgrimages to holy sites, go on mission trips, pass out tracts at Esther Short Park, or go door-to-door?

For some religion is, teachings that provide a moral framework for one’s life; things you do in a church, synagogue, or mosque; a set of rewards and punishments that motivate people to behave in a certain way; answers to questions like “what happens when we die?” or “What is the purpose of life?”; a remnant of more primitive times before reason and science when people developed myths to explain natural phenomena such as earthquakes or disease (Wes Howard Brooks Chapter 1, 2010).

If we’re going to accuse religion as being a major threat we need to know what is religion we are blaming. And the answer you get depends on who you ask.

But because the word “religion” has such a bad rap today it is easy to try to explain it in a way that describes whoever we see as our enemy, all the while being sure to protect ourselves in the same definition. “A religious person is a lot like them, and not really at all like me.”

Wes Howard-Brooks, a scholar I’ve mentioned before, and whose name has a similar ring to someone else you know, offers some help in this question.

The latin root of religion is “religio which means literally ‘to bind again.’ Even in ancient times, religio became associated with some of the specific practices and beliefs associated with ‘religions.’” But more broadly religio and its meaning ‘to bind again’ gives the sense “of the attitudes, beliefs, and/or practices that bind individuals together as a “people.” (Wes Howard Brooks “Come Out My People” 2010)

What do you think? Does this describe any of you? Does this describe anybody else you know? Maybe even some of the people who you know who may not consider themselves religious? (Notice we’re not talking about those who have “faith.”)

What binds us to other people?

Immediate family; ethnicity or race; language whether formal, technical or slang; nationality; neighborhood or geography; common interests, music, arts, hobbies, sports; membership in organizations such as a labor union, professional associations, political party’s, concerns for social and political issues (WHB 2010).

These are all ways that bind us together as a people. Some of these may be more powerful than others. A Cleveland Browns football fan may be more religious than most other kinds of sports fans (partly out of necessity), or say a Dylan fan who randomly quotes Dylan songs in his sermon to see if there are any other Dylan-ites out there who catch them. A family may require things of you a neighborhood may not, and while some of you may have thought about dying when you saw your favorite musician live in concert, there are probably only a few things you’d actually die for. All, or at least most, of these can have a “powerful and [often permanent] bonding force on us.”

With this broader definition of religion we realize that religion is just for the few who do crazy things, it really names a propensity we all have as people – we all rally around certain ideas and practices and organize ourselves into groups. When we criticize the religious as being the problem I think We suffer from too narrow a view of religion. If we broaden out our understanding of religion to “the attitudes, beliefs, and/or practices that bind individuals together as a ‘people,’ we realize none of us can get off scotch free, or can wash our hands of these matters, we are in this together.

Even the groups that criticize religion as being the cause of wars and divisions in our world are themselves by the very nature of their language, organizations and social and political concerns bound together as a religious people. And we all need to consider the ways in which our own religio contributes to the kind of “religion of uniformity” I mentioned above by attacking or dismissing other groups that sees things differently from ourselves.

_uniformity vs. solidarity: what kind of religio do we adhere too?

If “we are all religious” in one way or another, the bigger question is “what kind of religio do we adhere too?” “What are the attitudes, beliefs and practices that binds us together?” “What is the trajectory this has set me on?”

To me, this seems to be really what’s at stake. Why are we sitting here in this room? What do we think is going to happen by being a part of this group?

Is it going to make us whole, or more afraid, more unfree. Are we here because we want to be transformed and or because we want to justify what we already believe to be true?

In the Psalm for this morning we learn that the trajectory of the kind of religio we are called to is the opposite of this “religion of uniformity” and is instead what I’d like to call it a religio of solidarity.

The Psalmist writes: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

One might translate it more like “How very good and beautiful it is when kindred live together in solidarity!”

The language of solidarity comes closer to what is behind this text. Solidarity in one definition means “the integration… by a society or group with people and their neighbours. It refers to [Listen to this!] the ties in a society – social relations – that bind people to one another.” (wiki)

Solidarity is standing alongside and integration with rather than blanket uniformity. It is more like a quilt than it is a single thread of yarn knitted into a blanket. And this is more to the point of what the Psalm is getting at “kindred living together in unity.” And this names the act that lies behind the Psalm itself which most believe it to be a song that Jewish pilgrims would sing on their journey toward the Temple for worship from all over the Middle East.

Image by Connie Jones

In the same way, we have a beautiful picture of the oil being poured out and flowing into different strands but coming from one place. “Together but different.” And this points to our common connection to one another, our conviction that we are all poured out of the same Creator’s vase, even if we all go in different directions or are in different places of our understanding of this. This is a beautiful image for the call to stand in solidarity with one another even in our difference.

And there’s another piece here that follows from this as well. The ‘good’ and ‘pleasant or beautiful’ draw us back to the opening chapters of Genesis and the creation poem when God saw creation as good. This goodness, this beauty of the earth created and given to us as a gift is the desired origin as well as the outcome of human life. The trajectory of the religio that binds us together Friends is a solidarity with God’s good and beautiful work. We are called to enter into solidarity with God’s original vision of the world, a world that finds its roots in the world-as-it-was-meant-to-be. (Acts 15 – What is doing). (Res. Community)

This goodness and solidarity is what YHYH (Psalm 133: 3) has ordained, this is what is behind the intention of the faith we adhere to. This is the kind of belief and practices that Jesus came to teach and model for humanity. And this is the religio of which we proclaim.

What happened in Norway was terrible and whether or not Breivik was a “Christian terrorist” we may never know, but we cannot assume that all religion creates this kind of terror either. What matters, I believe, is the kind of religio that we practice as a community. Is it one that tries for a uniformity or solidarity God and those God loves? Is it something we use to justify our pre-existing ideas, practices and beliefs, or is it one that we allow to actually transform us into people who love and stand alongside all of God’s good and beautiful creation? And do we believe that this kind of community has the kind of moral fiber to help bring about the kind of goodness, beauty and solidarity our world needs today?

Open Worship: An opportunity to listen to God’s heart and to learn how we can be in solidarity with God’s work and concern in the world.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “Uniformity, Religio & Solidarity (Psalm 133)”

  1. Its interesting to move through your thoughts and i’m really impressed. I can think upon the matter very clearly now.

    Can you please provide some advises?

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