Scary Things Done in the Name of Religion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 26, 2014

Acts 7:54 -8:3 GNT

Reformation Sunday—which is always the last Sunday of October and falls within one of the most beautiful weeks of the year—happens to be one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  It is, in my estimation, a Sunday that deserves recognition by all churches of the Protestant persuasion, but especially by free churches like this United Church.  Had it not been for the Reformation and the blood spilled by many of those courageous reformers, we might not be able to freely assemble here in this church the way we do today.

One of the early Protestant Reformers to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, but one who doesn’t always get credit for being an important reformer, was William Tyndale (tin’dl).  Tyndale was born about the same time as the more famous Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, in the late 1400s.  Whereas Luther was German, Tyndale was an Englishman.  Tyndale was an exceptional biblical scholar who was educated at Oxford and Cambridge and had an excellent knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible; and he was a master of seven languages.

Tyndale’s hope was to give England a Bible that even the poor people might read.  Thus, he felt that everyone should have the Bible in their native tongue.  Up to this point, you see, the Bible was inaccessible to the majority of people, as it was only available in Latin.  And so, Tyndale began to translate the Bible into English.  Immediately he encountered difficulties.  A number of times he had to gather up the work he had done and flee from one city to another to escape those who opposed what he was doing.  His desire to translate the New Testament from Latin into English was seen by many to be a betrayal of the sacred Latin text; blasphemous, even.  But by 1526, Tyndale had managed to produce the first complete English translation of the New Testament.  Severe criticism and controversy ensued.  In spite of the persecution he suffered, Tyndale began working on an English translation of the Old Testament, but was far from being finished before his untimely death.

Because of his desire to put a copy of the English Bible into the hands of all his countrymen, Tyndale testified that he suffered “poverty, exile, bitter absence from friends, hunger and thirst and cold, great dangers and innumerable other hard and sharp fightings.”1  On May 21, 1535, Tyndale was kidnapped and imprisoned, where he remained until October of the following year.  In August 1536, Tyndale was tried, found guilty of heresy, stripped of his priestly office, and then handed over to the secular powers for execution.  On October 6, 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death and then burned at the stake.  What was his crime?  It was translating the Bible into English.  Just before he died, Tyndale is said to have cried, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Although his life was prematurely snuffed out, Tyndale’s legacy would live on, as his English translation of the New Testament would serve as a foundation for many other English versions that would follow, including the beloved King James Version.

But here is the point: What atrocities often are committed in the name of religion! Such atrocities are probably as old as religion itself, as evidenced from that passage in Acts where Stephen, one of the first deacons of the early church, was stoned to death in the name of religious zealotry.  As the story goes, Stephen had preached a sermon on how God had worked within the Jewish people—through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and others—to accomplish God’s will.  But when Stephen mentioned God’s servant, Jesus, who had been unjustly condemned to death and crucified, as Luke tells the story the crowd turned against him and stoned him to death.  And one of those consenting to Stephen’s death was a young, religious zealot named Saul, who would later experience a radical conversion and become the Apostle Paul.  But why such anger and rage and violence over words?

William Tyndale was killed because he translated the Latin Bible into English.  But during that time period and the hundred years or so that followed, there were many burnings at the stake, and beheadings, and other forms of execution, often over doctrinal differences—words, ideas, intangible beliefs that can in no way be proved one way or the other.

Have you ever considered what leads religious people to go against common sense, to go against human decency and kindness, to go against all rational thought so as to commit such atrocities—such scary things—in the name of the religion they serve?

I have given this a lot of thought.  And I have concluded that the unholy trinity of fear, power, and control have a lot to do with the scary and atrocious things that are done in the name of religion.  It just may be, and often is I submit, that those who are in religious power fear change and the loss of control.  Feeling that “our” religious way is the right way, and it is a way that is being threatened, then whatever actions are necessary to maintain our way, the “right way,” seem justified. For instance, during the Dark Ages, the religious elite held power over the masses who were at their mercy.  The fact that the Bible was available only in Latin not only meant that those in religious power were the only ones who were educated to read it, but also the only ones who could interpret it.  If Tyndale were to translate the Bible into English, and in conjunction with the invention of the printing press, then all Englishmen could have a copy and read and interpret it for themselves, resulting in less reliance upon the religious authorities, and hence, a loss of influence and power.

When we think about fundamentalist religious groups today—both in our country and in the Middle East and other places—isn’t it the unholy trinity of fear, power, and control that often motivates the atrocious actions that may define them?  The religious groups that subjugate women, seeking to keep them in their place, fear the loss of their secure, male-dominated culture if women are allowed the same rights, privileges, and freedoms as men.  Why, to allow women to smoke, drive a car, wear dresses that show the calves of their legs, or not wear a veil so as to show their faces in public could lead to un-thought-of losses of power and control!

Several years ago, I was asked to serve on a YWCA Task Force Against Domestic Violence.  The eventual fruit of that Task Force was the opening of a local shelter for abused women and children.  During those years I learned a lot about the dynamics of domestic violence, which included becoming acquainted with the domestic violence Power and Control Wheel.  A chief motivator for domestic abuse is the perpetrators’ sense of need to exercise unwarranted power and control over wives and children, to the extent that it often results in physical and emotional violence.  But I submit that fear is also part of the power and control mix, as the abuser fears loss of control, fears losing his spouse (who often is seen as a sexual object), if she is allowed freedom to come and go as she pleases.  There may also be an underlying fear of the loss of the abuser’s sense of manhood should his wife be given equal rights and privileges.

The sad thing is this fear of the loss of power and control that is manifested in abusive spousal situations can, and often does, bleed over into people’s religious lives.  Hence, fundamentalist Christian groups often insist upon the subjugation of women, proclaiming from the pulpit that women should be subject to their husbands, ought not wear makeup, ought not wear shorts or pants, ought not work outside the home, and so on.  So fear, power, and control become religious-sanctioned rules.  And should the woman try to break out of this expected role, physical abuse may follow.  And when the wife goes to speak to the preacher about the abuse, she may be instructed to submit to her husband, because that is what the Bible says to do.

I have strayed a bit from my original topic, but not much.  The point is the same whether it involves a strict, religious church in the Cumberland Mountains, or a strict religious group in the Middle East: Often the unholy alliance of fear, power, and control will lead people to commit horrible atrocities in the name of religious devotion.

Well, returning to where I began, yes, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those reformers like William Tyndale who gave his life to produce the first scriptures in the English language.  But the Church is always in need of change and reform.  As we think about the Church at large of our own day, let us ask (1) where is reform needed today?  And (2) in what ways is the unholy alliance of fear, power, and control opposing such needed reform?

During this “scariest” (Halloween week) week of the year, may we determine that we will never be party to any power or any action that is responsible for atrocities in the name of religion.  Amen.

1F.F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 13.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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