Walking the Second Mile
Sydney Harris, USA.
What we loosely call "religion" in our society turns some people on and some people off. What I find especially interesting is that just as many good people are turned off as are turned on. It does not separate the sheep from the goats by any means.
Some of the best people I have known--including my father--have been atheistic in the conventional sense of the word.
And some of the worst--we have all seen them in the front pews--are the most pious, the most devout, the most orthodox.
One of the first things you learn in life--or should learn, if you mature--is that you cannot divide people by what they believe, or think they believe, or profess to believe.
Goodness and mercy in people--the kind the Old Testament prophets preached and that Jesus revived--seem to have little to do with religion in its organized form, as a cult, a creed, or a canon.
It is basically a matter of character more than creed, of your feelings and acts toward others more than any articulated philosophy of life, or death.
In fact, this is what I think Jesus was trying to get across--and failed, even with most of his disciples.
When he said, "I am the way," he wanted people to imitate his actions and behavior, and not to worship him. In my reading of the New Testament, he had no notion of setting up a new religion, and least of all a new church.
As a believer, I am not convinced that God is particularly interested in what we call "religion," or that it even exists as a concept for him. What is demanded of us is that we be kind and just to one another, even if there is no redeemer, no heaven, no hell and no afterlife.
All these seem like advertising and promotion to me; unworthy of a cosmic deity, too small and petty for the creator of an infinite and unfathomable universe. Prompted more by human fears than divine faith.
What the Old Testament prophets asked--as distinct from the priesthood--is that we render justice and mercy to each other. What Jesus asked--as distinct from his later followers--is that we go even further, walking that extra mile, returning good for evil.
This is hard, the hardest thing in the world to do. It is so hard that religion tries to make it easier by letting us obey creeds and mumble prayers and support churches, and thus feel "religious" without truly being so. Look at the world today and try to deny it.