This address was given by Richard Parker at Morning Prayers at the Memorial Church on September 17, 2014. Richard is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the Chaplaincy Board.
And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
These have not been a good few weeks for religious people, nor a good summer. Most of us like to think of our faiths as sources of kindness and love and tolerance but the truth is that religion is—and has always been—no less a source of enormous cruelty and violence.O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.
Over the past two weeks, we have been given a horrifying reminder that survive in a litany of three names we shall not soon forget:
David Haineseach cruelly beheaded, their beheadings cruelly shared with the world.
But to that litany we must also add as further sign of this dark season Gaza and Israel, Baghdad, Mosul, Somalia, Mali, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan, each its own reminder of what human beings do in clear conscience in the name of their god or gods.
In moments like this, now as always, that voices arise to condemn all religion for what has been done its name. This time, thought, that inevitable cry about organized religion’s hate-generating made me especially sad—not because it’s a novel argument or observation (it isn’t) nor because I or anyone else who counts himself or herself as religious has a persuasive answer (we don’t)–but because it reminded me that Christopher Hitchens is dead.
Hitchens was, of course, the scourge of religion, a piety-bashing, theology-thumping controversialist who raged against divinity-worship as humbuggery and its priests as buggerers (metaphorical if not physical), with an energy that was boundless and nearly volcanic.
Fundamentalist believers of all sorts hated Chris---and even squishier liberal believers, so proud of their tolerance of everything, suffered Chris’s intolerance of religious intolerance much like a Presbyterian who thinks his election is shown by his ability to sit through a three-hour Pentecostal service.
I had a different relation to Chris and to his fulminations because, forty years ago, we’d been roommates at Oxford, living off-campus in a tumble-down house on Cumnor Hill that we shared with Chris’s girlfriend, Tessa Sweet, and an Australian, John Darling. We’d sparred then about all sorts of things except religion, because in the early 70s, revolution—not religion—was what mattered.
Chris was a Trotskyist then, active in International Socialists, and the summer before we met, he’d gone to Cuba to pick cane, while I was a youthful veteran of civil rights and anti-Vietnam organizing. I’d handed in my draft card just before leaving for Oxford, and to keep myself busy in England, spent part of my time organizing US Air Force personnel to protest Vietnam through a group with the initials PEACE—which stood for, without (I promise you) a hint of irony, People Emerging Against the Corrupt Establishment.
By the 1980s, Chris and I were both in Washington, DC. I was working first for George McGovern, then later Ted Kennedy, and Chris was cutting a dramatic swath through the town’s journalistic fraternity. Handsome, ferocious in argument, with a keen ability to get invited to just the right dinner parties, Chris was rising fast---and was just about ready to take on religion.
It was the height of the Reagan (and Falwell) years on the Potomac, and of John Paul’s ascendency in Rome, and their ferocious anti-leftism that accompanied their anti-communism. Over time the Pope’s suppression of Liberation Theology, Falwell’s attacks on liberal religion in all forms, Reagan’s cynical secret dealings with the theocrats in Teheran, all came together in Chris’s mind into one unified indictment: religion, everywhere and always, wasn’t simply the opium of the people, but far worse the instrument of the sanctimoniously powerful. The hatred and bigotry religion could inspire and justify, in short, were simply one more means of oppressive control of the many by the few.
By the mid-1980s, however, religion had become important to me. I’m a PK—a preacher’s kid—who for nearly 20 years after leaving home had run away from religion. But then during the Reagan years, I came back—as a cautious, careful advocate of faith, full of doubt, angry myself at my fundamentalist co-religionists.
Our differences gave Chris and me great new sport—and we’d banter and howl, haggle and reproach each other tirelessly over God after we’d tired of thrashing Reagan and Bush, and then in the 1990s, Clinton—though about him we disagreed. Chris and I had both known Bill Clinton in our Oxford days, and whereas I’d come to see him as a roguish riverboat gambler straight out of Twain, for Chris he was much darker and Mephistophelian.
Chris and I had our only real falling-out in the Bush years, over Iraq and his new friend Paul Wolfowitz—a Mephistopheles if there ever was one--and for a couple of years we didn’t speak. But when cancer struck Chris four years ago, we reconnected—and over the subsequent months, I came to see once again his true courage as he fought the disease. We last talked ten days before he died in December, 2011, making plans to get together in early January.
It didn’t surprise me that the cancer never beat him; he’d died of complications from hospitalization. I laughed wryly, hearing that, knowing how flintily proud he’d, beating cancer.
At his New York memorial service the following April, I listened as speaker after illustrious speaker rose to tell of his friendship with Chris—Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Fry, Douglas Brinkley. To honor Chris (and perhaps gild their association), most offered their own resolute defense of atheism as a matter of course, thereby affirming Chris’s and the audience’s.
And then came the final speaker in a program Chris himself had planned. The speaker introduced himself simply:
“I’m Francis Collins, a scientist. I headed the Human Genome Project, and today I direct the National Institute of Health, and I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
In that hall of 500 people, at that moment, the noise of a dropping pin would have echoed with the percussive effect of an atom bomb.
Collins then explained how Chris had called him one day to ask about new techniques for fighting esophageal cancer—and how Collins had ended up joining Chris’s medical team. As their doctor-patient relationship became friendship, Collins (like me) said he talked and bantered with Chris about God, not so much evangelizing but simply sharing the news, good and bad, about Jesus Christ and his followers.
I talked with Collins after the service for about 20 minutes. Chris had had no death-bed conversion, but serious to the end, he had admitted to Collins that he had doubts about his doubts, lacked certainty about his certainty.
Collins, wiser than millions who profess religious wisdom, had pressed no further. There was no need. As he said to me, his conversations with—and ultimately, his agapic love of--Chris, personal as well as Christian, had simply left him in mind of Proverbs on hearing of Chris’s death:
“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”
Let therefore the hatred and death inflicted in the name of Allah, of Jesus, of Yahweh, of Budda, of Zoroaster, of Shiva, and all of gods we worship falsely—but who are not therefore false gods—be as iron sharpening the iron faith of love, compassion, and forgiveness that gives truth to the teachings those gods would have us understand.