[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]
I have been thinking a lot about faith lately. At my mother’s funeral many years ago, the priest said that she “kept the faith.” Sometimes people talk about how they “lost their faith.” No matter how hard I try, I have been unable to understand what these phrases mean. The news this week is filled with stories about an Easter bombing in Sri Lanka where suicide bombers killed hundreds of people. It must take a great deal of faith to strap on a bomb vest to kill as many people as possible including oneself. What kind of faith is that? Faith in a leader that tells you that the cause is just? Faith that you will be rewarded in the after-life? Faith in your own concept of a divine being who would support such an act? These callous murderers “kept their faith.” No one I know would condone such behavior. Yet, many people support the idea of “keeping the faith,” as long as that faith is congruent with that person’s belief system.
So it seems that the endorsement of faith is dependent on what that faith consists of. I do not think it would be honest to suggest that those suicide bombers had “lost their faith.” I wish they had lost their faith. Rather, they kept their faith and they embraced that faith to a much greater degree than most people. How many people do you know who would kill themselves if their religious leader told them to, or if they believed that their god told them to? Not me. Life is too precious. And how about if their leader or their god asked them to kill others? In fact, every day we train soldiers to kill other humans whenever ordered to do so. They must have faith in the chain of command, or perhaps faith in those who tell them that they are killing in order to protect some ephemeral concept such as freedom or democracy. In reality, I would guess that their desire to kill others only gets activated strongly when their comrades have been killed and they want revenge, or they want to protect themselves or others.
In the book of Genesis (22:1-12) the god of Abraham ordered him to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering in order to test Abraham’s faith. Abraham was prepared to do it. He did not lose his faith. He kept his faith, and as a result today he is recognized as the father of the three most powerful and populous monotheistic religions in the world: Christians, Muslims and Jews. In fact, over 56% of all humans on this planet belong to one of these religious groups. They all worship the same god. When they act in murderous ways, they often do so claiming that their god endorses such actions.
From time to time there are stories of cult leaders who are charismatic and who develop followers who have strong faith in those leaders. Jim Jones considered himself a Christian and called his church The People’s Temple. In 1978 over 900 followers of Jim Jones died, some from voluntarily drinking Flavor Aid mixed with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan. One third of those who died were children. Some apparently lost their faith and were forced to drink it by Jones’ lieutenants with guns. A total of 33 of those who lost their faith escaped to the jungle and survived the event.
I know there are also many stories of people who under extreme duress, such as prisoners of war, Japanese interned during Work War II, slavery, the holocaust, genocide of Indigenous peoples in this country, who survived solely because they kept their faith, whatever that faith may have been. So I do not want to discount this reality. To believe something fervently and resoundingly can be a powerful thing. I think of Susan B. Anthony’s words: “Failure is impossible” in encouraging her fellow suffragettes, knowing that she would not live to see women having the right to vote. Such words illustrate an incredible amount of faith. Was such faith justified? In fact women did not gain the right to vote for 14 years after her death. Perhaps she had faith in the human species to continue to evolve, and that refusing women the right to vote was such an oppressive thing that there was no way it could be sustained forever.
There are many people today who have a strong faith in Donald Trump. Their faith seems to be unshakable. What is it based on? Many of such faith are evangelical Christians and claim their faith in god as consistent with their faith in Trump. They call anyone who doesn’t have this sort of faith a Trump-hater. I am not a Trump-hater. I am a distraught old white man. I would like to hope that many who have faith in Trump might lose their faith. However I do not believe this will happen. It appears to me that they are caught in a cult even stronger than that of those in Jonestown. Jim Jones had to have armed lieutenants to enforce his outlandish claims to power. Trump is the commander in chief of the most powerful military force on the planet, but hasn’t as of yet had to use it to keep his so-called base in line. They seem to be men and women of deep faith.
Ultimately, faith is believing something when there is insufficient evidence to support such belief. It can be powerful and at times even helpful. However in my view it usually does more harm than good. Perhaps we would do well to praise those who lose their faith rather than those who keep it.