Opinion Extra

Wilson: What makes a religion a 'religion of hate'?

Does barbarism simply inhere at the taproot of some religions? Usually not. Each religion's holy writ leaves enough ambiguity and ambivalence - enough "good stuff" and "bad stuff" - to make an equal case for humane and inhumane conclusions. Jews, Christians, Muslims and the rest must see within their sacred texts the potential for a mishmash of honorable and dishonorable alternatives.

What then? We must look at the preponderance of tradition that has been brought to interpreting and teaching each of the sacred texts. Acknowledge it or not, the world's religions have largely been shaped by an oral tradition - that is, the predispositions that each generation's masters have brought to presenting the holy word to their inspiration-hungry disciples. Thus, the real persona of a religion is determined not so much by chapter and verse of a foundational text as it is by what Hillel and Akiba, Aquinas and Assisi conveyed to us about the text.

If we deem a set of holy doctrines compassionate and peace-loving, it is inevitably because they have been consistently interpreted in a compassionate and peace-loving manner by the venerated prophets of that faith. On the other hand, if a religion has a consistent legacy of promoting bloodlust and genocidal frenzy, we must assume that its generations of spokespeople have pulled its sacred writ in that direction.

What role do disciples play in shaping the nature of a religion? No matter how much demagogues may shape the tone of the masses, disciples still wield the all-powerful prerogative of buy-in. Ideally, this means that the listening audience is capable of exercising the moral autonomy to reject out of hand teachings that pervert honorable ideals. Usually, though, that is asking too much. We can, however, hope that a people well conditioned to hearing its legacy consistently interpreted in a compassionate and peace-loving way will instinctively be repulsed by a renegade voice that dares to fly in the face of that generations-old tradition. Sadly, the converse is also true: If the faithful of a particular religion brands as an infidel a spokesman who dares call for compassion, we may be quite sure that a tradition centuries in the making has conditioned that response.

What, then, would qualify Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any venerated legacy, as a "religion of hate"? The answer is not to be found in the text of the Bible, Koran or the words of its earliest prophets. It is not even to be found so much in what a religion was two or five or 10 centuries ago. The only criterion for determining whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam is really a "religion of peace" still vulnerable to hijacking by a handful of infidels, or truly a thoroughgoing "religion of hate" is the here and now: What are rabbis, pastors and imams around the world preaching to their faithful? And, what are they not? What do the faithful in the pews accept as legitimate from the interpreters of their faith? And, would they welcome or shout down a voice that spoke to them of understanding and compassion, if they were ever to hear it?

If we are to be convinced that a religion is indeed a religion of love, do not quote to us from its holy scriptures. Tell us instead what its preachers are saying and what its constituents are willing to hear. These are radical times demanding nothing less than radical advocacy. Silence in today's world equals acquiescence to tyranny. Any pulpit - Jewish, Christian, Muslim - that is not promoting radical, fanatical love, compassion and understanding is, if only by grievous omission, promoting a "religion of hate," no matter how vocal its protests to the contrary.