Now and then I want to take some people of faith and slap them around. What in God's name can they be thinking?
This angry thought occurred to me again recently as I read an account of what one writer called "a gaudy explosion of scandal" that has rocked the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens and Jerusalem in the last year or so. As an Athens newspaper said in an editorial, "The Greek public can only watch dumbfounded as the country's bishops humiliate themselves on television, tossing barbs at each other and trading accusations of forgery, blackmail, dissolute living, even drug trafficking."
One bishop in Greece has been charged with embezzling about $376,000 from a monastery. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the peers of the Greek Orthodox patriarch there have voted him out of office for unauthorized real estate dealings, but he has refused to leave. The church's synod is to meet in Jerusalem to elect a new patriarch. What a holy mess.
American Catholic Church
The Greeks, of course, are not alone in producing religious scandal. The Catholic Church in America continues to struggle to find its sea legs after the disgusting scandal over priests sexually abusing children and the further outrage of some bishops covering that up at the expense of the victims. It was a breathtaking example of a faith community's leaders losing their way and intentionally wounding the very people they were sworn to protect.
Other smaller religious scandals dot the land, including the recent bullying of non-evangelical cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and cases of Protestant and Jewish clergy engaging in various types of sexual misconduct.
Once these things occur, faith communities usually have internal systems for disciplining the guilty. But by the time they become public, religion itself has been scarred with another black mark, and sincere people of faith are put on the defensive as they try to right their own ship and explain to outsiders how it happened and why the misconduct is an aberration from -- not a reflection of -- the conduct the religion teaches.
But there's scandal and then there's scandal.
Religious scandals caused by human foibles -- the kind seen recently in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches -- are never excusable. They're reprehensible and do huge damage. But to people who understand the fault lines in human nature, they should not be especially surprising, no matter how regrettable they are. As others have noted, dressing up in religious garments doesn't make one a saint.
But in some ways the scandals of criminality -- whether theft, sexual abuse or something else -- may be less damaging to the good name of religion than the scandals of fanaticism, of belief run amok. Zealotry has killed far more people than thieving clerics ever thought about murdering to protect themselves from the embarrassment of discovery.
So the religious scandal that most angers me has to do with leaders who encourage, assist and justify fanaticism, who provide theological cover for violence, hatred and prejudice.
History's list of such people is long, lamentable and shameful. It includes leaders of many faiths, from popes who stirred up people to join the medieval Christian Crusades to imams who purposefully garbled the message of Islam's holy book, the Quran, to justify killing innocent civilians.
The clergy who purvey hatred against homosexuals or who encourage the bombing of abortion clinics also are guilty of the worst kind of religious scandal.
In some ways it seems silly to describe gradations between and among such outrages. Whether they are bishops embezzling money or an imam preaching death to Americans, all these scandals wound God's heart, injure people created in God's image and reflect the sad insecurities of the people who promote them.
What to do? We religious adherents must hold not only ourselves accountable but also our leaders. We must demand better. In the wake of the Catholic priest scandal, we've seen examples of people in the pews doing exactly that. That must become a common response.
Our religions can be beautiful, helpful and hopeful. But if we allow knaves and fanatics to dominate them, we will lose what we hold to be holy.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.