Perhaps the most effective method for silencing or discrediting anyone who criticizes anything is to launch ad hominem attacks that contain one of the following labels: racist, ethnocentrist, bigot. As I continue my research, I am aware that it is inevitable that at some point one — and probably all three — of these labels will be leveled at me. So at the outset I want to make something clear: I am not attacking people. I am attacking and criticizing systems, organizations, and institutions. Yes, there is a difference.
Let me use a modern example to illustrate.
If anyone who is not ethnically or religiously Jewish criticizes the political philosophy of Zionism or the political actions of Israel, he is almost certainly labeled anti-Semitic. If anyone who is ethnically or religiously Jewish does so, he is almost certainly labeled a self-hating Jew. But is this accurate? Is it fair?
Is criticizing a government or policy the same as inciting ethnic hatred of anyone who, even tentatively, supports that government or policy? Hardly.
Let’s apply the same thought to theology. I am a Christian. If I make the point that the religion of Judaism is, to use a biblical term, desolate, does that mean I hate Jews? If I point out that the religion of Islam is a false religion counterfeited from the truths contained in Judaism and Christianity, does that mean I hate Arabs? No. It does mean that I am making a theological observation based on the revealed truth of the Old and New Testaments, just like any criticism of Israeli racial policies and the Zionism that fuels it is a political observation based on my status as a human being informed by Christian standards.
Likewise, any criticism or attack against the Roman Catholic Church is against the institution, not the people who attend or support the institution.
There is a biblical lesson that is relevant to this issue, and it is found in the book of First Samuel.
The first chapter of First Samuel relates a familiar story. The barren but faithful woman Hannah accompanies her husband and rival wife to the tabernacle at Shiloh for their annual trip to sacrifice and worship. She presents herself at the temple and prays for God to give her a son and end her humiliating barrenness. Watching her silent, fervent prayer, Eli the priest believes Hannah to be drunk, but after she corrects him, he offers her this blessing: “Go in peace. And the God of Israel grant you the petition you have asked of him.”
Hannah returns home, sleeps with her husband, and conceives a son. After weaning him, she returns to Shiloh to keep a promise she made to God: to give the boy back to him in service as a Nazarite. It’s a great story and a common one in the biblical narrative. A barren woman of faith is given a son to display God’s love and power and to provide a leader or reformer to the people. Most specifically, Hannah’s story parallels the stories of Samson’s mother and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, in that they were dedicated to Nazarite vows before their birth.
In chapter 2, we learn the social and religious background to the story. Remember that the story of Samuel is a story of transition. Samuel is the last of the judges of Israel. The book of 1st Samuel tells the story of transition from the period of judges to the unified monarchy. The period of the judges is best summarized by the phrase, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
1 Samuel 2 goes on to tell us about two specific characters who “did what was right in their own eyes.” Those two characters were Hophni and Phineas, sons of Eli and priests of the tabernacle. They were all around bad guys, being described as “sons of Belial,” that is sons of the “personification of wickedness.” In other words, the devil. But the Bible does mention two sins in particular: they stole the sacrifices of the people, by force if necessary, for their own consumption; and, they committed adultery with women assembled at the gate of the temple.
What exactly does this mean? Well, of course, a whole catalog of sermons could probably be preached from this chapter, but for our purposes here, it means one specific thing: the system of religious worship at Shiloh had been entirely corrupted. That’s sort of the point of the opening chapters of Samuel. God heard Hannah’s prayer and gave her a son so he could raise up a leader to reform Israel after the corruption of the judges and, particularly, the corruption of Eli and his sons.
God heard Hannah’s prayer.
Even though she was praying in a depraved environment, at a defiled temple that was being serviced by corrupt, apostate priests, God heard Hannah’s prayer.
So even though the system she was participating in was corrupted, desolate, and vapid, her faith was still legitimate. She worshiped inside an institution worthy of criticism and attack. God criticized it. Prophets attacked it. And Samuel was brought forth in it in order to reform it. That’s not saying anything about Hannah.
Likewise, attacks or criticisms about institutions, systems, organizations, governments, states, and, yes, religions are not an attack on the people inside those systems, organizations, etc.
It’s not bigotry. It’s not racism. It’s not ethnocentrism.