Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2002 / 12 Tishrei 5763
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It took the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to awaken many Americans to the unnerving truth that religion has a dark side.
The failure to grasp this before then revealed our naivete and gave us one more reason to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck Finn is the greatest novel ever written by an American, and I try to reread it every few years just to see what it has to teach me this time.
Usually, I just dive into it and see what strikes me. But this time, with Sept. 11 in mind, I tried to pay attention to Twain's insights about religion.
Once again, Twain got it right, and what he wrote about religion nearly 120 years ago is worth thinking about as we try to understand how terrorists could do evil in the name of G-d.
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, understood quickly the role religion played in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. This is what he said recently on the PBS "Frontline" show "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero":
"From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11 ... I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion."
It was, to be sure, a grossly violated religion, but it's clear that the hijackers, the suicide bombers, the people who follow Osama bin Laden - all of them were or are motivated by religion, or at least its aberration.
Twain understood that religion gets abused and drafted to defend evil behavior. He showed how that happens as he wrote about the relationship between Huck and the slave Jim, a glorious hero of the novel.
Huck Finn, in fact, is permeated by references to religion. In just the fourth paragraph of the opening chapter, we find the Widow Douglas reading Huck the story of Moses, but Huck lost interest when he discovered "that Moses had been dead a considerable long time."
Huck even gives voice to a common but profound misunderstanding of prayer, which he thinks works "when a body like the widow or the parson prays, but it don't work for me, and I reckon it don't work for only just the right kind (of people)."
Twain introduces the idea of God as Providence and then has that idea smack Huck upside the head as he wrestles with the morality of helping a runaway slave get his freedom - an act Huck naturally assumes Christianity would label a grave sin.
Listen to Huck's revelation and how clearly it shows what evil gets countenanced when religion gets misused: "And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whist I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so far and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared."
To his eternal credit, of course, Huck finally decided that freeing Jim was worth doing even if it meant - as he sincerely believed it did - that Huck would go to hell.
Huckleberry Finn is in many ways a guide to bad religion. No one who understands the book and its attacks on misguided faith would have been surprised that people still commit evil in the name of religion. And yet Huck believes some kind of faith community is important because, he says, you can't trust just your instincts or your conscience alone.
" ... a person's conscience ain't got no sense," he declares. "If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I would pison him."
Sept. 11, 2001, offered more evidence of the truth Twain told us
in Huck Finn: Misused religion almost inevitably lies down with evil.
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