Somewhere in the distant past of humanity, we all believed the same. We believed in unity, we believed there was a Creator, and we believed that all life was sacred. We prayed to the sacred spirit that dwells in all things and we felt the love of that sacred spirit of life. We saw God in the bountiful nature around us, in the sun, the moon, the stars of the heavens. We were connected personally to our Creator. We took care of each other, making sure that no one went hungry. We made things for each other to make all of our lives easier. We cooperated with one another for the good of all the people. And we took care of the land and all living things who dwelt with us.
Then something strange happened. We began to interpret the blessings of the Creator in different ways. We believed that some of us were the chosen people who had the only “true” beliefs about the Sacred Spirit. Others disagreed and we began killing each other, not for more food or more territory, but for something intangible, something that could only be understood with the heart and not the five senses. Even though we could not get inside someone else’s head and heart, if their words did not match what we believed and spoke, that person was hated, tortured and killed.
The history of freedom of religion is a violent one. Even today, there are people who want to destroy all of those who do not believe as they do. Here in America, where we have the freedom to believe or not believe in a God or Divine Spirit, there are still those who seek to destroy each other over a difference in beliefs. Maybe it is not so overt as burning temples or churches or using suicide bombs. But, every time we have a thought about another belief that is not just like ours, thinking it is wrong or a sin or evil, we are still perpetuating that violence.
Freedom is not just for us personally; it is for everyone. And freedom isn’t free unless we allow each and every person to believe or not believe in a sacred spirit according to his or her choices. We are still shackled if we do not allow another person to believe differently than we do. All this intolerance does is to keep us locked into the violent past of religions against religions.
I was appalled as a young student to read about the Children’s Crusades. In 1212 CE two young shepherds, one in Germany and one in France, who claimed to have a letter from Jesus to the King of France, inspired 37,000 children to leave their homes to march on Jerusalem to convert the Muslims, who held the land at that time, to Christianity. You can imagine how many children actually survived the journey. Many from France were sold into slavery or shipwrecked. One in three were lucky to return home. The Children’s Crusades were encouraged by parents and the churches. This is an extreme example of how far religious differences can lead down paths of destruction, in this case the destruction of young, innocent lives.
What difference does it make if the Holy Spirit which created all of life, is called something different than you have been taught? It is the same Holy Spirit. What difference does it make if the Golden Rule, which is the basis of all the world’s religions, is stated in different words? What difference does it make if we face a particular direction to pray, or enjoy a particular kind of music for inspiration, or meet to worship on a different day, or sit in silence, or serve bread and wine, or wear different kinds of robes?
We, as members of humanity, are spiritual beings. We want that spiritual connection to the Divine that speaks to us in the most sacred places in our hearts. We want to experience a spiritual connection with our God. How we experience that has to be our own choice. That is what freedom of religion is all about – choosing for yourself how to reach out and touch the hand of God and allowing others to reach out in their own way.
During this month of Freedom, we are invited to not only think about the other freedoms we enjoy in America, but also to think about how those freedoms are not limited to just one people but to all people, to all of humanity, especially religious freedom. With freedom comes peace. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
I can only enjoy religious freedom if I allow you to enjoy it also. We do belong to each other and we can have peace through the grace of the Creator of All Life who gave us the ability to choose.
The Rev. Arlyn Macdonald is the senior minister of the Spiritual Awareness Center, dean of the Spiritual Development Center and author of three books on spiritual development.