Shayne Looper: The case of the poisoned cross

Shayne Looper

This week, The Associated Press reported that California regulators have found religious and children’s jewelry with dangerously high lead levels in stores and warehouses.

The report states that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control tested a child’s necklace and found that it contained material that was 74 percent lead. So far, the agency has found 33 pieces of jewelry with high lead levels in Southern California. Most of them were trinkets imported from China.

Investigators say the jewelry was packaged with labels claiming that the products were lead-free. Ingesting lead can cause brain damage or other health problems in infants and toddlers.

According to the news reports, regulators are unclear about how many contaminated jewelry items were imported, but are working with the distributors to stop further sales.

It is the case of the poisoned cross. The whole thing seems like a metaphor for how a little religion can slowly poison a life. 

If my reader knows that I am a convinced Christian and a pastor, he or she will probably expect me to launch into a defense of religion at this point.

I will do nothing of the sort. A thinking person cannot deny that religion has sometimes been a delivery system for poison to individuals and even cultures. Religion has been used to carry bigotry and self-hatred to its adherents, to perpetuate unjust systems in society, and to prop up oppressive and even illegal governments.

Jonathan Swift’s criticism of religion was on the money: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”

Swift was also a clergyman.

Religion, as Swift pointed out, has too often been a carrier of social ills. But it should be noted that religion is hardly alone in this. Politics, too, has been so used. And education. And the legal system. And the military. And commerce. And ... and ... and. 

Any system can be, and probably has been, so misused.

Not all religious expression is toxic. The true cross may kill, but it never poisons.

Many good things have come to us through religion. It should be remembered that care for the poor originated in religious societies. The high value attributed to human life has come directly out of an ethic shaped by religious (particularly Judeo-Christian) teaching. It was religion that saw great value in the physically and mentally disabled, when philosophers like Nietzsche and the social scientists of the Third Reich (and many since, even in America) saw only a drain on society.

Even the scientific method sprang from a religious, and particularly a Christian, worldview. It was a belief in a Creator and an orderly creation that made modern scientific investigation possible.

But whenever religion tries to use God as a means to accomplish some purpose, it gets in trouble. When this happens, it is not the belief system itself, but how it is processed, that carries the poison. Think of anti-Semitism in Europe and apartheid in South Arica in the last century, and the global Islamic-based terrorism of this century.

To be used by God for his purposes is an honor. To try to use God for our purposes is a disgrace, and leads inevitably to disaster. And whether a person is trying to use God in order to cure the world’s ills or to make a quick buck off some tacky jewelry makes no difference. God cannot, and will not, be so used.

The Daily Reporter (Coldwater, Mich.)