We can invoke God's name for the worst of reasons.
It's not a new thing. In the New Testament, you read about lots of folks who claimed to be speaking for God. "Watch out for false prophets," Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Throughout history, people have done some pretty horrific things in God's name—atrocities that have turned people away from God altogether. It's like a variation on that old Bon Jovi song. Sometimes we give God a bad name.
I was thinking about this a little after I left The Purge: Anarchy, a R-rated horror-thriller that shows just how badly God's name can be abused.
In the movie, the Purge is an annual abandonment to society’s darkest urges—a 12-hour period in which most crime (including and especially murder) is legalized. The Purge is pushed as a societal good (the crime rate has plummeted since its introduction) and a patriotic duty. And most critically here, it's also seen as something sacred.
In the first movie, a dying man is kissed on the forehead by his murderer, almost like a priest would kiss a confessor. "Your soul has been cleansed," he says. Participants even seem to pray together: "Blessed be the Purge," they say.
In The Purge: Anarchy, that sense of the Purge being a divine rite only grows. Killers sometimes sport religious symbols: One has a cross marked on his forehead. Another wears a mask with the word "God" scrawled on it. A woman roams the roof of a building, looking for people to gun down for the grievous sin of, I guess, walking down the street. Hollering into a megaphone, she talks about how often God in the Bible brings torment down on His creation: floods and famine and all manner of terrible things. The woman says she's simply doing God's holy work: She's a "one-woman mother---ing plague," worthy of a spot at God's left hand.
It seems like the filmmakers are critiquing how religion can be misused, and they may be swinging a few punches at the Religious Right here: The country's "New Founding Fathers" manipulate both the language of patriotism and religion for their own ends, as some believe happens today.
Now on one hand, I'd argue that faith is inherently politically active. Both church and state, after all, are built on a sense of shared morality and values. Religion can't help but enter into the conversation.
But the movie does hint at a real danger of religious activism: Nothing kills dialogue as quickly as to declare that "God wills" something. As soon as someone stands on those two words, the conversation has nowhere left to go.
Now, I do believe that God does want us to do certain things. I believe that our lives are, on some level, a learning exercise—where we're educated all the time about how to align ourselves more closely with God's will. When I had kids in the house, most of our household rules aligned with what I believed was the will of God—what to value, how to act and how to treat people. Even most of our secular laws are predicated on the idea of a broadly accepted sense of what's "right" and "wrong," which to me at least partly presupposes a greater power that defines what "right" and "wrong" are.
But I do think we've got to be really careful when we throw around that phrase.
It's like this: Say you've got a friend who loves, I dunno, eggplants. "I think eggplants are God's favorite vegetable," he might say. Or, "I'd imagine that, every day in heaven, we'll be eating eggplants." Now, I'm none too fond of eggplants. And if I was talking with this someone, I'd argue that eggplants were really just a joke of God's—a not-so-subtle spoof on the otherwise sublime world of veggies. I'd declare that, if God wanted us to eat eggplant, he would not have colored it purple. To which he might respond that purple is the color of royalty, and on it would go.
But if this friend said, seriously, that it's God's will that we all eat eggplants—that it's a sin if we don't eat them—we find ourselves in a very different conversation. Suddenly, my distaste of eggplants becomes a moral failing. My dislike of the vegetable puts me, in the view of my friend, in opposition to the Almighty. And by extension, I'm in opposition to my friend. We're on the verge of a holy war over eggplants.
Some true-to-life holy wars have been started over issues just about as consequential.
When you declare something to be God's will, you draw up sides. Either you're on God's side or you're not. Well-meaning people who want to be on God's side may be drawn into something that might not be God's will at all. Others might turn their backs on God: If that really is God's will, I want no part of it, they might say. And when you tie the words "God's will" with the words "the Purge," you've got yourself a real problem.
When Jesus talked about false prophets, He told us that we would know them by their fruits. "Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?" He said.
The Purge seems like a no-brainer: That's a thistle all the way. As an activist in The Purge: Anarchy argues, it's pretty clear killing innocent people isn't something that God would condone. "We no longer worship at the altar of Christ, of Mohammed, of Yahweh," he says, covering his bases. "We worship at the altar of Smith & Wesson." It's also, I think, easier to see God's will after the fact, and through the lens of history.
But sometimes in the moment, before the figs and thistles have a chance to grow, it can be more difficult.
I'm a skeptical person by nature, and I think whenever someone says they speak for God or know definitively what He wants or wills, I find myself going into heightened alert status. And I try to weigh what they say is “God's will” with what I know and have been taught about God: His love for us. His desire to see us all drawn closer to Him. I believe that God wills us to always hone our character, to be more the people He designed us to be. But, at least in how we saw in Jesus, He does so with kindness and grace and love.
It’d be nice if it was always as easy to see the fruits of a false prophet, as we see in The Purge. But it’s not always so simple.