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Religion is good for this

Dave Belden
1 June 2004

I am not a believer. But I am surprised when my fellow agnostics dismiss religion as so much hooey. Dangerous hooey, of course, these days.

I understand that religion can be dangerous, a set of rationales for cruelty, dominance, violence.

But do my religion-bashing friends understand how it can inspire and save? I don’t mean save as in going to heaven. I mean save as in providing the faith to survive hell on earth. And not just survive, but give to others.

I am thinking of Calvin Johnson, and Ali Orhan.

Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson was born in 1957 and brought up in a middle class home. His father was a lawyer, the first black state senator from his county in Ohio. His mother was college educated, a full time parent. Both were active in the civil rights movement. In his book Exit to Freedom, Calvin writes: “Growing up, I never personally felt the sting of racism – people were just people.”

Calvin grew up smart, earned good money as a teen DJ, volunteered summers to help handicapped kids at a camp. He got into college, motorbikes, cars, fashion, women. He did pot, not hard drugs. There came a bad time when he got nabbed for selling a bag of grass to an undercover cop, needed money for a lawyer, and tried to steal it. So far, not so different from many a middle class white kid with a bad patch.

Then, a convenient black man in jail, he got used to solve a rape case, and was put away for life. The district attorney acted in bad faith, no one in authority cared about truth or justice. (At this point I found his book so well written I couldn’t read it. It was weeks before I could pick up this destroyed life again.)

Prison life is cruel, friendships impossible, bitterness overwhelming. His fiancée visits him for four years; he encourages her to leave him but then she does so without a word. “I can hardly imagine the comfort of a carpeted home, the sound of a sleeping woman, or a patio with birds.”

“… it isn’t the violent offenders that we fear most at River State – it is the guards, who have a reputation for being especially brutal.” (But no one is taking photos to alert the world).

Calvin’s anger grows hard. “I dismiss God in my life with a simple question, ‘What kind of God allows this to happen?’” “I begin to accept that I am hopeless and vengeful; it is just a matter of time before I become violent…. Religion has become my enemy, because faith is the purest form of hope, and hope disgusts me more than anything else.”

But at the bottom, fearing craziness, it is to his God he turns. He decides to forgive, to pray for the district attorney. It is the only freedom he feels open to him. He finds emotional relief, even joy. He survives and helps others survive. He gets ordained in prison.

This story has a remarkable ending: DNA testing exonerates him after 16 years in prison. Extraordinary luck was involved – like the evidence thrown in the trash and mysteriously rescued. He appears many times on TV with the Innocence Project, writes his book, gets employed and married. But in his mind and the reader’s, the most remarkable fact is that prison did not destroy him, because his faith saved him.

I am not saying you have to be a believer. I am saying that a faith that saves should not be dismissed lightly. And this wasn’t just a thing between Calvin and his God. It happened because church people came into the prison constantly, and developed a ministry. I know agnostics who go into prisons and do great work, with theater, and education. It gives individuals the hope and courage to go on. There are many paths. Just don’t knock the ones that involve belief, simply because they do.

Ali Orhan

When Ali Orhan grew up in Britain’s Turkish community in the 1970s, “Islam was more a cultural presence than a deep religious commitment. ‘Religion wasn’t a huge thing in our family. My younger brothers don’t even believe.’” But one thing was impossible: to be gay.

Ali married a woman his parents brought from Turkey. It took him ten months to tell her he was gay. His parents eventually allowed him to divorce if he would take his wife back to Turkey and explain to her parents. He risked death in doing so, and only avoided it because they had never had sex.

“… the day he returned, his parents explained that he was no longer their son. They told him bluntly that they never wanted to see him again, not even on their deathbeds. Nearly two decades later, there is still complete silence from all of his relatives…

‘The only thing I have left that identifies me with my family, with my community, with my life before I was disowned, is my religion,’ (Ali) continues. ‘Nobody can take that away from me. It’s the last shred of the person I used to be.’ He considers himself today to be a devout Muslim – indeed, more devout than many of the people who cast him out…

Sheikh Sharkhawy, a cleric at the prestigious London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, compares homosexuality to a “cancer tumour”. He argues ‘we must burn all gays to prevent paedophilia and the spread of AIDS,’ and says gay people ‘have no hope of a spiritual life’.”

Calvin Johnson was imprisoned in a supposedly Christian country by a supposedly Christian DA. Ali Orhan was rejected by his Muslim family and community. Both found in the religion of their persecutors the faith and strength to survive. Both help others. Ali Orhan is pioneering for future millions an experience that at other times and places has been common in the Muslim world: that homosexual love and love of God can be complementary, not contradictory.

They have found the faith they need. Believe it.

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