After 35 trips to the Middle East, Dr. Charles Kimball, a former Greenville resident, takes on the latter in "When Religion Becomes Evil," scheduled to arrive in bookstores Tuesday.
Evil can, and does, slip into all religions, Kimball points out, though the missionary zeal of Christianity and Islam make them more susceptible to getting tangled up in cultural imperialism and military might than Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism.
"Even well-intentioned people," he said, "end up doing things diametrically opposed to what their religion is supposed to be about."
Written at the point where religion meets politics, his book tries to explain why that is. And Kimball is qualified to tell the story in a way few are.
In 1979, when he was 29 and writing his Islam-focused doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Iranian students took 53 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Those who lived through the 444-day crisis may remember that the Ayatollah Khomeini refused to meet with government leaders. Instead, Khomeini invited seven clergymen to his home on Christmas Day, including the ordained Baptist Kimball who had studied the Qur'an and Islam extensively.
Over the next two years, Kimball met twice more with the ayatollah, government leaders and the students, ferrying mail from the U.S. State Department but otherwise remaining free of governmental ties. He lectured at universities and was a frequent guest on national news shows, advising American restraint in the crisis that was ultimately resolved peacefully.
Kimball later directed the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches before moving to Greenville to teach at Furman University. He currently chairs the religion department at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, but returns to Greenville often to speak at area churches and Furman's Pastors School, where he tried out sections of his book this summer.
The aftermath of Sept. 11 provided what Kimball calls "an extended teachable moment" about Islam and the Middle East, a moment HarperCollins Publishers is capitalizing on with an anniversary publication date.
But the book is actually far broader.
He deals with the Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese sect that released nerve gas into Tokyo's subway; Hindu atrocities against Muslims in India; the Christian beginnings of Jim Jones and the People's Temple in Guyana, as well as Islamic suicide bombers in Israel -- and America.
The religious traditions themselves, he contends, have guided and supported people for centuries. It's when followers distort and misinterpret them that evil is done in their name.
He identifies five warning signs that a religion is being corrupted:
Yet, Kimball doesn't take the easy way out by divorcing religious traditions from their more extreme practitioners.
"The extremists are part of Islam," he said. "I wouldn't say you can simply write them out of the picture and say, 'This has nothing to do with Islam.' I would say it's a bad interpretation, it's a distorted and corrupted understanding, but certainly in their mind, they are ready to give their lives for what they think Islam is about."
He also explains why many in the Islamic world have such a fanatical hatred of the Christian West.
While Western Christians view the bloody Crusades against 11th-, 12th- and 13th-Century Muslims as medieval history, he said, Muslims, Jews, and even Middle Eastern Christians see them as contemporary.
"It is startling," Kimball said. "I am continually struck when people speak of the Crusades in the present tense as though this is something that happened last week.
"When you look at the rhetoric of Saddam Hussein back in '91 when he was talking about 'the new crusade' against us, that 'we're going to liberate Jerusalem, take Jerusalem back from the infidels,' he's playing into all that. And we're sitting there saying, 'What's he talking about?' "
President Bush is ably handling the theological side of Sept. 11 with measured ecumenical statements, Kimball said. And that irks fundamentalist Christians who are busily denouncing Islam.
Bush "wants the good Muslims and the good Christians and the good Jews to join against those people who are using religion for extremism and terrorism and so forth," Kimball said. "Well, that fundamentally implies that there is something that unites people on the side of good.
"At the heart of what Bush is saying is a theological position they simply do not embrace, cannot embrace and will not embrace -- namely that anything other than their view of Christianity is potentially correct or acceptable."
Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority and Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition come in for heated criticism in Kimball's book. He finds the single-mindedness behind their distribution of voter guides in churches and their efforts to put prayer, creationism and the Ten Commandments in schools uncomfortably close to the motivation behind Middle Eastern violence.
"Christian reconstructionists in America are only one step removed from their counterparts with a concrete, divinely ordained plan for an Islamic state or the reconstituted, expanded biblical state of Israel," he writes. "The gap begins to close when the agenda includes denigration of Islam or direct action against abortion clinics."
Denial that God and Allah are the same is also foolish, Kimball writes. Allah is simply Arabic for God, and Muslims state clearly that they worship the God of Abraham -- the God of Jews and Christians.
At the same time, the Qur'an does contain verses that are "very harsh and problematic" and must be dealt with, Kimball said. But suicide bombers have to ignore many teachings against suicide and read selectively about martyrdom to believe what they're doing is right.
"It all depends on people not really knowing what their religion teaches," he said. "In the past, these suicide bombers have been fairly uneducated people from the lower economic ranks who were rather desperate and had no hope and were very gullible to what a religious leader might tell them.
"But I make that point about the Bible, too, that a lot of people who claim certain things about the Bible presuppose that people don't actually read it for themselves and think about what's really there."
If that sounds like he's skating toward the moderate Baptist view on soul competency and the priesthood of believers, it's no accident. Though ordained a Southern Baptist, Kimball is a member of Knollwood Baptist in Winston-Salem, which has pulled out of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"I ended up sounding pretty Baptist actually," he laughed. "I really do believe in human freedom and responsibility and that I don't need somebody else to intervene with God for me."