Last week we heard of the sickening story of Kristy Bamu, a 15 year-old boy savagely tortured to death by his sister and her partner in a religiously motivated act. Somehow this story came into my head when I read today’s first reading about Abraham making a religious sacrifice of his only child. The original purpose of that story was to convey the absolute obedience and trust in God displayed by the patriarch. Many believers throughout generations have tried to copy that faith, sadly some of them literally. Not many have wondered about the boy’s feelings and horror. Abraham and Isaac’s story finished luckily for the latter; sadly Kristy Bamu’s story ended on Christmas Day when he drowned in a bath.

Pretty often we come across accusations that the most atrocious crimes in history have been religiously inspired or religiously motivated. Undoubtedly there have been wars fought outwardly under religious banners, standards and slogans. Certainly there have been persecutions and killing religiously driven. The latest dramatic chapter unravels in Syria, where the governing Alawite religious minority has recently been challenged by the Sunni Muslim majority backing the uprising. There’s only one problem. When we look carefully at those so-called religious conflicts we discover they have practically all been about earthly power, territories, influences, commodities and so on. Religion can be used politically because it appeals to the deepest needs of every human. Other ideologies, like racism, fascism or communism, can be similarly useful to hold people together and to fight against perceived enemies.

What I’ve just said operates at a massive, political level. But the same notion regards our personal choices. Obviously there are people justifying their own cruelty, intolerance, hatred or mental abnormalities with allegedly religious motives. For some other people, fulfilling their religious duties like prayers or minor requirements leads them to feel justification about their own moral injustice. Religion is only a fig leaf helping them to feel better and to cope with their own guilt. It’s an excuse to live and to act selfishly. Many ordinary people taking part in massacres of their neighbours do it just to take over their wealth, properties or lands.

Many critics of religion seem to forget (or deliberately to pass over) those facts that show religion as a spiritual power curbing the savagery and selfishness of many. For centuries people correctly following their religious beliefs have struggled against their own evil and tried to be better. Those human values we are proud of in our society have grown from Christianity; they are strongly rooted in us thanks to generations that followed the gospel. Many of the personal or social problems we are facing nowadays are caused by a lack of religiously motivated values imprinted on people’s minds. As we’ve lost a religious point of reference, everything has become relative. Everything is allowed – unless the law of the land forbids it.

In today’s gospel Jesus reveals to his disciples one of the most central religious ideas, particularly in Christianity. On the hill he is presented as someone very special: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. But on the way down from the hill he announces his death for benefit of others. Properly adopted religion allows for only one kind of sacrifice: self-sacrifice.