AS ALWAYS… I’ve been thinking about Christianity. My mind often returns to the moral issue because there are many glaring moral failures in Christianity’s history… which are magnified by the radicalness of Jesus’ moral ideals. But lately I was considering morality in terms of modern Christians. This is a difficult subject. I’ve been contemplating what Christianity precisely is. Over the years, I’ve studied many of the early Christian texts and the scholarship about them, but I still feel rather confused about it all.
Christianity doesn’t seem for the most part to be based on Jesus’ teachings. As far as I can tell, Jesus wasn’t attempting to found a religion, build churches, start a social movement, create a cultural identity, or be the justification for the ideal of a Christian nation. Going by gospels, I would say he was doing something apparently quite opposite to all of that. Whatever Christianity (as an organized religious institution) may be, it is not a religion based on Jesus’ life and preaching.
I don’t mean Christians aren’t moral and don’t contribute positively to society. My point is that Jesus was teaching a specific moral attitude that (if I understand it correctly) few Christians attempt to follow. I sometimes doubt whether most Christians even understand what is written of Jesus in the New Testament. Many probably don’t read Jesus’ words carefully and in their entirety. I also suspect that the average Christian trusts the opinion of authorities over their own interpretive abilities (whether that of church authorities, religious teachers, or apologetic writers). And certainly it’s a rare Christian who thoroughly studies the complexities of New Testament scholarship (including more secular scholarship such as the Jesus Seminar).
Jesus preached all kinds of crazy ideas. He taught people to not carry money but to sell all that they own and give their money to the poor, to leave their families, to let the dead bury themselves, to love their enemies, to challenge authority and not to place oneself as an authority over others, etc. But Jesus also preached relatively less crazy ideas. He taught people to treat others as they would like to be treated, to not swear oaths (which is actually quite radical considering our whole political and legal system is based on it), to not worship idols (and I doubt he was hoping himself to be worshipped as an idol), to not pray in public nor in temples (which undermines institutional Christianity), etc. And Jesus said much else as well. There are plenty of apparent contradictions to be found for anyone wishing to look. Which statements are authentic? Which are the most essential? How to interpret them and live by them?
I know a Christian who has argued for torture and for the dropping of nuclear bombs in WWII. I once told him about prisoners of war who while in custody were killed by soldiers and he thought it was excusable because the soldiers were angry. WTF!?! On the other hand, he donates his money and time to worthy causes. He even has volunteered at soup kitchens. He considers himself a good Christian and is very active in his church. He wrote to me recently that the torture issue is just a blip, but I doubt Jesus would consider it a blip. Heck, a major part of Jesus’ life was his being wrongly tortured. Jesus told his followers to not meet violence with violence but rather to turn the other cheek. Jesus was very clear on this particular point and I don’t see any other way to interpret it.
I don’t mean to be harsh on this person in using him as an example. I think he is a typical Christian and does genuinely try to be a good person as he understands it. Also, there are reasonable arguments that morally justify such things as torture and atomic bombs. I understand how fear motivates people to take extreme actions and I understand that sometimes life seems to force us to choose the lesser of evils. The problem is that these aren’t Christian moral justifications and in fact are clearly anti-Christian.
As I see it, you’re either a Christian or you’re not. If you don’t want to try to live up to the standards that Jesus set, then don’t try and don’t call yourself Christian. It’s understandable that people fail to meet such high standards (impossibly high?). It seems to me that being Christian isn’t easy… or maybe you’re doing it wrong if it seems easy. As I see it, there is little excuse for someone claiming to be Christian to not try to follow Jesus’ example. There is even less excuse for them to argue for immoral behavior that completely opposes everything Jesus stood for.
STANDARDS & VIEWS
Am I being too judgmental? What is the point of having so high of standards? Well, I’d answer that it’s not I but Jesus who sets the bar so high. To be honest, I’m uncertain about what good are Jesus’ teachings especially for the average person in the world today. But I’m not the one arguing that Jesus’ teachings should be the moral standard of our entire society. I really can’t see how Jesus teachings could be applicable beyond the level of personal choices. I’d go so far as to say that the moment someone tries to base upon Jesus’ life any institution or law they’ve already betrayed what Jesus stood for. Jesus was teaching absolute sacrifice, complete transformation of all that we understand and value. Jesus wasn’t teaching personal betterment or the upholding of social order. Jesus for damn sure wasn’t teaching family values. I find it particularly funny (or exasperating) when a Christian brings up family values. Jesus said he came to turn family members against each other. The closest thing that Jesus came to family values probably was when he spoke of divorce, but he considered remarriage adultery and if followed that would create many single parents.
To try to live according to the gospels would be difficult… and I suppose to completely live as such would be nigh impossible. It would probably demand being an ascetic (homeless, wandering, and poverty-stricken) who dedicates his every action and thought to love and salvation. Such a person would have to forever put other people before themselves including a willingness to completely trust God in even the most minor of decisions. I can’t say I would want to try to live such a life, but there are Christians who have genuinely tried to live this way. I don’t know if they’re better people than the rest of us for their radical lifestyle. Still, at least they’re being true to what Jesus taught.
I realize there are arguments for why not all Christians need to live this way. People tend to emphasize certain parts of the New Testament over other parts. You get a different Jesus if you emphasize the Jewish elements… or if you emphasize the Pauline elements… or if you try to harmonize all of it… or if you look past all of the centuries of interpolation and interpretation.
Different views of “Christianity” became mixed up in the first and second centuries (and arguments have been made for one or the another being the original true Christianity), but that is an issue more complex than I wish to deal with here. At this point, this whole discussion begins to devolve into doubts about what it even means to be a Christian (and even what Jesus really said and meant). Nonetheless, despite how little we know of Jesus and early Christians, I still hold to my opinion that few Christians after the (supposed) life of Jesus have come even close to living up to his teachings (or else the teachings written in his name).
Maybe that is why the early Catholics struck upon the genius of emphasizing original sin above almost all else. If we’re all sinners who are incapable of doing good beyond submitting our willpowers to the rule of the Church, then Christians don’t actually have to try to follow Jesus’ example. We can do horrendous things to each other and we’ll still be forgiven. Water-boarding and nuclear bombs for everyone until Jesus returns. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
SWORD OR PEACE?
I find it rather telling that many Christians turn to Jewish scriptures when they want moral certainty, and Jewish scriptures are much more open to violence and punishment. However, I tend to disagree with the arguments for a Jewish Jesus. The Jewish scriptures seemed to have been only at best of secondary relevance to Jesus, and in many ways they’re contrary to what many have understood to be a radically new message. The first New Testament canonwas created (by the Gnostic Marcion) in order to clarify the uniqueness of Jesus message as a religion independent of (and opposing to) the legalism and wordliness of the Jewish scriptures (with Yahweh being the god of this world who keeps his followers in line through reward and punishment). Jesus moral teachings are quite different in that there aren’t simple answers, and to turn to Jewish scriptures for simple answers is to miss the point. For example, if Jesus believed in Jewish family values, then he would’ve himself married and had children as was expected of Jewish Rabbis. Also, his denying his own mother doesn’t exactly demonstrate a pro-family attitude. With the stated purpose of creating familial conflict, Jesus said that he came to send a sword rather than peace.
There obviously are arguments for Jesus supporting (or at least not always denouncing) violence. Jesus uses sword imagery quite a bit, and it’s hard to explain why a supposed pacifist would rely so heavily on symbols of violence… although he could be attempting to transform physical objects into spiritual symbols and thus negating their violent meaning. However, Jesus did at one point tell his followers to sell their robes and buy swords. In this passage, there is a reference to “two swords” which is what the Judean siccari carried in fighting the Romans. But later in this same chapter Jesus rejected the use of swords. Did he change his mind or were his words remembered incorrectly?
Another interesting passage is where Jesus says to turn the other cheek. The custom was only to hit with the right hand because the left was reserved for unclean activities. Also, the custom was to backhand inferiors which meant hitting the left cheek. To offer your right cheek, would force the attacker to punch or slap which was only done between equals. More importantly, this would be an invitation to fight back. So, turning your cheek could simply be a refusal to play the role of the inferior or it could be a challenge to a fight.
Furthermore, one of the most famous deeds of Jesus is his going on a wild rampage through the temple. Why would a pacifist act this way? To give some context, the Roman soldiers that came to arrest Jesus numbered at least 500 and possibly much higher. Why would such a massive force be needed to arrest a pacifist?
Even if Jesus wasn’t entirely opposed to violence, few modern Christians refer to these passages to rationalize acts of violence… although, going by President Bush’s rhetoric, holy war is still a popular concept. The Christian guy I mentioned earlier said he thought that the temple incident may not be true because it seems out of character. The question is out of character from what? Out of character from our modern expectations of Jesus? Or out of character with the New Testament in general? The problem is that many of Jesus’ sayings and deeds can seem out of character when placed next to eachother. The New Testament is filled with seeming contradictions. Maybe Jesus character is no different than any other human. Maybe Jesus was inconsistent and changed his mind like humans are wont to do. Still, Jesus does overall seem more of a pacifist than not. And, despite certain unclear passages, Jesus obviously wasn’t the warrior-king messiah that many Jews were hoping for. It’s for certain, anyways, that many Christians seem to want him to be a pacifist which makes it even odder when those same Christians formulate other arguments for violence.
WHAT BOTHERS ME
Whatever Jesus may or may not have been, I guess what bothers me isn’t so much whether someone feels able or willing to live according to the gospels. There are at least two elements to what really bothers me. First, Christians read their scriptures very selectively and tend to give less emphasis to the radical aspects of Jesus. But this is probably similar to people in all religions. Second, the compartmentalization of how Christians separate their religion from other parts of their life. But I’d say this self-division is common to all people in various ways. So, why should I pick on Christians in particular? The main reason is because I live in a largely Christian society. I grew up Christian and surrounded by Christians. Christianity is what I’ve studied and what I know. Christians are who I deal with the most.
I understand that many Christians try to be moral… whether or not they’re actually following the teachings of Jesus. However, does being a Christian simply mean being a generally good person? If so, how is a Christian any different than anyone else who is generally good? I sense for most Christians it’s just a cultural identity which isn’t problematic in and of itself, but a cultural identity doesn’t personally inspire me. The thing is what does it mean to be a good Christian? If even good Christians kill, torture, and drop atom bombs (and morally justify these), then in what way is Christianity superior? This is a profound question when one considers how Jesus was tortured and killed and how Christianity spread partly through even worse forms of violence.
So what? Many Christians are hypocrites and much of Christian history is blatant hypocrisy. That isn’t a new insight. What’s the big deal? This is just the way humans are. The hypocrisy that bothers me seems to be inherent to the human condition, andChristians are humans afterall. I’m also human and I don’t lack sympathy for the failings of humanity, but I don’t abide righteousness well. My beef is that too many Christians have a superior attitude… obviously if they didn’t believe their religion was superior then there wouldn’t be much point in being a Christian (rather than any other arbitrary religious affiliation). Then again, having a superiority complex is just another common human attribute. Maybe I’m wrong to expect Christians to live up to their own righteous ideals moreso than anyone else.
I’m no moral exemplar myself… but the difference between certain Christians and myself is that I don’t seek to morally justify actions that are morally questionable (such as torture). I realize, from a practical standpoint, there are potentially “moral” reasons for violence used selectively. Modern people often use a facade of utilitarianism to rationalize otherwise immoral actions. Utilitarianism is the attempt to seek the greatest good for the greatest numbers, and it’s hard to argue against that in principle. However, it’s a slippery slope. With it, justifications can be made to torture someone to prevent them from setting off a nuclear bomb for example. And, also with it, justifications can be made to drop a nuclear bomb on them pre-emptively.
The question is whose greater good are we serving? The greater good of our particular group or the greater good of humanity? And, from a Christian perspective, doesn’t utilitarianism (when used to trump Jesus’ teachings) come dangerously close to undermining the entire basis of Christianity? The Christian is commanded to serve the higher good of God and the higher good of loving his fellow man. If we must do violence to eachother on this planet we share, I’d rather we not pretend that it’s a matter of morality.
A DEEPER ISSUE, AN ESSENTIAL TRUTH
Along with moral hypocrisy, I want to focus on a deeper issue of human nature, the compartmentalization I mentioned above. I first came to understand this from reading Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words. Jensen shows how easy it is to become divided within oneself. This is particularly a problem for modern people. In the world today, life is splintered into so many factors of society and so many fields of knowledge. A person learns about one thing in school and another thing at church. A person knows one set of people at work and another set of people at church. People make decisions that affect others who they’ve never met and who they know nothing about. Soldiers go to far off lands and kill strangers because another stranger in a position of authority told them to do so. The challenge of morality is that humans aren’t designed to deal with the complexities of this global society. Torture, killing, and nuclear bombs are unreal abstractions until they happen to you or to someone you love. The human moral sense is unable to deal with anything outside of our immediate sphere of experience.
Jensen uses many examples, but one is particularly relevant here. He extensively refers to the Nazis and in one instance he writes of Nazi doctors. There were doctors whose job was to kill people which of course included children. Some of these doctors had families they returned to every night. How could they inject a child with poison and then hours later play with their own children? Psychological research shows that people have immense ability to separate different parts of our lives. When at home, the dead children simply didn’t exist in the doctor’s mind. Furthermore, everyone has their rationalizations. Some of the doctors, if I remember correctly, believed they were actually helping the people they killed… which would’ve been difficult to sustain if their own children ever ended up in one of the death camps… but, as long as the two worlds could remain separate, the illusion continued.
This psychological ability to compartmentalize does have evolutionary advantages. We identify with our group, our close relationships… and the stranger, the enemy become something less. This tribal instinct has served man well, but religions during the Axial Age (such as Christianity) called us to a higher aspiration. The prophets and teachers of that time spoke of caring as much about a stranger as we do about ourselves. Afterall, we are all strangers to someone until we get to know them. And it’s been said that behind each stranger’s face is God. To put it bluntly, the man alone in a prison being tortured by those who know not what they do is the same as Jesus on the cross. No one deserves torture, and anyone who tortures another forsakes whatever is good in their heart. As Jesus says, “What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”
That quote of Jesus captures the essence of how many people think of Jesus. I was talking to another person about these various issues. I was explaining about the complexities of Jesus’ message… and lamenting about difficulty of understanding. He argued that there is an essential truth and that the details are less important. The idea is that, although Jesus made specific statements, they were applicable to specific people in specific situations. Nonetheless, the message behind the words still speaks to us so many centuries later. The problem with this is that Christians have come to different conclusions about the essential truth. I wonder if it’s when all of the details aren’t considered fully that Christians end up rationalizing actions that don’t seem very Christian. Then again, all of the details don’t add up to a clear message either.
Part of the confusion is that the Bible is such a mix of texts written at different times by different people. There are at least three possible solutions to articulating a clear message:
- The orthodox Christians attempt to harmonize, but that just adds further problems. Ultimately, there can be no honest harmonization between all of the contradictory details and divergent agendas. Harmonization falls apart if you look at it too closely. Even so, this technique has been powerfully used when filtered through centuries of orthodox interpretations and upheld by the persuasive might of Church authority.
- I’m more attracted to an understanding like that of Marcion I’ve thought for a long time that there is a marked distinction between Jewish and Christian scriptures. It’s true that Jewish ideas formed a background to early Christianity, but Christian scriptures range way beyond orthodox Jewish tradition. Plus, I’m convinced that the main components of Christian theology and mythology have very little to do with Judaism beyond the fact that some Jews were also influenced by the same cultural milieu. Marcion definitely understand the radicalness of Jesus’ message like few others. Love doesn’t merely complete the law. The God of love is entirely separate from the god of the law.
- Like Marcion, another early Christian who left Catholicism was Valentinus. In some ways, Valentinus was more moderate in that he was seeking to bridge the differences between orthodoxy and Gnosticism… not that the differences were necessarily that great at the time. On the other hand, the Gnostic vision at the heart of the Valentinian tradition is quite radical. But even so Valentinus realized that simple faith is still good for those who lack an experience of gnosis.
CONTENTMENT AND OTHERWISE
Anyways, most Christians go for the first solution. That is fair enough as most people aren’t looking for radical answers from their religion. Traditionally, religion is an institution of the status quo in that it helps to promote and sustain social order. I was thinking of someone I know who reminds me of my own mother… the stereotypical good Christian. This woman spent her life in a helping profession. She always has played the role of loyal wife and caring mother. She is a simple person who has spent her life being responsible and hardworking. She attends church regularly and she volunteers. She is “good” in a very socially acceptable way and she seems quite content in being good. But is contentment the same as moral goodness? Is it inherently good to submit to a duty-bound life (i.e., the ideal of Kiersey’s SJ Temperament)? As I see it, people like this live according to their personalities. And this is true for everyone… but are certain personalities morally superior?
Should we all strive to be like this? What if someone doesn’t feel capable of being like this (such as, to pick a random example, an INFP)? What about a person who isn’t so easily contented or who is even outright dissatisfied (such as, to pick another random example, a depressed person)? Jesus certainly didn’t seem like a contented soul who did what was expected of him. And neither am I of the contented variety. The rub of the matter is that those of a discontented nature are generally not looked upon kindly by the keepers of the status quo. If the discontented cause enough problems, they may even come to a bad end… such as being crucified… or, the equivalent in the modern world, being imprisoned/institutionalized.
This is a very personal matter for me. I was raised with parents who lived as basically good people. And this sense of basic goodness was instilled in me. The difficulty for me is that I have an idealistic nature and I’ve never been contented with basic goodness. I read A Course In Miraclesin highschool. From this, I learned of Jesus’ radical message of love(which more or less fits in with the Valentinian tradition). I don’t know if the Gnostics were right about the transformative power of gnosis, but I’d like to believe they were right. I’ve read of stories of various mystics who were transformed by divine visions and dark nights of the soul, and I’m still waiting for God to reach down and bop me on the head with his magic wand. I have had a number of visions in my life that felt quite spiritual and yet I remain untransformed. I feel as if I’m in an endless dark night of the soul… sometimes minus the soul. Basically, it sucks being depressed. I wish I were able to be one of those simple good people. I’ve tried to be that before, but it just ain’t me. Instead, I simultaneously feel envious and critical of all of the “good” Christians in the world.
It just seems unfair that some people can go through life feeling certain in their beliefs while others are doomed to eternal doubt. I’m a bit biased but I’m of the opinion that the world could use more doubt. If people more strongly doubted their own righteous convictions, then there would probably be less righteous violence in the world. Going by my own experience and observations, there appears to be a link between suffering and compassion. People only seem to have compassion to the degree they’ve personally suffered… not that suffering in and of itself guarantees development of compassion.
I just don’t know. I hereby confess my ignorance. Maybe all my complaining and analysis comes to nothing. Most likely I’m just a depressed person who thinks too much. Oh well…
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