Sunday, May 15, 2011
Christianity: The Paradox and the Practice
One remark made by Bill Maher in his recent HBO show caused me to pause and reflect once more about the recent takedown of Osama bin Laden, evidently in cold blood. Maher, an avowed non-believer, asserted that while he could easily make the claim bin Laden deserved what he got, shot dead where he stood, no true Christian could. He cited several quotes of Yeshua (Jesus) to the effect that his true followers were to "love their enemies", "do good to those who persecute you" and even "turn the other cheek." No where at no time did he ever endorse "an eye for an eye" which was part of the Old (Hebrew) law he had come to supplant with one of Love. SO how is it, as Maher put, a President who claims he receives scriptures every day on his blackberry could order such a kill? Is that not controverting his own Master's injunctions? Maher believed it did and criticized Obama (in his '60 Minutes' interview last Sunday) for even suggesting that "anyone who didn't believe this was justice needs his head examined". In Maher's own words: "Then he's calling his Master a nut!
But it isn't just Obama, though he's now become the poster child (especially for many on the Left) for behaving exactly contrary to how his claimed spiritual Master would. Of course, his defenders can insist "bin Laden was a mass murderer", that "he had it coming", blah, blah and blah. But in the end all of these are rationalizations, or specious justifications which Christ himself would scoff at and utter his famous aspersion (also in the NT):"Woe to ye, Pharisees" who he called whited sepulchres. But look around and one sees "Pharisees" aplenty in our country. All doing exactly the opposite of what Yeshua would have condoned, and cheering their murderuous deed in the streets. And they have the nerve to look forward to a "second coming". I wouldn't be so damned eager if I was them!
In a blog some two years ago on smirkingchimp.com this sort of paradox in proclaimed Christians' behavior was noted in an article entitled, A Culture of Pharisees . As the author (whose name I have lost) put it:
"We have become a culture of Pharisees. Instead of practicing an authentic spirituality of compassion, nonviolence, love and peace, we as a collective people have become self-righteous, arrogant, powerful, murderous hypocrites who dominate and kill others in the name of God. The Pharisees supported the brutal Roman rulers and soldiers, and lived off the comforts of the empire by running an elaborate banking system which charged an exorbitant fee for ordinary people just to worship God in the Temple. Since they taught that God was present only in the Temple, they were able to control the entire population. If anyone opposed their power or violated their law, the Pharisees could kill them on the spot, even in the holy sanctuary.
Most North American Christians are now becoming more and more like these hypocritical Pharisees. We side with the rulers, the bankers, and the corporate millionaires and billionaires. We run the Pentagon, bless the bombing raids, support executions, make nuclear weapons and seek global domination for America as if that was what the nonviolent Jesus wants. And we dismiss anyone who disagrees with us.
We have become a mean, vicious people, what the bible calls “stiff-necked people.” And we do it all with the mistaken belief that we have the blessing of God.
In the past, empires persecuted religious groups and threatened them into passivity and silence. Now these so-called Christians run the American empire, and teach a subtle spirituality of empire to back up their power in the name of God. This spirituality of empire insists that violence saves us, might makes right, war is justified, bombing raids are blessed, nuclear weapons offer the only true security from terrorism, and the good news is not love for our enemies, but the elimination of them.
The empire is working hard these days to tell the nation--and the churches--what is moral and immoral, sinful and holy. It denounces certain personal behavior as immoral, in order to distract us from the blatant immorality and mortal sin of the U.S. bombing raids which have left 100,000 Iraqis dead, or our ongoing development of thousands of weapons of mass destruction. Our Pharisee rulers would have us believe that our wars and our weapons are holy and blessed by God.
In the old days, the early Christians had big words for such behavior, such lies. They were called “blasphemous, idolatrous, heretical, hypocritical and sinful.” Such words and actions were denounced as the betrayal, denial and execution of Jesus all over again in the world’s poor. But the empire needs the church to bless and support its wars, or at least to remain passive and silent.
And so many millions of "Christians" do. Oh they will crack open their scriptures and read verbatim, chapter and verse, from whatever bible they have. They'll even posture as "saved" on the Lord's name, and at his behest. Proclaiming themselves one of his own. But then to countenance the blatant cold blooded killing of another? Sorry, doesn't work that way! As Maher put it, "I get to applaud the killing of bin Laden, YOU don't! Not if you are truly following your Master!" So why this disconnect between the true principles espoused by Christ and acting in direct contradiction? Mayhap, because Christianity doesn't go far enough in rigorously emphasizing that form is not the same as followership. As Maher put it at the end of his monologue: Gandhi was so Christian, he was a Hindu. Recall Gandhi during his protests against the British in South Africa ordered all his followers to lift not one hand to them, as they attacked with truncheons. They were to sustain every blow, though the blows often fractured heads, rather than fight back. This IS the true Christian path and behavior, as Yeshua laid it out, but do you think for one moment our illustrious self-proclaimed Xtians are following it? I leave you to consider the actions, etc. of the past two weeks, including the odious, gloating frat- boy celebrations in the streets. Behavior that would have Yeshua retching if he beheld it.
Then there was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Maher also declared to have been "walking the walk, and not merely talking the talk". True to Christ's injunctions he commanded his followers in Selma, AL and Birmingham to not lift one finger to fight back as attack dogs were let loose on them, and they were blasted with fire hoses and smacked with truncheons. The people came away bloodied, but in the end their more moral way prevailed. Had they been seen to fight back, though they had every reason to, they'd have lost the moral high ground.
This brings up the issue of whether any highly appointed leader can truly act the part of a Christian. After giving this much thought and deliberation, I don't believe so. The reason inheres in what Christ was and as John Dominic Crossan has shown (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant) he was not a belligerent warmonger. Oh, he displayed one incident of anger (vs. the Temple sellers and merchants) and this is often falsely invoked to show he was aggressive and could strut in Marine greens if he had to. But this is bollocks. The overwhelming themes emphasized over and over were for active love of one's enemies - NEVER killing them, no matter how vile (recall how he restored the Roman officer's ear after Peter hacked it off to defend him as he was being led away) and passive restraint in the face of attack. Crossan traces this ethic directly to Yeshua's life as a "peasant Jewish Cynic"(p. 421). As noted (ibid.) this embodied "a life-style and mindset in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating and living and relating, that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for power, patronage and clientage. ....Hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies
Given this fact, and Crossan documents it extensively, no world leader of any nation, no matter how pious he proclaims himself (or how many scriptural texts he receives daily), would be able to emulate this behavior - because it requires DETACHMENT from power, military or otherwise, not being networked and wired into the midst of it. Thus, Obama for all his decency otherwise, simply cannot be a true follower of Yeshua, given his inevitable and predictable compromises to the power he wields (and is expected to use). To be a true follower would have required he demonstrate this by passive restraint, not aggressively sending Navy Seals in to off bin Laden no matter the opportunity that presented itself. Even if bin Laden and his henchmen had killed one million via a dirty bomb this would not have changed. Is it insane then? Of course! The most natural human instinct is rage, murderous reaction and extermination toward any perceived evil or person, especially one which wantonly takes mass lives. This is natural, but it was emphatically NOT Christ's way! He consistently admonished his disciples to turn the other cheek and not give way to hate or an eye for an eye. (Or as Gandhi once put it, "An eye for an eye leaves only blind men.")
That is why Yeshua also proclaimed that to be his follower was extraordinarily hard, not easy! It would be particularly so for one imbued and assigned power as well as holding the world's most powerful position. Of course he'd be expected to use it! But this is exactly why no world leader can be a true follower of Christ, since the implicit contradictions of expected behavior are too much to surmount. A "Martin Luther King" or "Gandhi-style" President? He wouldn't last a day!
Beyond this narrow example, one also must note (according to Crossan's and the NT's depiction of Yeshua) that Yeshua wouldn't countenance any unloving approaches to any other humans, no matter what! Thus, for a Christian to attack another Christian over his or her beliefs would render the attacker a "Pharisee" in Yeshua's book. One who professes to follow the teachings, but is enslaved only to forms, or the outer manifestations. Thus, the behavior of self-professed Christian critics of others' behaviors or beliefs directly controverts Yeshua's rule to love others as oneself. (NO exceptions made!) One can't do that if he is portrayng the other in vicious or caustic ways, whether via cartoons, images, words, or whatever - and asserting that one is doing it to weaken false messages or false teaching doesn't cut it. As Christ also said: "Judge not, lest ye be judged, for howsoever thou judge thou shall be judged...measure for measure".
Does this mean that Presidents, Prime Ministers, Defense Secretaries...(still bombing and killing hapless Afghans) or belligerent and self-righteous pastors (like many now attacking Rob Bell) should just give up trying to copy Christ or name themselves Christians? No, of course not! What it does mean is perhaps what Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts once noted: "Your goodness must have an edge to it". Thus, if you see yourselves only as uniformly "good" (or mini-Christs in your own right) you will fail to see the shadow that also lurks inside and which is precisely that which causes you to controvert your Master's injunctions and act the part of the Pharisee. If you are aware of the shadow and how it affects your judgment and passions, you will be less likely to be its servant and thereby act more in accord with what your spiritual Master ordained. But no Christian ought to believe for one second he will be able to perfectly follow such an unearthly path, unless he's made of exceptional stuff. And last I checked, neither Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi were around. (Yes, I include Gandhi as a follower of Yeshua, even though he was born a Hindu. But even Gandhi noted -observed that the spiritual principles Christ followed were not bounded by any one religion)
And this is written by a former "outer form" Christian (Catholic) who nonetheless still regards himself as a Christian at heart (in the sense of the 'Peasant Jewish Cynic' of Crossan), though he makes no pretense to even being remotely on a par with Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi!