JR'S Free Thought Pages
Has Christianity been Hijacked?
What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st Century?
In this essay I will attempt to articulate my views on contemporary Christianity and offer a few positive remarks on behalf of Christians I have known.
Whenever someone asks about my own religious beliefs, I will usually respond with a perfunctory utterance such as “I am an evil secular humanist” or “born again atheist”, either of which is about as low as you can go in the eyes of most people in North America. This is especially true in the United States where the intensity of religious zealotry and intolerance is on a par with theocracies such as Iran.
Anyone who has been raised primarily in an Anglo-Saxon culture is perpetually bombarded by allusions to religion and surrounded by devout Christians and deeply religious people. You can’t listen to the radio or television for more than ten minutes without God being mentioned at least once or even attend a group function without someone insisting on saying "grace" before a meal.
Whenever I turn on the television and scan through the refuse of a culture of intellectual entropy and moral depravity, I pass through at least a half dozen channels devoted exclusively to televangelism or some aspect of religion. One channel has Peter Popoff pounding the Bible with one hand while accepting checks from credulous believers in the other. Another channel has Pat Robertson pontificating on the evils of a secular society or calling for the assassination of a democratically elected socialist leader in Venezuela and making outrageous assertions such as:
“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” “I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household and the husband is the head of the wife, and that's the way it is - period.”
Robertson, who would likely be committed to a mental institution in any country but the USA, demonstrates his blatant ignorance of the devout Catholicism of Hitler and many of his henchmen with comments like:
“Many of those people involved with Adolph Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals -- the two things seem to go together.”
Yet another channel has Randall Terry spewing out hate while ranting and raving about the degeneracy of homosexuality and summing up with outlandish assertions such as:
“I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good . . . Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty; we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.”
Shortly after 9/11 Jerry Falwell enthusiastically offered his personal analysis of the terrorist attack. It was not at all evident to him that the cause may have been the combination of US imperialism and Islamic terrorism but, as Falwell said to Pat Robertson:
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.”
Even Franklin Graham, the son of evangelisms superman Billy Graham, offered his peace initiative for the systemic problems in the Middle East when he proposed that Muslims and Jews should seriously consider "surrendering their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ and having their hearts changed by the Holy Spirit." Facile statements such as this by Graham are unprecedented in their ignorance of history. He should know better. A hundred years of Western interference in the Middle East has left the region so ruptured by fault lines and artificial frontiers and laden with injustices that we are in no position to pontificate to the Islamic world on issues of justice and morality.
Such blatant over-simplifications and hate-mongering by these so-called religious leaders sounds more like the rhetoric of a Neo-Nazi or white supremacy group than a self-proclaimed Christian. It’s not only perplexing, but downright vulgar and reprehensible. In addition to the hate-mongering variant of televangelist we have literally hundreds of others demonstrating the gross hypocrisy of modern Christianity. Every Sunday morning one can turn to a channel featuring a minister adorned in exotic robes and solid gold crucifixes preaching to privileged classes of upwardly mobile yuppies from the pulpits of multi-million dollar churches that look like a five star Hotel Hilton. Contrast the aforementioned with the Catholic priest played by Karl Malden in the great1954 film On The Waterfront. Of these, who would you consider the genuine Christian?
Also disconcerting is the fact that more than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God and 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious." In fact President George Bush Sr. once stated publicly in 1987 that perhaps atheists should be denied citizenship, declaring to an interviewer that “I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." Because it is taboo in our culture to criticize anyone’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy such as stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech and gay marriage, generally gets framed in terms amenable to a theocracy. Particularly in the United States, unreason and irrationality are now in the ascendancy -- in the media, in schools, in the courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28% of Americans believe in evolution, the lowest of all developed democratic countries, but 70% believe in Satan and 78% believe in angels. Ignorance of this magnitude, concentrated in both the head and heart of a leviathan superpower, is now a problem for the entire world. By any measure, the United States remains a highly religious nation, compared to other developed countries and its citizens hold more fundamentalist and reactionary beliefs. For example, the percentage of adults who believe that "the Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word" is 5 times higher in the U.S. than in Britain and church attendance is about 4 times higher in the U.S. than it is in Britain. In the United Sates presidential election, a third rate entertainer with an IQ equivalent to his body temperature but who reads the Bible would surely defeat a world class nuclear physicist who does not. Sadly, our world is rapidly succumbing to the actions of men and women holding political power who would stake our future on a world view that should not have survived a junior high school education.
Whether a person is religious or secular, there is still nothing more sacred than the facts, arguments and evidence that lead us to the truth. It's far beyond the time we accept the the principle that the only thing that allows human beings to collaborate and cooperate in a genuinely open-ended manner is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts, evidence and argument. This spirit of mutual rationality and inquiry is the basis of the scientific temper and the very antithesis of faith and is the only path to the possibility of a civilized society. God exists or he does not; Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and resurrected from death, or he was not; Allah is the true God or he is not; Angels exists or they do not. It’s time that sensible human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort. The efforts of fundamentalist Christian groups to have Creationism accepted in high school biology classes is a case in point. In Louisiana public schools twenty years ago the issue of Creationism was ultimately taken to the U. S. supreme court and was rejected as nothing more than religious dogma in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard. The issue is not, as Creationism (now recast as Intelligent Design) advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. That no one can prove the non-existence of anything is a fundamental tenet in any freshman course in logic. Creationism simply does not meet even minimal standards of a scientific hypothesis and there are countless numbers of other ludicrous ideas as well that science cannot "rule out," but which no person of sound mind would entertain. Just as the Big Bang neither proved nor disproved the existence of God, so too evolution as a natural process is independent of one's religious beliefs. The absence of explicit evidence for "intelligent design", which certainly seems to be the case, is no more a proof that God does not exist than the Big Bang implies that the biblical account in Genesis is true. Biology without evolution is like physics without gravitation and it is difficult to understand why evolutionary theory, studied intensively for over 150 years now and with massive volumes of evidence in support of it, elicits so much mindless resistance and controversy from organized religion. It's as rabid today as was the opposition to Copernicus and Galileo's heliocentric theory centuries ago. The Roman Catholic Church in 1992 finally apologized for the persecution of Galileo and officially accepted the heliocentric theory, some 350 agonizing years after its formulation. The New York Times reported that the Church had finally admitted Galileo was right and the earth did revolve around the sun. Others proclaimed that the Church had surrendered in the alleged war between faith and science.
The crucial issue here is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of childish propositions and stories that many religious people believe, including the creationist account in Genesis. In the 21st century is it reasonable to believe that an omnipotent omniscient supernatural entity exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings, that he answers prayers, that believers will be rewarded with an “afterlife” if they have faith in him and behave in a certain manner or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception and qualifies as the moral equivalent of a person? Some religious people might be wise to heed the words of Goethe who once proclaimed, "Nothing is worse than active ignorance." If the theory of evolution turns out to be flawed or even mistaken, a very unlikely proposition at this point, it could only be replaced by another and better scientific theory, not by special pleadings of religious groups for which not a shred of scientific evidence exists.
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine for a moment President George W Bush addressing the National Prayer Breakfast in these terms: "Behind all of life and all history there is a dedication and a purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful Zeus." Imagine his speech to Congress containing the sentence "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that Thor, Aphrodite and Odin are not neutral between them." Clearly, the truisms of ordinary language should reveal to us the peculiarity and vacuity of many of our beliefs. Bush regularly speaks in phrases appropriate to the fourteenth century, and no one seems curious enough to find out what words like "God", “soul”, "crusade", "the power of prayer", “born again” and “faith-based initiatives” mean to him. Not only do many of us still embrace the remnants and residue of the Dark Ages; we are adamantly self-satisfied about it. No reasoning person graduating from the sixth grade can deny that both the Bible and the Koran contain countless passages of mind-numbing gibberish. Moreover, there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh or Allah than there was to keep Zeus parked on his heavenly throne or Thor riding through the heavens in his chariot. Because the cultures that believed in these deities no longer exist, no one is presently killing abortion doctors or running airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of Zeus or Thor. As Richard Dawkins, the celebrated Oxford evolutionary biologist has observed, "we are now all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor."
I’ve been informed by many of my friends and acquaintances who claim to be Christian that in order to qualify as such one must believe that Christ is the son of God, born to a virgin, was resurrected from death and can perform miracles. In my view none of these arcane beliefs are relevant in any pragmatic sense. It’s no more rational or relevant than those who believe in ghosts, reincarnation, alien abductions, horoscopes or that there exists an invisible flying pink unicorn presiding over the planet Neptune.
In the United States, where levels of religiosity are comparable with theocracies like Iran, 94% of Americans (70-80% in Canada) according to a recent Gallup poll profess belief in God or some universal supernatural entity, 76% believe that God listens to their prayers, 44% believe in the Biblical account of creation and 35% consider themselves “Born again”. Approximately 55% of Catholics and 40% of Protestants believe in UFOs and 25% believe in astrology. Understandably, there is a direct inverse correlation between religious belief and levels of education. In this climate, critiques of religion by liberal intellectuals are about as hazardous as burning the US flag in an American Legion hall but proselytizers of religion like to claim that it is they who are besieged by the liberal intellectual elites and not they other way around. The Canadian Humanist Association, for example, has a smaller membership than most community Baptists churches. The “collective forces of secular humanism and atheism” referred to by fear mongering Christian zealots are mere voices in the wilderness. Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts nor any other fundamentalist Christian has much to fear from secular humanism and atheism. American televangelists like the aforementioned are always proselytizing and ranting about the evils of the encroaching secularization of society. The facts, however, tell a much different story. In the most recent U.S. Gallup Poll, as I have already cited earlier, 94% of Americans say they believe in a “personal God”. That leaves 6% who are atheists, agnostics or deists. The enemy of Christianity is not Humanism, but competing belief systems, including other mainstream religions, New Age cults, Scientology, eastern mysticism and other paranormal, supernatural beliefs. In the same Gallup Poll it was found that more people believe in astrology than believe in evolution, 90% believe in heaven, 79% believe in miracles and 73% believe in hell. The humanist publication, Skeptic Magazine, for example, with its circulation of 40,000, would probably fit into this minority category. When compared to various religious publications whose circulation numbers run well into the hundreds of thousands or even millions, the voice of secular humanism is but a mere whisper in the wilderness. Moreover, these groups rarely if ever have a platform on the right wing corporate media to espouse their views. And I am always perplexed by the suggestion from people of various religious persuasions that there is some necessary logical connection between religious faith and belief in a deity on the one hand and morality on the other. Sadly, the intolerance, persecution and violence of religious history suggests a much different conclusion vis-à-vis this dubious connection.
One can criticize the beliefs of New Age kooks and marginalized fringe cults but not mainstream Christian beliefs or rituals such as the sacraments or baptism rites which are in my view just as puerile and laughable as a séance. A recent example of this sort of religious discrimination cropped up in Indianapolis, when a couple filed for divorce. The couple happened to be of the earth-based religion known as Wicca. The court awarded them joint custody of their nine-year-old son, but the judge added to the dissolution decree that both parents must refrain from exposing their child in any way to what the judge called “non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals.” In the opinion of this judge, Christianity and its myriad fringe denominations get a free ride some religions are not fit for human consumption.
What really matters however is not the peculiarity of their beliefs, but how these people behave in the world and whether or not the world view and moral imperatives that they are compelled to live by have a detrimental impact on their behavior and the lives of others. There are hundreds of Christian denominations and fringe cults, some of which focus on particular passages in the Bible as their overriding metaphysical and moral precepts. Mormonism, Christian Science and the Jehovah Witnesses come quickly to mind. There are anachronistic passages in the Bible that glorify war, endorse slavery, denigrate women and demonize homosexuality and I suppose there are Christians who take such passages literally. I have my own conception of what it means to be a Christian and it has nothing to do with adhering to draconian moral precepts, frequency of church attendance, attention to ritual, adhering rigorously to moral absolutes or believing in supernatural entities and phenomena.
As I mentioned above, in North American society one is surrounded by people who call themselves Christian. We see them by the hundreds on television programs chanting with arms swinging wildly toward the sky while the pastor rants and raves about the evils of secular humanism, the debauchery of homosexuality and the immorality of abortion or voluntary assisted suicide. Strangely however, one thing these televangelists all have in common: they need lots of money and they need it now!
But there's one thing about all those frenetic fundamentalist Christians who dominate the press and airwaves these days, particularly in the United States. They bear absolutely no resemblance to many of the self-professed Christians I have met during my lifetime and who have become close friends. Many Christians I have come to know are nothing like the Christians I read about in the media who are the apparent interest groups behind narrow-minded, mean-spirited legislation introduced by Republican legislators. The Republican party it would seem has been hijacked by those who have hit the delete key on their Bibles so that their version begins with the blood and guts of the Old Testament and ends with Revelations, with nothing left from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels or the Sermon on the Mount. The government under the George W. Bush administration is an example of a thoroughly immoral entity of excessive religiosity at its worst. Everywhere one sees blatant dishonesty, even criminality with the theft of public resources abetted by cronyism and influence peddling and a raw appeal to white-power bigotry and greed in all aspect of government operations. In short, capitalism as the piracy by selected elites operating at the expense of justice and democracy, and justified to the public with appeals to the irrational: be afraid, relapse into bigotry and blind faith in your leaders, plunge into greed and fear of material loss, resort to a mutated hypocritical Christianity, but above all don't question authority, think critically or be skeptical, don’t criticize and especially don't express dissent toward self-serving power. Capitalism has never endorsed the spirit of Christ's vision in the Sermon on the Mount nor does it feel constrained by any secular moral imperative such as Kant's Enlightenment ethic of treating people as ends rather than means. It doesn't even stoop to believe in the tenets of Utilitarianism's, the notion of "the greatest good for the greatest number". This would interfere with maximization of profit and shareholder value. Capitalists do not even make a feeble effort to operate under any basic conditions of moral culture unless it's a marketing ploy to have the consuming public perceive them as philanthropic. One such prominent company donated $1.5 million to a charity and then spent $25 million advertising the fact.
The appeal to religion by the present Bush administration is simply one aspect of its diversionary propaganda. It’s extremely strange that so many seem to restrict their concept of morality to innocuous personal idiosyncrasies such as sexual preference, contraception or the right to die. Where is the moral concern for the under-funding of services to the least privileged among us? Where are the checks and balances of an untrammeled capitalist culture which appeals to our worst instincts of envy and greed? How can we overlook the stupidity and moral outrage that is war? Especially a war instigated by a president who claims to have been instructed by a God that has mysteriously taken up residence in his cranium and who has been complicit in a blatant conspiracy that has devastated the land and infrastructure of Afghanistan and Iraq, killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and brutalized the psyches of his own troops as they brutalize their victims in the name of coping with terrorism.
A large number among those championing the neo-conservative takeover of the United States are righteous Christians who sincerely believe that the purposes and designs of George W Bush are coincidental with those of their God. Why do they think this? Is it because he claims to be “born again”, prays regularly or because he commiserates with his cabinet to study Scripture? Is it because he revels in invoking the name of God and Jesus publicly? Is it because he opposes abortion and physician assisted suicide? Is it because he employs the rhetoric of “family values.”? Or is it because he appears to believe that America is a Christian nation and as such, a chosen people whose objectives are contemporaneous with God’s divine plan.
The very public nature of Bush’s religiosity ought to at least flick on an amber light in the head of any believer who remembers Jesus’ admonishment to the Pharisees: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Bush’s “God has spoken to me” approach to political decision-making needs at least to be submitted to the test Paul sets forth in enumerating the fruits of the Spirit: if an action is truly “Spirit-driven,” it will be marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians. 5:23). Moreover we are explicitly reminded that "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So it appears that the validity and sincerity of many pious and self-righteously Christian beliefs are subject to a New Testament reality check.
Motivation, sincerity and resolve are in and of themselves manifestly useless and dangerous criteria of morality and justice. History is strewn with those who were highly motivated by a sense of conviction, self-satisfaction and unwavering certainty of belief and who were demonstrably and disastrously wrong. It would require a volume at least the size of the Bible itself to catalogue them. Some of the most sincere and pious people throughout history and indeed many people that I know personally are also the most poorly informed. Sincerity and single-mindedness often seem to be handy substitutes for rigorous examination of and reflection on the facts at hand. Faith can often be a convenient labor saving device for eliciting facts without having to engage in the arduous intellectual task of providing evidence and cogent argument.
I wonder how those Christian conservatives whose rallying cry of choice is “family values” can reconcile it with Jesus’ admonishment to the disciples, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Or his answer to the messenger who interrupted him to say his mother and brothers wanted his attention: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:42). Obviously these startling assertions need to be read in context. No one claims Jesus was “anti-family,” but neither did he articulate a particular model of family life. Rather he seemed to indicate that there would be circumstances in which people would be called to leave their families, to reinvent them, to challenge them, and in any case to understand that as members of the Body of Christ, we would have to subordinate our allegiance to all human institutions, including family. Focusing on the family can become idolatry and mindless adherence to authority.
In my view, the invocation of “Conservative” to describe certain politically active right wing Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family is essentially an Orwellian euphemism used to describe raving fundamentalists. In the United States groups such as these have been serious threats to civil liberties, the teaching of science in public schools and other areas of enlightened secular society. In short, they are attempting to break down the barriers between church and state in the US guaranteed by the constitution. They are now imposing themselves as perilous threats to do the same thing here in Canada. Focus on the Family, in particular, is an especially powerful political force with massive financial backing that now has a large presence in our country. My knee jerk reaction to such a group is “Focus on Your Own Damn Family!” and if religious groups such as these want to get seriously involved in the political process; they can pay taxes like the rest of us. As I suggested earlier, “family” is a word that can mean different things to different people. Even fascist groups, drug cartels and ordinary street gangs refer to themselves as a “Family” - so there is nothing intrinsically endearing about family. Politically, the rhetoric of “family values” serves the purposes of Bush’s deeper agenda, all too reminiscent of the Third Reich’s National Socialist slogan, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (Children, Kitchen, Church) that focused the attention of a compliant docile population on the domestic sphere as the locus of their proper moral concern while political power was concentrated in the hands of a violent few.
The claim that the 2004 election in the USA was won by those who voted on the “moral issues” must be particularly troubling to those who believe in the richness and complexity of the biblical story and of the way it invites them to moral reflection. For many on the neo-conservative Christian Right, the non-negotiable moral issues in the election were reduced to abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research. Many thoughtful Christians recognize the moral complexity of these issues and the need for careful reflection on the contexts of biblical guidelines invoked in discussion of them. Oversimplification of these issues by members of the far Right, often in complete disregard of their socioeconomic and psychological contexts, has resulted in widespread lack of compassion for those most closely and personally affected. Christians might want to consult Matthew 7:3 on this issue.
Abortion, for example, can hardly be opposed without comparable attention to systems that support people in a wide range of desperate situations for whom the decision is hardly abstract or ideological, but economic, relational, and radically personal. As to gay marriage, it seems to me that Christians inclined to oppose it most vocally were generally those whom it was least likely to affect in any direct way. Why don't we spend our time on rehabilitating the self-serving anti-social temptations that we ourselves are most prone to rather than adjudicating the behavior of those whose needs and longings we can’t know or experience?
Stem cell research, like abortion, is not a simple issue, and we indeed need to be vigilant about the uses to which human lives and bodies are put in the name of science. As with abortion, it does raise significant moral and medical questions and we need moral philosophers and medical ethicists who have done their philosophical and biological homework to serve as guardians over the processes by which stem cells are collected and used. But that does not imply that we should simply leave it to the experts. Those of us who aren’t experts have some homework of our own to do before we prematurely denounce Christians with the utter certainty of vocal representatives of the Christian Right that efforts to determine the healing potential of stem cells are potentially harmful to society.
Most troubling of all, as I have pointed out earlier, is the fact that so many Christians seem to restrict their concept of morality to innocuous personal preferences. Where is the moral concern for the paucity of funding of services to the poorest among us and those who cannot cope with the vicissitudes of everyday existence? Where is the guardianship of the natural environment of which only we humans can accept responsibility? How can we overlook the moral obscenity that is unmitigated greed, envy, power of unfettered capitalism, corporatism and war – particularly all those wars over the centuries based on ideological dogmas, imperialistic aspirations and political and corporate greed? The most recent conflagration and resulting debacle in Iraq is an immoral and illegal war we now know is a conspiracy based on deceit and blatant lies that have laid waste to the land and infrastructure and killed well over 100,000 innocent civilians according to the British medical journal Lancet. The sexual proclivities of individuals that religion is perpetually obsessed with, pale in comparison to these pressing global moral issues.
Many on the Christian Right are fond of posing the question “WWJD? - What would Jesus do?” I’d like to remind them what Jesus DID do: he cared for the under-privileged and weak. He did not condemn the prostitute or the woman caught in an adulterous relationship. He prayed alone, not in concert with a hysterical mob. He taught that we should embrace our enemies and condemned violence as a solution to human conflict – one could say he was a peace monger. He commiserated with tax collectors, money lenders and other sinners—the lowlifes and outcasts of his day—while reserving his condemnation for the religious leaders who from a place of privilege imposed their own version of legitimacy and literalism on the people for whose care they were responsible. He instructed his disciples not to oppose the curative work of those outside their own ranks. And over and over he reminded us to care for those suffering the ravages and indignities of poverty. Poverty as a moral issue gets more attention than any other in the Gospels: one verse in every nine. If Christians concerned about how to respond to the grave global issues facing us all were to reread the Gospels for guidance, I think they would find some clear indications there regarding what Jesus would do - and what he wouldn’t do. One of the bumper stickers I’ve seen recently reads “Who would Jesus bomb?” Whatever Jesus would do, given what he did do, and has promised he will do, I don’t think it looks much like what the insulated, self-congratulatory CNN and Fox News fans on the Christian Right are doing.
Perhaps if only for a smaller number of us, Jesus is perceived to be a liberal peasant revolutionary, more akin to an Emiliano Zapata or Che Guevara than a George W Bush, a humble man who lived by example, and died for benevolence, compassion and social justice. He was a man of the working classes and underprivileged, not a man born into wealth and privilege. This is the Jesus I understand from my reading of the New Testament. The primary issues of Christian Liberalism were given impetus when Jesus spoke the profoundly prophetic words found in Matthew 25: 31-46. Liberalism as defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for tolerance and freedom for the individual from arbitrary authority in all spheres of life…”. The conservative religious and social structure that he challenged vilified and finally crucified him. These passages reveal his thoughts on the poor, the sick and other neglected people through out history. Christians should read this text and judge for themselves which of the two groups mentioned there more accurately reflect the political parties of today. His democratic socialism lives on today and the issues have not changed much.
The Jesus I understand was not a child of the proverbial silver spoon, but born of the most humble beginnings and raised in poverty. Throughout his life, Jesus was concerned with the poor, the powerless, the dispossessed and oppressed. He was the friend and protector of sinners, of the undesirables, and of the outcasts. Alive today and politically active, he would surely not be a conservative but a democratic socialist, more akin to a Tommy Douglas than a Stephen Harper. Ridiculed, scorned, betrayed, condemned and finally crucified, his life was defined by suffering. Jesus resisted all temptation toward gallantry, pretension, reward or spectacle. No dazzling, pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence from him! In fact, Jesus refused the temptation of self-serving coercive power, knowing respect and dignity are garnered through patience, charity, toleration and compassion, rather than compelled through fear. Using power and the promise of security to force obedience was the way of Herod, the Rome-installed “King of the Jews” who at the time of Jesus’ birth supposedly ordered the execution of all babies. Nowhere in the New Testament can I find any statement purported to have been uttered by Jesus concerning the “right to life” so often repeated by conservative evangelical Christians. These are the same people who want to protect fetuses but who at the same time favor the death penalty, pre-emptive immoral wars and slashing social services to the needy. Protect fetuses but not real live humans.
Jesus preached the way of love, the way of nonviolence. Not unlike Ghandi or even a Nelson Mandela, he was quite explicit in his pacifism: “Love your enemy”, and “resist not evil”, he said. Jesus refused the temptation to destroy evil by force, preferring to destroy it by tolerance, compassion and love. To Jesus, a nation that hails down destruction upon another people, and then madly waves the flag in a fit of jingoism, cannot possibly be endearing to an omni-benevolent God. A leader who claims war as his providential mission is a leader whose Christianity, as well as that of his followers, needs to be born yet-again. Blessed are the privileged! Blessed are the conquerors! Blessed are the powerful! – I think not! Was it not Jesus who proclaimed, “Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit”, and “Blessed are the peacemakers”? (Matthew 5:3-9) Did he not say, “People will know true believers if they have the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control”?
The Jesus I understand saw people not as citizens of nations, but citizens of all humankind. Nations he considered human constructs; no one political entity truly favored over another by one’s preferred deity. I’m sure Jesus would consider it arrogant narcissism to proclaim “God Bless America” and “We’re number one”, as if America were divinely entitled – singled out for and deserving of special blessings, particularly during wartime and the seventh inning stretch. Somehow I cannot imagine God up in the cosmic bleachers as war rages on here on earth with his flock exclaiming: Look! There’s God! He’s cheering for us! He’s waving our flag! What would he think of the imbecilic utterances of professional athletes who in post game interviews thank God for their wining touchdown passes in the end zone? What would he think of the baseball player who after blasting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning, mindlessly points to the heavens as he prances around the bases? No - the Jesus I understand is impartial, even to a fault. If he shows favor, it is only towards the weakest and most humble members of us. Sadly, these are the people our nations have forsaken. It’s up to genuine and sincere Christians to adamantly restate and defend the true Christian principles of justice, humility, grace, and compassion and to walk with the poor, the sinners, and the undesirables. It’s up to them to call national attention to the gulf between what Christians are called to do – be peacemakers, elevate the oppressed and impoverished – and condemn the unjust, war-mongering, acquisitive wealth-favoring policies of our self-proclaimed “born-again Christian” political leaders. Surely we all remember from Sunday School the passages in the New Testament about man’s inability to serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:19) and the probability of a rich man entering heaven being less than that of a camel passing through the eye of a needle? (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24) It’s up to us to refute the myth widely-held amongst the powerful and wealthy that power and wealth are somehow God’s will or a token of having established a personal relationship with Jesus, and that poverty and suffering are punishment for having not. To believe in this manner simply debases the teachings of Jesus, who chose a life of humble poverty, and gave his life for grace and compassion. It’s up to them to call attention to the inequities Jesus would see in our nation of abundance: our growing numbers of homeless and impoverished, our increasingly ill-fed and ill-educated schoolchildren, our evermore neglected indigenous peoples and disabled veterans, senior citizens and chronically ill. Our present premier of British Columbia, the right wing ideologue Gordon Campbell, often speaks of the economic growth in BC as best in Canada but yet paradoxically the other day we are told BC ranks first in Canada for children below the poverty line – one in four. It’s incumbent upon Christians to single out those Christians on the self-righteous political right as hypocrites for abusing the name of Jesus to promote their politics of greed and acquisitiveness and who marginalize and ignore those who are in need.
Christians and all other religious people must also understand that it is the separation of Church and State that protects their religious freedoms and the freedoms of those of us who do not believe. Moreover, they should come to the realization that religious belief in and of itself has no societal value. It certainly may have some particular personal value, but it is the morality and subsequent actions of the individual and not his/her religiosity that has social import. This is the separation of church and state at a personal level; you can believe what you want, but it is how you act that touches us all. Contrary to what many religious people think, there is no necessary logical connection between religion and morality, though many influenced by religious proselytizing imagine this fallacious delusion to be so. Certainly, some individuals will find moral behavior to be a choice inspired by their religious belief. Others can make the opposite choice from a similar emotional standpoint.
According to my own conception based on my reading of the New Testament, of the literally thousands of Christians I have met in my 60 years, I can count on one hand the number I would consider the genuine article and these people are among the finest people I have ever known. A former colleague and someone I value as one of my best friends fits into this category. What I mean by genuine Christians are those who actually make a consistent concerted effort to follow the teachings of a man purported to be Jesus Christ as depicted in the Gospels. My operative definition of a Christian is someone who sincerely makes an effort to follow the teachings of a man called Jesus as he is depicted in that book. That is, a person who (a) believes all the metaphysical peculiarities of Christian doctrine and supernatural attributes of a man called Jesus and (b) does his or her utmost to conform to the moral dictates of the New Testament. I know hundreds if not thousands who satisfy (a). That is not difficult; it requires absolutely no effort whatsoever other than blind faith. But I know precious few who have satisfied both (a) and (b). And of course, I know quite a few others who satisfy (b) but not necessarily (a).
For those Christians who satisfy (a), what then is required of them to satisfy (b)? It’s much easier to turn the question around and examine the people who fail: those who chase the almighty dollar and cheat on their taxes, whose self-esteem is factored into belonging to a multi-million dollar mega-church with people of like beliefs and socio-economic status, spending money on Hummers and BMWs, lavish houses, Rolex watches, lucrative golf club memberships and face lifts; those Catholics and others more concerned with condemning street people than deviant pedophilia by their own clergy; those concerned with school prayers instead of school excellence; those who own dozens of shoes, shirts, coats, and diamond rings, but own not a single thought provoking book worth reading; those who attack dissenters and cultural critics but welcome demagogues; those who prefer to spend one hundred dollars for a dinner for two rather than two dollars to save the life of a child dying of dysentery and dehydration; those who agonize over where to stick the Ten Commandments rather than how to stick to them; those who exercise contempt toward dancing and indulging in a glass of beer but not toward their government giving tax breaks to the rich and multinational corporations: those who are against the war on poverty but not against immoral and unjust wars where people are actually killed; those who depict people who belong to other religions or no religion at all as satanic while considering themselves “saved”; those who worry more about a phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance than about whether their neighbor has a pot to pee in; those who vehemently oppose birth control, the right to die and abortion but not white collar crime, unscrupulous predatory lawyers, cooking the books, lying to the grand jury or insider trading; those who throw a fit if an atheist or Muslim walks into the room but would give their eye teeth if Elvis or Madonna did; those who say they “love the sinner but hate the sin” but who really hate the sinner even more than the sin; those who despise gays; those who equate success with how many toys they have; those who praise hubris and mock humility; those who extol the pious, sanctimonious hypocrite and reject the prudent skeptical freethinker; those who make a mockery of Christmas by celebrating it as most important achievement of capitalism; those who care about the bottom line more than the people who are affected by it; those who cherish money markets and mutual funds but not “divine investment” called charity; those who put a premium on self-righteousness but not self-knowledge.
The half dozen or so genuine Christians I know do not promote hatred against other people. They don't oppose medical research that could save lives. They don't want the mythology of creationism taught in our science classes. They still believe Christianity has something to do with tolerance, pacifism, turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for the least privileged among us.
Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian who wrote "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," likes to point out that one out of every 10 verses in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke refer to economic injustice. Yet politicians such as George W Bush ignore the huge volume of biblical teachings on injustice to concentrate on a few tortured passages they somehow twist into prohibition of certain sexual proclivities and justification for virulent opposition to abortion, the right to die with dignity or gay marriage.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his new book of essays "A Man without a Country," wonders why the publicly pious are so enamored of the Ten Commandments instead of Jesus' beautiful Sermon on the Mount in which he blessed the merciful and the peacemakers. "Often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings," Vonnegut wrote. "I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
It's been said that those who use the Bible as an excuse to pass laws against private sexual conduct that's none of their business should read the entire book instead of just the nasty parts, particularly those horrific indictments from the Old Testament. Of course, reading the Bible doesn't do any good if people can misinterpret poetic allegorical language that encourages love and compassion for one another as somehow advocating the exact opposite - hatred and intolerance. It is an injustice to good-hearted Christians everywhere that conservative politicians today frame moral issues in the most small-minded, narrow and divisive ways imaginable.
In the United States, in bill after bill, Republican legislators attempt to chip away at a woman's right to decide whether to have a child if she becomes pregnant or to torpedo the pioneering stem cell research at the University of Wisconsin that could revolutionize medical treatment. Wisconsin has just become the national repository for all approved stem cell research lines. All the other states spending millions to attract such research would love to have the distinction. But legislators are still trying to sabotage stem cell research. State Senate Republicans just passed a ban on human cloning, something that isn't going on in Wisconsin in any event. But hidden in the bill was a ban on therapeutic cloning, which could be used to extend stem cell lines for medical research. Stem cell lines in a Petri dish are not human life. They will never become human life. On behalf of the most virulent religious extremists, politicians are still trying to shut down this life-saving research. Christians who genuinely care about human life should demand politicians stop taking their name in vain.
The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new evidence and facts. Only rationality, critical thought and attention to evidence and argument will secure any common ground in a world of cultural diversity. Nothing guarantees that even reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable and irrational are certain to be isolated by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that the enlightenment spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith. Science is evidence without certainty whereas religion is certainty without evidence.
Believe as you wish. Practice as you wish. Be as religious as you like anywhere you like. But please keep it out of my doctor’s office, my courts, my science classrooms and my bedroom. Whatever faith you profess or how you choose to profess it is your business. Don’t make it mine. As George Carlin insisted in one of his satirical skits, there should be an Eleventh Commandment: “Keep thy religion to thyself.”