By David E. Roy
In last month’s Community Alliance, there was a passionate article about religion that echoed some of the themes I have pursued for the past six years. While the author, Norman Lambert, started by setting himself in opposition to what I had written in the previous issue, what followed generally did not establish a serious difference in our overall perspective: Namely, that Jesus and his followers were in opposition to the dominant forces of the day, especially the Roman Empire but also the Jewish establishment that was subordinate to the imperial forces.
Regrettably, Lambert’s opening paragraph significantly mischaracterized my position by stating the my article framed Jesus as the “original ‘freedom fighter’” and also held out that “the Bible is a moral compass.” There is nothing in what I’ve ever written that has ever used or implied that Jesus was a freedom fighter and I personally stron-gly dislike the phrase “moral compass.”
Jesus as a “Freedom Fighter”?
Jesus, by strong consensus among biblical scholars, was not a “fighter” in any sense of the word. His advice, as given in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), was exactly the opposite. His words on the general topic of violence and enemies set up a paradox: Love your enemy. If you love your enemies, do they remain enemies?
Interestingly, the theme of Ender’s Game took this injunction exactly halfway. That is, Ender was aware that to destroy an enemy required being so fully understanding that the outcome would be love. While the story makes him innocent of the knowledge he was actually killing the entire species of the enemy, he clearly enjoyed the thrill of figuring out how to do it.
The Bible as a “Moral Compass”?
While it is exceptionally important for secular, social progressives to recognize that most Christians affirm that Jesus’ central message was that God’s love is unstoppable and infinite, and that when applied to the society of Jesus’ day, and the society of our day, it means that all thoughts and actions that impoverish human lives are in opposition to that love. This is inherently “political.”
While these ideas of love and justice are an explicit part of Christianity and the Christian bible, this does not mean that everything written in the total bible is in harmony with this position. Therefore, the idea that the bible functions as a moral compass, or not, is unfairly simplistic. The many scholars who have pursued the detailed, painstaking study of the bible (Jewish and Christian) have shown it to be a complex document with multiple, separate sources, all originally passed along by oral tradition.
What Was Required to Become a Single Source?
By pulling various streams together, a single source is created. Gathered together over an extended period, Christian sources come from the various Christian communities found to be the most meaningful. It is less clear when the Jewish oral tradition became recorded.
There was no possibility of harmonizing the many parts or eliminating contradictions and inconsistencies when pulling this disparate material together. There was no single editor or publishing team. Hence, the bible as it has come to us sometimes requires careful discernment to arrive at a good understanding. Another confounding fact is that language and customs can change radically over even a few hundred years, let alone millennia where humans lived in a non-technological world with far fewer people (less than 400 million).
Examples of Biblical Issues in Judaism
Monotheism: Judaism, one can start with the realization that the idea of a single god was not where Judaism started. As Karen Armstrong and others have lifted out, the god for the Israelites began as a tribal god and one among many. The commandment to have no other god before Yahweh is a demand for loyalty and faithfulness in the face of competition.
A radical evolution led to the idea of a single God over the entire world. The Jews continued to maintain they had a special relationship with Yahweh; nonetheless, the monotheistic perspective inevitably leads to the realization that if there was but a single God, then their God was also the God for all others, a very different and universal perspective.
War vs. Peace: Second, there is a great distance between the ground rules for taking a city in battle and the Golden Rule. The first calls for no mercy for all people if the citizens battle and lose versus only slaughtering the men if the city surrenders without fighting (Deuteronomy 20), whereas the Golden Rule that we must treat others as we would like them to treat us is a form of enlightened self-interest (Leviticus 19:18).
Examples of Biblical Issues in Christianity
The Gospel of John: While this gospel might have been largely the creation of a single author, gifted with imagery and storytelling, it is considered to be created well after Jesus’ death using stories and sayings that were drawn from sources who lived in a different age and a different culture than Jesus. John unfortunately oversells the case for Jesus and Christianity by saying that it is only through Jesus that one is assured of God’s love, for example. This view energizes a deeply seated human flaw, the need to feel special by virtue of being somehow better than someone else is.
The Apostle Paul’s Account: An excellent example of a contradiction that might be impossible to reconcile is found in the Apostle Paul’s letters to the new churches of his day. In his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 3:28), Paul is inclusive and expansive, saying that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” A hierarchical society becomes egalitarian.
However, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, two verses in the middle of Chapter 14 amount to telling women to be silent in worship and to seek out their husband to learn about their religion. There is a strong indication that this was added by others after the fact for it certainly does not belong to Paul’s perspective from Galatians, nor does it even fit with the context of the other verses in that chapter. As a result, some use the bible to justify marginalizing half the population and any number of gross injustices: racism, slavery, and wars, as well as environment destruction and so on.
Conclusion: While I take serious issue with the overly simplified way Lambert constructed several of his arguments, I do not doubt his sincerity and his deep concern for those marginalized by today’s versions of the empires of old. We have at present a government whose support for the top half of the top 1% is vastly lopsided when compared with the 99%, particularly those in the bottom half (or more). This is not healthy for anyone, but those that “got” are not going to suddenly hear the story about Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler and “get it.”
Critical Thinking Is MIA!
I hope that this reply to Lambert also has helped readers realize there is a great deal of critical thinking that has gone into these advanced understandings of our Christian and Jewish traditions; and this has resulted in a highly progressive perspective.
Regrettably, this is not a recent development.
It should have been widespread by now, but so many clergy, churches and the various judicatories (the ruling and administrative bodies of the various religious traditions) have failed to do their job, allowing the anger and frustration from the congregations resisting change to stop what should be common knowledge from being shared. This is one small effort to help overcome that!
David E. Roy earned a Ph.D. in theology (under John Cobb) and psychotherapy at the Claremont school of Theology in 1978. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ. A Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and licensed in California as an MFT. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.