Pensées II: For Believers Only
Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself: That’s an Order, Not a Suggestion.
Be Fruitful and Multiply: That’s a Suggestion, Not an Order.
The other reason I don’t usually talk about beliefs is that they are not something you can dispute, argue about, or prove. They are not facts, they are beliefs, and one either believes in them or not. Someone who has never been in love, or who does not believe in its existence, is not going to be swayed by the most passionate discussions of lovers. Likewise, I don’t see a lot of sense in trying to convince someone of the existence of God, let alone the truth of Christianity. Christians can discuss the fine points of theology if so inclined (I’m not so) but to one who does not even believe in the existence of God, I’m sure it makes as much sense as medieval scholars debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin does to us. Anyone is free to read these thoughts; this is just a warning that they may not make much sense to non-believers.
There probably aren’t too many Christian anthropologists out there, let alone born-again and Southern Baptist. But I am one, and stranger things have happened: read your Bible or any history book. Since we are all Believers here I don’t have to justify my theological premises but you may be curious about the anthropologist part. I’ll eventually get to that but I have a lot of other serious business to get off my chest.
Being a Christian may not be easy but it is simple. Christ gave us the Greatest Commandment: love God and our neighbor. Period. That condenses the Old Testament. The New: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God and we shall be saved. Double period. Simple, but not easy. As Christians we all must love our neighbor (thus feed, clothe, and minister to him) and that unites us. It is all the Other Stuff that separates us and, I believe, separates us from the love of God.
As we all know, when we fail to remember to love our neighbors we make war on them. We have Crusades, Inquisitions, Imperialist wars without number, civil wars, pogroms, race riots. But many have forgotten how many times, at least in Europe, wars were fought among Protestants, committing the worst atrocities against those who differed from themselves only on the smallest matters of doctrine. The love of Christ and the love of our neighbors joins us. All else separates us: both from our neighbor and from Christ. It is that simple, and that difficult.
I have always claimed to be Southern Baptist. Raised in the South, that was my tradition. It had always seemed to me to be the closest to Primitive New Testament Christianity. There was no hierarchy to establish orthodoxy. Among Baptists all matters of doctrine were decided with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As a youngster, when people would say to me, “Baptist? Oh, they are the ones who don’t believe in dancing (or smoking, drinking, or whatever),” I just smiled. I knew that Baptists in Florida, and Tennessee, and California, and in the Navy, were diverse and that dancing (etc.) was about culture and not doctrine.
To me the “Southern” part of Southern Baptist was merely regional, not doctrinal. Those in my childhood who still harbored memories of slavery or the inequalities of race were no more believable to me than those who still believed that the King James Bible was the language of God. But, to the extent that “Southern” Baptists today speak more in the voice of Jerry Falwell than of Jimmy Carter, I am willing, even eager, to let that adjective fall aside. Plucking out an offending eye is surely not to be taken literally, but if “Southern,” or even “Baptist,” separates me from the love of Christ and my neighbors, it must be rejected. And we all should be willing to make the same choice. Would any Christian truly choose Luther, or Knox, or Calvin, or Wesley, or even John Paul II, over Christ?
The Parable of the Talents.
I was long puzzled by this parable above all others. The idea that “to whom much is given, much shall be required” made sense, and the fact that the servants who made much of their responsibilities were rewarded likewise seemed fair. But the poor wretch who was given little and protected it through a literal understanding of his master’s intent was not just reprimanded for his shortsightedness but cast into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And his talent was given to the one who already had the most! This always seemed, not only unjust but massive overkill. Not to mention that the money-making aspect flew in the teeth of Christ’s other injunctions to “take no thought for the morrow” and the rest.
When I was child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things. One day I realized that it was not about itself. It was, as all the other examples, a parable. Many had pointed out the analogy with the modern word “talent” but that was too obvious and banal to be the true interpretation. Of course a person with dazzling God-given talents should utilize them but why would the person with modest talent be punished for living a modest, careful, non-destructive life? And why would the most talented be made even more talented in the end? It was clearly not just about abilities.
What is the talent, the ability which God has given to Man which separates him from the rest of Creation? It seems clear that it is our mind, the product of eating of the Tree of Good and Evil in our Edenic state. It is how Adam knew he was naked and why the Lord God said man is become as one of us. We all have minds, powers of reasoning which dwarf our computers, but it is currently unfashionable to use them. What will the Lord say at the final judgement to those who affect belief without reason, dogma without thought, faith without works? We have been given this talent and we bury it at our peril.
Christians have gone through periods in the past two millennia when they professed that faith was all that was needed. Some early church fathers asked what was the use of rhetoric, history, Classical knowledge in general. Today many Christians are suspicious of knowledge, especially “Worldly Knowledge,” as if there were any other kind. Our knowledge of God is based on faith and the personal experience of our hearts. Our minds are designed to operate on a different plane. Our minds grow food to feed the hungry, make clothes to warm the naked, invent medicines to heal the sick, laws to preserve justice. And to the extent that we do not pursue the advancement of knowledge we reject God’s gift to us and we will be cast out into darkness. We do have the choice to make as to the proper use of the knowledge we find–for better or for worse–but we cannot refuse to seek it.
One of the hadith, the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad, holds that “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Muslim.” And in the Middle Ages the Muslim world led in the development of science. Since the Renaissance however, Europe (and later North America) has been at the forefront of the expansion of understanding of the natural world. We have discovered entire universes of knowledge which would have been condemned by Medieval churchmen as folly, heresy, or witchcraft. But we have found nothing which is inconsistent with our belief in an omnipotent Creator, only much which is, even today, rejected by Christians of little faith or smaller imagination as folly, heresy, or science. Is it too far a reach to believe that the parable of the talents is Christ’s way of saying, “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Christian, every creature of God?”
Capitalism, or Socialism, or any other economic system, is a tool. Like any tool it can be used for good or evil, depending upon the human being wielding it. Capitalism driven by venal, corrupt, selfish men produces the rapacious, oppressive effects seen in the expansion of America in the Nineteenth Century. Capitalism in the form of many small businesses, like the factory owner in the Northeast who continued to pay his employees after his factory burned, or even Henry Kaiser, which tries honestly to weigh the needs of all parties, expresses what is good and decent in human nature. Socialism, driven by venal, corrupt, selfish men produces Soviet Communism and the Gulag. Socialism, informed by honest, altruistic, egalitarian principles produces European Socialism, and even Social Security. Neither tool is Christian, but either can be wielded by Christians to express our beliefs. It is not our success which is the aim of Christian effort. It is following our commandment to love our neighbor. What can we do, and how can we do it, to serve “the least of these?”
Is it inconceivable that God could bless the union of two loving, committed, Christian individuals who did not intend, or were unable, to bring children into the world but still loved God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves? I do not even need to ask, what if they were of the same sex?
I find the notion that the only purpose of a Christian marriage is to bring children into the world, disturbing. A bumper sticker urges us to save America from being overrun by the rest of the world by stopping abortion. Hitler and Stalin gave women medals for providing children for the Fatherland and Motherland, respectively. How many of the important figures of the New Testament were even married? Jesus, Paul, the apostles? When God said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” did He expect us to overpopulate the earth? (When you went out on a date and your mother said, “Have a good time,” did she punish you if you didn’t?)
More to the point is the question of why we as Christians feel we need to tell non-Christians what kind of marriage they can have? Since when do Believers care what the State says about marriage? We have the right, and the duty, to frame our idea of marriage in a way which is consistent with our beliefs. And we take it as granted that we live in a pluralistic society which affords us that right. We have struggled long for that right. That is why we have religious marriage ceremonies which are distinct from civil ceremonies. We do not insist that couples married by a justice of the peace or county clerk are not “really” married. Individual denominations may cast a disapproving eye on such unions and may require they also be married “in the Church.” We may have prerequisites to marriage: counselling, instruction, a waiting period, but we do not place these obligations on outsiders. And we do not, nor should we, oblige others to follow our rules. How then do we justify wanting to change the Constitution of the United States to reflect our definition of marriage?
It is popular of late for so-called conservatives to refer to the “alleged” Separation of Church and State, implying there shouldn’t be any. I would have thought that “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” would ring a faint bell.
As I would not have the government tell me what I can do in my marriage (if I’m ever lucky enough to finally have one) so I would not tell anyone else what they can do in theirs. As I would not have someone tell me I must marry another man, so I would not tell another he could not. Love may not be All We Need but, as Christians, it is commanded of us by God, and we know that without it nothing else matters, single or married.
If homosexuality were only a lifestyle choice, society would perhaps be justified in its continued negative sanctions. But, given the tortured personal experiences of men and women wrestling with their sexuality under the stigma of society, it is not likely that so many would persist in such a “choice.” And, as Christians, they would still be our neighbors.
If on the other hand, as now seems likely, homosexuality is genetic (or, at least, has a genetic component) that brings up more serious questions. If God creates homosexuals, how are we to deal with that? Are these differences on the order of height, hair or skin color, left handedness? Or are they more like autism, cleft palate, schizophrenia, epilepsy, or paranoia? Neighbors all.
We have it on the highest authority that, at the last judgement, Some will be told, “I was hungry and you gave me no meat; I was thirsty and you gave no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in; naked and you clothed me not; in prison and you visited me not.” (And no one can believe that is an exclusive list of responsibilities.) As often as we do it to one of the least of these, our brethren, our neighbors, we do it unto Him. “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.”
And, while we have the injunction at hand, in the greatest country in the world millions go to bed hungry and we feed them not, are (homeless) strangers and we take them not in (eeeuuw!), are sick and we provide no health care, are in prison for minor (socially unacceptable) infractions while major economic predators ruin the lives of millions of those who trusted them, and still live in luxury because they have the best lawyers and, besides, they played the economic game and “succeeded.” The oft-heard government mantra of “personal responsibilty” is not only a mask for inhumanity, it is plainly un-Christian. You don’t need a necklace or a bumper sticker to know what Jesus would do. (The only time Jesus seems to have lost His temper was confronting commercial interests.)
What part of “feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the poor” do we not understand?
My ancestors, like those of most Americans, did not come to this country fleeing Atheistic Communism, Barbaric Paganism, or any other such Godless Regime. They came, in part, seeking freedom from religious persecution they had suffered at the hands of Other Christians who had become entrenched as the Official Church. It was these believers, as much as the more liberal members of the Enlightenment like Jefferson and Franklin, who insisted on the now-beleaguered Separation of Church and State. If we do not wish to be told how to believe or worship, neither can we impress our ideas on others. The Golden Rule is only a paraphrase of our basic injunction: love our neighbor as ourself.
Abraham Lincoln expressed the same idea in secular terms. “As I would not be a Slave, so I would not be a Master. This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy.” (And I would aver, Anyone who would be a Master is no Christian.)
All this talk about moral values after the election sounds strange considering what we heard before the election. I wonder which Jesus Christ people know as their personal savior when I hear the vitriol spewing from the pulpit and the airwaves against Democrats, Liberals, Intellectuals, Homo Sexuals, Illegal Immigrants, Muslims, Jews (though softer, and never Israel), the United Nations, and the rest of the World in general.
Our charge as Christians is simple: love God, and our neighbor as ourself. The rest is tactics, technique, and style. We pray for our enemies because they are our neighbors and we love them. We turn the other cheek and go the extra mile for the same reason. We are expressly forbidden to judge others, for that is a power reserved only to God. We believe all men have sinned, thus we may not hold ourselves above any other for their sin. Jesus told us that when He stopped the crowd from stoning the woman who had sinned.
We are not without sin so we may not cast stones.
The woman had committed the sin of adultery in that case, but do we honestly think the point would be different if she were a lesbian? It is true, as preachers are fond of pointing out, that Jesus exhorted her, “Go and sin no more.” But immediately before that, pointing out that no one was left to condemn her, He had said, “Neither do I condemn thee.” Jesus was as clear as possible that only God had the power of condemnation, and that, presumably, at the Last Judgement. Until any of us has become blameless–and are willing to assume the blasphemy such a claim entails–we may not judge others but attend the beam in our own eyes, continue to love God and our fellows as ourselves. As Paul succinctly put it, “If a man says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar.”