April 1, 2011

Mathew 5:17 and its Historical Importance (Part 4)

Are we a Christian nation, as many suppose? I don’t think so. Sure, we give lip service to what Jesus taught, but we’ve bought into the fallacy that we don’t have to live His teachings, but don’t take my word for it. Examine Christ’s description of His moral philosophy—as described in Matthew Chapter 5—and compare it to our daily acts and belief, especially the political ambitions of the far right.

Key Teaching #1 (Matt 5:21-22): Do more than refrain from murder, rein in your anger and hurtful acts. I can’t understand how we got involved in a war in Iraq, when UN weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, were assuring the world that there was no evidence of WMDs in the country. Similarly, how does a Christian nation allow the torture of individuals and let its architects cloak the actions in camouflaged terms, like “aggressive interrogation.” By whatever name we choose to call it, the abuse has killed people.

What’s just as remarkable is that these are violations of the lesser law Jesus came to improve upon. He wants us to do better than just avoid lunatic wars—He wants us to refrain from anger, too. But where are we on the niceness scale today? The better question might be: Whatever happened to being nice? We’ve replaced gladiator combat with TV commentary filled with so much venom, there’s no way to hear, much less grasp, the issues. (Many years ago, one of my kids was watching CNN’s Crossfire, when he looked at me and said: “Why do they hate each other?”) In particular, conservative talking heads—Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck—claim moral superiority while impugning the intelligence and patriotism of those who have simple differences of opinion. While Jesus encourages peace, they are our biggest hawks. In the process they foment so much hatred and fear that I half expect armed revolts to arise.

As a high school debater one of the things I learned was the necessity of keeping emotions in check. When debaters scream, judges miss the logic. A yelling match can be great theater, but it’s shitty public discourse that never arrives at the truth or even changes a mind. In fact, it rarely does more than provide a confirmation to those who’d always wanted to believe the noise anyway. We must take to heart the implication of Christ’s teaching: Until we treat each other with dignity and grant each other the right to have opinions, we will never get along or achieve a lasting peace.

Key Teaching #2 (Matt 5:27-28): Do more than refrain from adultery, bridle your passions and appetites. Who has the bigger zipper problem—Christian conservatives, or their heathen counterparts? That’s probably an unfair question, but while people on the religious right excoriate their liberal counterparts who have broken vows of fidelity, a list of their own fallen can paper an average-sized living room. Their notion of Family Values reminds me of that line in Hamlet: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

More importantly, the religious right tends to focus on the act of sex, rather than Christ’s requirement to exact discipline over human passion and appetite. I’m baffled, for example, at how offended some people get by fleeting nudity in a movie, but will clap and cheer when Conan the Barbarian runs his spear through the evil wizard. How did we conclude that breasts were bad, but bloody fights to the death are wholesome entertainment?

When I was a kid, two movies came out that speak volumes about society’s strange preoccupation with physical intimacy. They were: 1) Love Story and 2) The Graduate. When it first appeared, Love Story was rated PG and teenagers flocked to it. There was no skin in the movie, but it was clear what the two attractive and intelligent protagonists were doing behind closed doors. I have little doubt that Ali McGraw’s twitching nose drove more than a few young viewers to Makeout Point to watch the submarine races after the show. The Graduate, on the other hand, was rated R—racy for its time due primarily to that view of Ann Bancroft’s naked leg lofted seductively in the air—but the storyline depicted her relationship with Dustin Hoffman as illicit and unromantic. Now, which movie had the worse impact on the morality of people? Again, that’s probably an unfair question and one that will probably never be answered. Yet, isn’t it clear by the comparison that our obsession with the physical gets in the way of understanding the heart of what matters? Though I can’t condone adultery, we should be far more fixated upon the difference between love and unbridled lust, and practicing the former while eschewing the latter.

That notion is embedded in the golden rule and is akin to an idea I heard M. Scott Peck once relate. As best as I can recollect, Peck, who is a psychiatrist as well as a moral philosopher, said he wasn’t against the idea of having sex with his patients, but he could think of no instance in which doing so would be helpful. Rather, any activity of the kind would result in unmitigated harm to the people to whom he had an obligation to heal. The point is this: Let’s make sure our motives are pure—if we can do that, chances are our hands will be clean, also.

Key Teaching #3 (Matt 5:33-34): Do more than honor contractual obligations, let your word be your bond. So much of what’s wrong with public discourse today is the blatant misrepresentation of facts. While Jesus demands honesty, our willingness to tell part-truths and to obfuscate through legal nitpicking is rampant. Remember when a U.S. president sat before a committee and said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”? That’s only one example of what Christ referred to as straining at gnats and swallowing camels. Recall that His most serious rebukes were reserved for those he called, “Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites!”

I will readily admit that when I was an investment banker I requested the writing of a mountain of legal opinions, each of which proposed ways in which I could do what the law intended I should not. What I did might have been legal, but it was certainly wasn’t right. I see the same thing happening today regarding conservative efforts to undermine green policies. Haven’t we contracted with God to “replenish the earth” since the time of Eden? Yet, Tea Party loyalists, backed by Christian Fundamentalists, refuse to acknowledge the truth about the destruction of our environment and back revisionist research to excuse it. Many of them do so thinking God will fix the problem. But that’s just kicking the ball into His court. It’s our job to do what’s best for our children. I’m sure Christ longs for the day when we can tell the whole truth, admit to our mistakes and fulfill the intentions of our promises.

Key Teaching #4 (Matt 5:38-39): Don’t worry about getting even, forgive unconditionally. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus tried to say the same thing and few seemed to hear. Ask the average America (and virtually all Christians) what justice means and the answer will invariably have something to do with punishment for crimes. But the true meaning of justice has nothing to do with punishment. Read Plato’s Republic and you’ll see the word justice printed on nearly every page. It is, in fact, a treatise on justice and yet there is very little in it about responses to crimes. Justice, at its most basic level, is all about DOING WHAT IS JUST, and that’s another way of saying doing what’s right.

As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, the notion that we must exact an eye for an eye was never meant as a requirement even in Moses’ day. It was a maximum penalty handed down after the children of Israel emerged from slavery believing that the capricious whips of their Egyptian masters was the measure of justice. To them at the time, the penalty for a stolen crust of bread might be the loss of a hand. Moses urged his people to be better than that. Yet Christ wants us to go beyond even the Mosaic standard and refrain from vengeance altogether. In His gospel, there is no balancing of cosmic debits or credits for sin. Jesus wants us to forgive and, if possible, restore what was lost when sin occurs. In that context, what is the best restitution? A rehabilitated heart. Seeking anything more is just getting even.

Key Teaching #5 (Matt 5:43-44): Do more than love those who love you, love everyone. Remember how the children of Israel were told not to kill or steal, and were later led into a promised land that happened to be populated by others? What were the Israelites told to do then? They were commanded, of course, to kill people and steal land. The resultant moral ambiguity led to considerable debate among Jews, which eventually resulted in a lawyer asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer knew that some faction of the crowd believed the Mosaic Law was a requirement to be followed only when dealing with other Jews—that in essence the definition of neighbor was restricted to kin. That’s when Jesus offered the Parable of the Good Samaritan. By His discourse we know we’re to love everyone.

But Christian fundamentalists, by their actions against gay rights, do not, in my opinion, fulfill the requirement. I know people who spent considerable time and resources in promoting Proposition 8 in California. Some of them did so reluctantly, doing only what they thought God had commanded. I’m sure many of them prayed for an end to the controversy. Others, however, took it on with a zeal that was an insidious extension of beating up queers on Friday night. That is not love. Neither is it love when a nation decides it needs all of its missiles and bombs and tanks and destroyers, but cannot afford to give its children the world-class education for which it was once the object of envy. Yes, that’s not love, but it’s also shortsighted.

In my next posting, I'll show how this is contrary to God's nature. 

No comments: