Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Beware the leaven...

When I was a fundamentalist Christian, I often heard it said or implied that morality was impossible apart from God (and specifically, Jesus).  Therefore, folks such as atheists and Buddhists could not be moral or ethical because they didn't believe in God.  Or, if they were moral, it was a fluke or was God at work in them despite their unbelief.  When I say "moral" I mean having a strong  internal sense of what's right and what's wrong, whereas "ethical" implies following an external code of behavior--both are important and ought to reinforce each other. 

In the years since I left fundamentalism, I've found that some of the most ethical, moral people I've met have been Buddhists and atheists.  Conversely, I've witnessed all sorts of immoral and unethical behavior among Christians, including Christian leaders.  My take-away is that within any religion or philosophy we can find examples of both great success and abject failure when it comes to fostering moral and ethical excellence.

In his book, Mere Morality, which is a response to C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, former pastor (now atheist) Dan Barker suggests that the simple measure of morality is the principle of doing no harm.  In other words, the way to be good/moral/ethical is "to act with the intention of minimizing harm" (aka The Golden Rule).  Note that Barker uses the word "act," since it is only by actions that morality can be assessed.  It is not beliefs that indicate morality, it is the things we do and say.  

In 2016, 81% of white conservative Evangelical Christians very publicly demonstrated the nature of their collective morality by voting for (and in many cases actively supporting) Donald Trump, a man who not only lacked the experience, qualifications and temperament for the job of United States President, but who had a long track record of immoral actions: crude, mean-spirited; a serial adulterer, a sexual predator, a pathological liar, a tax cheat, a business fraud, a rip-off artist, a thin-skinned revenge-driven narcissist prone to casting insults, and a promoter of greed and racism and torture and misogyny and xenophobia and homophobia and religious discrimination and mob violence. 

81% of white Evangelical Christians chose a man whose words and deeds were not simply un-Christian, but were anti-Christian; antithetical to the teachings and actions and values of Jesus.  Most white Evangelical Christians continue to support Trump even though his gross immorality (and incompetence) has become more apparent over the last two years.  In doing so they have discredited their witness of Christianity to this generation and to generations to come.  

The world watched and took note: Evangelical Christian's claim to morality and truth and discernment was put to the test and failed miserably.  The result is that, rather than making disciples as Jesus commanded, they have made more atheists (who value morality, truth and discernment).  As the Trump presidency continues to unravel in 2019 the grave self-inflicted damage to Evangelicalism will become more and more apparent.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is depicted as warning those who came to him to, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."  Leaven (yeast) spreads throughout a lump of dough and changes it (we might even say, infects it).  The Pharisees and Sadducees are portrayed in the New Testament as preaching about the necessity for holiness but engaging in all sorts of immoral and unethical and unjust behaviors.  Jesus, their outspoken critic, said that they "strained out a gnat, but swallowed a camel" and gave pious religious tithes even out of their spices, while neglecting "the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness."  The Pharisees and Sadducess are cast in the New Testament as satisfying themselves with a legalistic holiness that made them blind to their own immorality and caused them to become hypocritical and exclusionary and tribal.  

Their most damning action was to conspire against the Messiah because his teachings and examples of acting out one's faith through compassion, inclusion, and fairness posed a threat to their position of civic power.  Though excessively religious, it turned out that their real gods were power and prestige and control.  They chose to align themselves with Herod's and Rome's injustices and abuses of power, in order to protect their own position and impose their influence upon others.  The early Christians believed that the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68 AD, with the resulting slaughter of its inhabitants and destruction of the temple, was a display of God's judgment against the old system of religion married to civic power.

Of course, it didn't take long for the same pattern to manifest within Christianity (particularly post-Constantine).  History shows us that although the power-base of the Pharisees and Sadducess was destroyed in 70 AD (and again in 135 AD), the "leaven" of religiousity in thrall to temporal power (and the resulting hypocrisy) has remained. 

Perhaps, in the not-to-distant future, the cautionary tale of the great destruction Evangelicals did to their movement by embracing Trump will take its place alongside the tragic tale of the Pharisees and Sadducees.


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