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The New Moneychangers

Posted by Rick · February 23rd, 2004 · 3 Comments

Dave Brown, a Christian retailer, says on Deborah Norville Tonight:

The Cross is absolutely the central element of Christianity.

Funny, I always thought the central element of Christianity concerned the Christian deity’s relationship to humanity.

Maybe that’s what makes the marketing of Jesus acceptable. I’ve been wrong: it’s really about the things, not the man.

Coincidental to the Deborah Norville Tonight episode, part of which I watched before going to school tonight, a friend who happens to be a Christian wrote earlier today. He sent me a quote, as he sometimes does, under the subject “Blogworthy.” He’s a good guy and often sends me thought-provoking emails. (I’m leaving his name out of this post so as not to cause anyone to “blame” him if what I write tonight isn’t well-received. In fact, I originally told him I did not plan to write on this topic because I think it’s a no-win controversy. And, besides, I still have another unfinished issue — the Janet Jackson controversy I let myself get sucked into. Yet in the end, the commercialization of Christianity, which I see as a natural outgrowth of the right-wing conservative religious/political movement, and which was so forcefully defended by Dave Brown on Deborah Norville’s show, drove me to write this comment because, in the end, I think that movement is much more dangerous than Jackson’s ill-advised and socially-unacceptable exposure.)

The quote he sent was from an article at SFGate.com:

Of course, it must be noted that there are millions who believe in a gentle form of organized religion, a tolerant, forgiving Christian God, persons who are warm and open minded and who do not ever attempt to shove their beliefs down anyone’s throat. They are kind and selfless and practice their beliefs quietly, tenderly, in their own nontoxic way. This is glorious and good. This is not the slightest problem. This is, in fact, to be encouraged.

And he added the comment, “What he is describing is the middle of the Bell curve. What else he talks about embarrasses everyone.” Knowing him, I read this comment to mean that he feels that the normal Christian in America is one of the group who believe in the gentle form of organized religion described in the quote. Subsequent email exchanges between us confirm this is what he meant.

But my own experience makes me feel this is exactly backwards. The bigger part of the Bell curve, I think, is made up of people who pretend to be Christians and who are insistent that the moral practices — not just the values, but the practices — to which they fervently pay lip service, but do not actually live, must be written into law. And I think they do it for the same reason that they nearly scrape off their bumper stickers that say “Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven” on slower vehicles as they zip dangerously in and out of traffic, nearly running me and anyone else stupid enough to get in their way off the road. I think they do it for the same reason that they need to make idols out of faux nails to wear around their necks — the idols made out of pewter, gold, ceramic and (more so in the 1970s) wooden crosses no longer sufficient.

I’ve read the Christian “New Testament”, dozens of times. (In fact, a little known secret is that I once attended a Freewill Baptist college because I wanted to study Greek and Hebrew under someone who taught there, having heard he was one of the best teachers in the area. While there, I also took several of their Bible classes. I did learn Koiné Greek well enough to translate 5 books from the “New Testament” into English for myself.) I realize that my interpretation will not sit well with the Christians who constitute the bulge in the Bell curve as I see it, but my thoughts after reading these texts is that the reason these Christians need to wear Passion t-shirts and crosses or faux nails around their necks and proselytize and stack courts with supposedly-non-activist judges who will write their practices into law is because they are unable to be the symbols of the Message themselves. Failing to let their light so shine before others, that we might see their good works, and glorify their G-d for whom they would thus bear witness (see Matthew 5:16), they would instead legislate that we all should live to the letter of a law the spirit of which they cannot represent.

But the historical Jesus is reported to have said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) Nowhere is he reported to have said, “If you love me, force everyone else to follow my commandments.” Pseudo-christians might argue that legislating the morality of the world — something even their Christ flatly did not do — is a necessity to make the world a safe place where temptations will not abound. They forget that there is no temptation anyone might face, but such as is common to man; they apparently do not believe their G-d is faithful and that he will not suffer them to be tempted above that which they are able, but will with the temptation, also provide a way of escape, so that they would be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13.) The Second Epistle to Timothy, chapter 3, verse 16 says that all scripture is given by an inspiration of G-d, and is profitable (good) for doctrine (that is, your beliefs), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness — show me where it says it’s good for legislation.

Forget your t-shirts. Forget your faux nails. Forget Dave Brown’s mistaken advocacy that you use Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, as an opportunity to discuss your religion with others. Everything I read indicated to me that the historical Jesus was usually silent and even unresponsive when directly questioned about his faith. Do you consider yourself better than him? James, reportedly his brother, wrote (in the “New Testament” book that bears his name) “Someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show your faith to me without works, and I will show my faith to you by my works.

There’s a reason for the ancient prohibition against golden calves and other idols. G-d does not live in them. If he lives at all, he lives through his people.

“Rabbi Joshua said in the name of Rabbi Levi: The Lord is good to all, and G-d inspires mankind with his compassion.” In other words, what matters most is not G-d?s objective traits, not G-d?s essence, but how G-d?s essence takes form in human behavior. G-d?s goodness channels through human hands. We perceive a religious obligation to model G-d?s virtues in the world. Human beings are the ones who must make manifest G-d?s compassion. When we allow ourselves to be inspired and directed by G-d?s mercy, then — and only then — is it true that G-d?s mercies are over all. — Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, “Shabbat Parashat Noach, 6 Hevshan 5764 — Tender Mercies Over All,” University of Judaism (website), emphasis mine.

Not only does G-d not live in these idols — neither artifacts nor movies nor even your mere words — but they distract from the Message, whether you think that Message is “merely” noachide or whether you think it’s the Christian Message that was supposedly epitomized in the historical Jesus. For even the Christian Message, which says that “by grace are you saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of G-d; not as a result of works, that no one should boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9) was supposedly embodied — not just spoken by, but embodied in — a man who said “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “if you wish to enter into life, [you] keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17.)

Perhaps the historical Jesus — who, after all, was said to be a Jew — knew well the words of Yoma 86a from the Babylonian Talmud (which was already written down by the time he was supposed to have lived),

It was taught: “And you shall love Adonai your God.” [This means that] the Name of Heaven-Shem Shamayim-be loved because of your actions. If somebody studies Bible and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to people, what do people then say about him? “Happy is the father who taught him Torah. Happy is the teacher who taught him Torah. Woe unto the people who have not studied Torah. This man has studied Torah: See how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds!”

But if someone studies Bible and Mishnah…and is dishonest in business and does not speak pleasantly to people, what do people say of him? “Woe unto him who studied Torah…. This man studied Torah, and look how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.”

Whether the historical Jesus was telling a rich man to go out and sell all that he had and give it to the poor (Mark 10:21) or whether he was saying “you are my friends if you do whatever I command you,” he was always warning his followers that behavior mattered.

So forget telling the rest of us stories you apparently don’t even believe yourself. Forget pushing to legislate a moral code you do not yourself follow. It is by the fruit you bear (Matthew 7:16) — and not by the cross (or faux nail) you wear — that you are known.

Categories: Religion


3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 abi // Feb 24, 2004 at 9:03 am

    Not having heard the entire radio program, it’s hard to tell context of your quote there. But the cross is arguably the central element of Christianity, in that the relationship between mankind and God is centred on that one object. That’s where it all happened.

    I am disappointed, though, that you make such broad assumptions about Christians in this article. We vary as much as anyone else, and coming to the unsupported conclusion that the majority of us are hypocrites is as unfair as some of the generalities about Jews that you have written about.

  • 2 Rick // Feb 24, 2004 at 10:01 am

    Objection noted.

    I will say that as I wrote this, foremost in my own mind was the impact pseudo-christianity is currently having in our political system.

    And, by the way, I don’t know that I’ve made any unjust generalizations about those who call themselves Christians. I’m only asserting that the Bell curve should be read in the reverse of what one of my friends has suggested.

    And, lastly, there is actually scriptural basis for the claim I just made in the reported words of the historical Jesus and his Apostles.

    I would think, then, that “true Christians” would consider me to be in good company vis-a-vis these comments.

  • 3 Harry // Feb 24, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    I believe you are correct when it comes to “politically active” Christians, or rather, “politically activated” Christians, since often they are whipped into frenzy by demagogues who revel in the attention they get.

    Most of those Christians I know who spend a great deal of time “preaching” what they do not “practice” do so out of insecurity. Deep down, they know that they are not living the Word they claim to represent.

    For these people, the beliefs of others are a threat to their world-view. After all, if someone else believes differently, then there is a chance that they might be wrong. That their interpretation of the universe may not be the right one. After all, their interpretation says that only their particular brand of relationship with deity is right, everyone else is deceived by a “devil”. So in their dualistic interpretation, either they are right and everyone else is wrong OR someone else is right, and they are going to burn in hell for making a mistake. This, combined with the (conscious or subconscious) knowledge that they are not living up to their “faith”, creates a drive to change everyone else to their point of view. Eliminate all other points of view and there is nothing to make them face the mirror of self.

    No Christian I know who has a deep understanding of their faith and is secure in that faith, preaches what they believe, instead they live it, it is why the early church spread like wildfire through the roman empire. Unfortunately, in this time of sound-bites and fast-food, few people take the time to study what they believe, exteriorize their “crisis of faith” and overcome it. Instead, they bury it deep down, deny it, pay lip service on Sunday to appease the fear in the depth of their hearts, then go on living a life of hypocrisy.

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