Christian, more or less

There is this tendency in an increasingly dominant strain of Christian thought that holds, in effect, that the members of certain groups are “more” Christian than others in the Body of Christ because they look not only to the teachings of Christ but to the “whole” of scripture, with special emphasis on the writings of the prophets.

This is ironic, first because it holds that Christians outside these “in” groups do not study scripture beyond the teachings of Christ—which is itself patently and demonstrably false—and second because the very title “Christian” entails that one put special emphasis on Christ and his demonstrated understanding of scripture and tradition, hence, would imply that whatever makes one “more” or “less” a Christian would be directly corresponding to one’s reflection of the nature and spirit of Christ. Thus, holding oneself and one’s group as somehow “better” than others by appeal to a standard outside the spirit of Christ does nothing to prove oneself more Christ-like, more Christian. One’s grasp of the minutiae of each text’s nuances is, to say the least, irrelevant. The ultimate irony? —that few of those who think this way realize this inconsistency.

I am involved this year in an intensive study of discipleship, looking to the basic principles of what it is, exactly, to be a disciple of Christ, following in the tradition we as Christians have inherited from the Hebrew faith. (A note: actually being a disciple of Christ and studying the nature of what a disciple of Christ is are two radically different things. I by no means imply here that the study I am in entails that we who so study are thus “better” disciples, “better” Christians, than anyone who has not undertaken this sort of study or has any grasp of scripture.) Naturally, in our study we are delving quite deeply into all of scripture to “flesh out” as it were, a template of discipleship and devotion, of service and sanctification, and these past couple weeks have taken me back into the powerful words of some of the most challenging of the prophets. I have been particularly struck by the words of Amos, who is probably the very first of the Hebrew prophets whose words were recorded in writing.

Amos wasn’t of the priestly caste. He wasn’t an aristocrat. He wasn’t even a respectable landowner. He was, in fact, a shepherd, one of the lowest of the great unwashed, and an arborist, a farmer’s hired hand—and worse, from the southern kingdom—from Judah—who dared trek to Samaria to preach to the court of the north. Even so, his words and style influenced Israel so profoundly that somebody thought it important to record his words, even more, that his poetic style of delivery became a pattern often followed by later prophets and their scribes.

Nowadays, those who consider their group “more completely” Christian, more doctrinally perfect, look forward with great anticipation to the “Day of the Lord” which will bring righteousness and truth, justice and the imminent reign of “Christ” (as they define him) to the earth, purging it from impurity, sin, and apostasy. People pray it will come in their own lifetime. People live ever in the hope that it will come today, that the Lord will return immediately.

Of course, this brings up the whole doctrinal complexity of when the so-called “rapture” will occur and what exactly the term “the Day of the Lord” refers to. Does it refer to the rapture, the “catching away of the saints”? Does it refer to the final judgment of God? And what is this “catching away” and what do we mean by the amorphous and ambiguous notion of God’s judgment?

If I attempted here to confront these two issues, this would be a very long post indeed, longer by far than mine usually are (though, most assuredly, these two issues are post-worthy, and interest me sufficiently to be put on my list of future meditations). Humor me, then, as I dispatch them with but a couple remarks along with this concession that much, much more can (and should be) said regarding these theological considerations.

Consider first the possibility that “the Day of the Lord” is identical with the so-called final judgment. Then it matters not when the “catching away” occurs. It is sufficient only to note that there is (theologically) some such “day”, regardless of whether the “saints” are present or absent. And it is this day that these people yearn for. Now if they believe in a “pre-trib” rapture (a “catching away” that occurs before the final judgment), they often yearn for a compound set of events that are considered inextricable: the catching away of the saints and the final judgment, the latter of which occurs immediately upon the event of the former. If they do not believe in a “pre-trib” rapture (e.g., they are “mid-trib”, believing the “catching away” occurs in the middle of the so-called “tribulation” period, or they are, as my childhood church fondly termed such people, “Post Toasties”, believing in a “catching away” that occurs upon the completion of the tribulation period), then these people still believe in a final judgment that will be severe, but somehow far worse off for “sinners” than for the “saints”, among whom, of course, they consider themselves a part, especially if they hold in their belief set all the correct propositions.

This is horrific.

It is utterly inconsistent with the egalitarianism of Jesus that only those with the right beliefs will be “spared judgment”, either by being caught away before it happens or by having some special “mark” such that they experience less of the horror than others who don’t believe the right things.

The harsh judgments of Jesus were always spoken to the religious leaders, to the ones the world considered holy and correct in their beliefs and behavior. The harsh judgments of Jesus were to those who did all the right things. Sure, he called them hypocrites (and they were), but they were the people who obeyed every rule of scripture, who went to every service they were supposed to, who tithed, memorized scripture, fellowshipped only with others in their faith, refused intermarriage with those outside their faith, and did everything within their power to be holy even as God had called them to be. Nowadays, we say these are horrible people, and the term “Pharisee” has become almost synonymous with charlatan, religious hypocrite, or some other sort of person who manipulates in the name of God. This is missing the point.

The Pharisees were respectable. They were people one should emulate. Paul, recall, was a Pharisee, and he never renounced most of what he was taught as one. First point: Jesus lambasted the Pharisees not for their beliefs, but for the fact that they had their priorities all wrong. Second point: Jesus didn’t lambaste anyone who didn’t purport to be a good religious person. Jesus didn’t condemn sinners. Jesus didn’t cry judgment on anyone but those who “held themselves to a higher standard”, who believed they were somehow closer to God for their beliefs and practices.

Thus, the notion that the final judgment will fall on those who fall into the category of those to whom Jesus was most gentle, of those whom the long-standing Hebrew tradition, beginning in the law of Moses, for caring for the alien among us and protecting the stranger—a tradition, indeed, valued so centrally in Hebrew thought that the inhospitable city of Sodom is pulverized in a flaming holocaust of divine wrath and forever recorded as the worst of all societies—is so contrary to Christianity (indeed, to Judaism and all Judeo-inspired religious movements) as to be laughable if it weren’t so horrifyingly tragic in its widespread acceptance.

In fact, the gospel writer claims that “it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (I Pet. 4: 17, NIV). Summary point: whatever judgment may be, it should begin with those who are of “God’s family”, including, presumably, those who consider themselves members of this family, which includes those who consider themselves the most fully Christian.

One interpretation of this particular verse is that if judgment is going to be harsh for us, whoa Nelly, look out if you’re not one of us! It’ll be beyond bad for you, so become one of us in order to minimize the pain! But it is much more consistent with the teaching and spirit of Christ to read this verse this way—imagine what would the world be like if we, we Christians, were actually judged as God’s family, living justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8)? If we were judged and purified, if we became holy and gentle as Christ, if we truly acted like God’s gracious family, what would the outcome be in this world if that happened? What effect would we have? How different would the world be?

So whatever this “Day of the Lord”, whatever this judgment is, should anyone look forward to it with longing and misty-eyed hope?

Regarding the “Day of the Lord”, it matters not when (or even if) any rapture occurs. If it is that final judgment, then the doctrine that the “world” will get blow-torched to hell while the “saints” stand by blissfully praising God is, to put it truthfully, concisely, bluntly, and certainly provokingly, antichrist. If it is that final judgment, then the epistle writer appeals that it should begin, consistent with Christ’s teaching, with those who claim (and often quite loudly and frequently) that they are the true remnant of God’s chosen.

Hence, Amos. Not one of the religiously educated. Not a member of the Godly group, as conventionally understood. Not shown to be knowledgeable in scripture—not shown to be in agreement with any of the long-accepted doctrinal systems. Not “in,” religiously speaking. An upstart. An outsider. A nobody. Not ordained. Not trained in any theological programs—not holding any respected degrees or Bible college certificates. Not pulpit proven. Not invited.

Consider, briefly, the Pharisee from the Pharisee’s perspective. He has spent his whole life serving God. He has dedicated his time, energy, and intellect to understanding scriptural mysteries, and has lovingly fasted not only as required, but even more, in order to reach a deeper relationship with God. He has dedicated everything he has to drawing closer to God. He is so careful to tithe that he even tithes the little things—how much of each herb or spice he has in his pantry, how much wood he cuts for winter fuel, how much fabric he buys for the year’s wardrobe necessities. Every thought he has somehow shimmers with the divine: he sees God everywhere, watching his every move, so he is careful not to sin, careful to avoid even the appearance of sin so as not to cause anyone to stumble from mistaking his action. If scripture says not to be drunk, he avoids the possibility by not even touching anything alcoholic. If scripture says not to commit adultery, he takes care to avoid women altogether. If scripture says to avoid the impure, he methodically avoids coming within a hundred yards of anything that might desecrate his intimacy with the Almighty. He yearns to be with God. He devours scripture, and to discuss scripture with others who share his love of God thrills him to his very deepest soul. In short, he is a right-living, right-believing lover of God.

Now, let’s make the radical, crazy-talk leap to modern day. Anyone who lives like this is a Pharisee (putting aside certain theological positions, of course). So what was it that so angered Jesus? We see Jesus calling them hypocrites. Surely, this must have stung, and seemed wholly unjust of that radical, unwashed peasant without a proper theological education.

Be honest; try to get out of your Sunday-School-inspired misunderstanding and prejudice. Jesus was “nothing to look at”; he was nondescript, not some Raphael-inspired beauty like our art and iconography implies. He could disappear into a crowd of the homeless, the dirty laborers, the farmers, the grubby. Imagine some homeless guy with matted hair, an accent that fits all your stereotypes of one who is totally uneducated, who carries a definite whiff of not having bathed in some time. Imagine some seeming wild-eyed, self-proclaimed “prophet” who is just dangerous enough to lead a gang of seeming thugs shouting at you about how to follow God. And imagine this guy being shrouded in mass hysteria and group hallucinations, eerily reminiscent of Jim Jones and People’s Temple. He isn’t trained. He isn’t backed by any denomination, isn’t ordained. He has no education, no Bible college or seminary training. He smells funny. He doesn’t have an address, and you saw him camping last night with a gang of known carousers and pick pockets. In fact, it is well documented that he hangs out with felons and outspoken terrorists who consider him their leader.

From our 20-20 hindsight, we say that Jesus is the good guy, the Pharisees the evil ones. But this is simplistic and foolish of us. The Pharisees were the equivalent of the best of the Christians today, insofar as belief set and holy living is concerned. They were it.

So what exactly is it that makes them hypocrites, then? It isn’t what they believe. It isn’t what they do. It’s what they don’t do. It’s what every prophet rails against since Amos. It’s the core value of both Judaism and Christianity: love.

It is, to our American sensibility, the worst thing imaginable to be a (shudder!) “socialist.” Lordy, that Obama’s a socialist. Our nation’s bound to be destroyed now. All our values, all our God-given rights and property is going to be stolen from us. Get ready. Just you watch as our once God-fearing, Christian nation reaches a new level of apostasy and pagan socialism. Just you wait, mister, until you wake up and all your hard-earned cash is doled out to welfare queens, drug addicts, the homeless (who are so, after all, only because they’re just plain lazy), and those damned illegal immigrants who are only here to traffic drugs and take good jobs away from honest, hardworking Americans.

It is, to our American sensibility, unchristian to harbor illegal immigrants, to participate in needle exchanges, to give generously to scruffy, scary-looking men holding up cardboard signs by interstate on-ramps. Such things only encourage them to break the law, and we should, after all, practice “tough love.” So doing only enables them, only keeps them from finally leaving their lazy ways and creating for themselves an honest, godly life.

Ah, the things we tell ourselves.

And after checking our door locks as we pass the sign-bearing guy, and while we chuckle at the idiocy of that caller who contradicted Rush about Spanish-speaking immigrants, we zoom on to church where we not only tithe but give a large “pledge” offering to build a mission church in some faraway place, where we donate many hours of our time teaching the youth, or maybe leading a Bible study, or maybe singing on the praise team, or maybe sitting on a variety of committees to look at church growth and income. We send our children to church-directed kids clubs, where they will learn all the right doctrines as they participate in (most of) the activities their secular counterparts (like Girls’ or Boy Scouts) hold. We educate our children at home, protecting them from the “stain” of the world, instructing them to love the Lord with all their hearts, minds, and souls. We forbid them to listen to “secular” music, create our own TV programming, and carefully craft their environment so that they are as isolated from non-Christians as possible. And we sing our heartfelt praise to Jesus, sometimes weeping from the awe we feel in his presence.

It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.

Amos cries out, “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear, or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake” (Am. 5:18-19, NRSV).

What exactly is this judgment? I make no postulates here regarding anything literal. But it is, at very least, appropriate to infer that, as the epistle writer puts it, what is kept secret will be made public—whether by one’s own crushing realization of what true Christianity, what true religion is, or by one’s being exposed by something external to oneself as a “whitewashed tomb filled with dead men’s bones”, that is, a complete hypocrite, wholly missing the very core of God’s heart.

The heart of Christianity, the core of true faith, Jesus said, was the Great Commandment: to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. James noted that we might very well protest that we have our faith (our doctrinally-approved belief set that gets us into heaven and God’s good graces), but that, in fact, faith without any practical evidence is meaningless. It is, to quote Jesus, hypocrisy.

That is the core problem of the Pharisees. Yes, yes, YES, they loved God and dedicated their lives to serving God, even to the point of isolating themselves wholly from the corrupting influence of the “world”. But one cannot “so love the world” if one pushes it aside in the belief that it carries a horrible contagion. One cannot imitate Christ.

Amos uttered scathing condemnations of first, the political allies of Israel, then the enemies of Israel, and finally Israel itself. The religious and political leaders, the respectable, had made great alliances, had acted in the political best interests of the nation. But of course, their allies were, after all, pagans, so it sent a sort of righteous thrill down a good person’s spine to hear about how God was going to “get” the bad guys in the end. But the overwhelming majority of Amos’s oracles are against the religious and political elite of Israel. And what is the cause of their condemnation?

They built stunning ivory altars, breathtaking palaces and religious shrines, yet oppressed the poor, “crushed” the needy even while they prepared themselves a comfortable (even “well-deserved”) living (4:1). Because they shoved their taxes on the poor (5:11), because they were quick to be scandalized at the taking of even a small bribe (perhaps out of fiscal desperation) but blind to the homeless beggar (5:12). Scandalized, that is, that one who is truly righteous dares to take aid, perhaps with great strings attached, wholly calloused to the consequences that leads that person to the necessity that precipitates such action.

What might be such a bribe? Many years ago, in Spokane, there was this street performer who played a recorder, or, to be more precise, who blew air through a recorder while randomly moving his fingers around while he read a book. It was loud; it was obnoxious. He was a panhandler, and one day, a woman I knew gave him $20. It was, in fact, a bribe. He stopped playing, stunned, and she said she’d give him the money if he would cease playing until he could no longer see her on the horizon. She gave him money to, as it were, disappear. And, naturally, he took the bribe.

Woe to us who scorn those who take the bribe. Woe to us who are blind to the needy, who bribe the more visible to make them more palatable, who twist doctrine to make it acceptable to heap oppression onto the already crushed poor. Who blame the poor, the outsider, for their own misfortune. Who demand that the immigrant come to the door so that we can know them, label them with as humiliating a title as we can muster, and hurl them unceremoniously outside our nation’s borders where they can, for all we care, die from the consequences of their own poor choices (after all, getting caught up in the middle of terrorist actions or being born in the middle of guerrilla warfare or being from an impoverished country must be a consequence of somebody’s sin).

What does Amos plead of Israel? “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:15). That is, we the remnant, the followers of God, the family of God, we are the ones to turn from our evil ways. And these evil ways just are our neglect of the poor at our gate. It is our lack of love that is evil. It is our failure to obey the Great Commandment (on which all the law and prophets hang, recall) that is evil. Let judgment begin with the family of God. If we learn to hate—to loathe—that mindset that holds the poor, the socially disrespectful, the alien, the stranger, the Other as deserving their misfortune, if we learn to love—to embrace with all our hearts, minds, and souls—what God loves, to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly, to practice true religion, which is the care of the unfortunate, then, says Amos, it might be that in all the consequences of our own actions, we might find the unmerited grace of God.

The hypocrisy of Israel, the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, is nothing other than the core value contradiction cherished by America’s so-called religious “right.” We say, we do all the right “churchy” things, go out of our way to avoid sin, to be holy, and we sense a shimmer of God in our every dream and hope. We justify our religious cliques and cloisters, our alternative holiday activities, our isolation with “fine sounding arguments” that have all the right churchy-sounding jargon.

But, writes Paul, though we speak with the tongues of men and of angels, if we are without love (charity), it is nothing more than tuneless brass blast or a crashing cymbal, without any musical appeal. And though we have the gift of prophecy, able to understand all the mysteries of scripture and theology, and though we have all knowledge, and though we have such a faith that we can move a mountain, if we do not have love, we are nothing. And even if we give everything we have to feed the anonymous poor, and even if we sacrifice our very body and dignity, if we are without this love, it’s all for nothing (I Cor. 13:1-3, KJV with my amplifications). You will know my disciples, Jesus said, by their love.

Even the very first prophet of Israel based his oracles on this love. The crime of Israel was her forsaking of this love, forsaking the kindness to the poor and outcast, forgetting that she was forged as a nation from slaves and outcasts. Forgetting her roots. Forgetting herself. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was no different. Having a form of godliness but forsaking the power therein. Whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones. Lovely sepulchers. Awe-inspiring, dignified, but dead. Faith without works is dead.

And we nod in agreement as we read the prophet, as we study Christ’s sermons of woes in Luke and Matthew, and we talk to our friends about how hypocritical those Hebrews and Pharisees were, even as we set aside our mad money and make mental additions to our Christmas shopping lists as we shove past that annoying bell ringer outside the mall.

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One thought on “Christian, more or less

  1. Eliz Anderson

    Powerful, how often we forget that God loves everyone equally. For God so loved the ‘world’ that he gave his only begotten son… May I learn to love as the God whom I call father loves, and remember all humans are his offspring. Yes what a different world it would be if we loved as we have been loved.
    We must be the change we want to see in the world.- Mahatma Gandhi

    Reply

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