Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Childhood Disappointment

When I was a lad, growing up in an almost-exclusively Catholic neighborhood in a heavily Catholic town, nearly every household (except ours, oddly) seemed to have this picture prominently displayed somewhere:

It so happened in those days that our next-door neighbor was a teacher, and, as is often the case with teachers, had to seek part-time employment, especially during the summer months, in order to make a living. (Then as now, the concept of paying mere teachers a living wage was alien.) So he worked part-time as a painter.

Well, you know how it is with kids: They're stupid. So somehow, when I was five or six, I put together that our next-door neighbor, Lew, was a painter; the family had the above-featured portrait of Jesus hanging in their living room; therefore, Lew had painted it.

It was only some years later that I realized that Lew worked part-time as a house painter; that the portrait was available at any Christian bookstore; and that Lew was not the artist.

Over the past 40 or 45 years, I've slowly come to terms with this disappointment. No idea how Lew's doing with it, though.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

And Then Jesus Didn't Say...

Awhile back, the local rag published this from a nearby citizen:

    Righteous difference is clear
    By Austin E. Vanderzee

    Published: July 20, 2007

    I want to educate Christians who believe that Jesus would not support the death penalty. Let me encourage you to do something: Read your Bible.

    Read about King David being an accessory to murder and stealing another man's wife and being told he was forgiven but still experiencing the consequences of his sin.

    Read about the thief hanging next to Jesus on a cross who said, "We are getting what we deserve." Jesus allows the thief to die but promises him that his soul will be saved.

    Read the dozen or more Levitical laws that, if broken, were punishable by death. Many of those laws were not even capital crimes.

    In Romans 13, Paul writes that our God-ordained governments do not bear the sword in vain. Therefore, do what's right and you have nothing to fear.

    Read Acts 5, where Peter executed two people for lying.

    And try to remember this: God wants his children to clearly see the righteous difference between murdering the innocent and punishing the guilty. One is a sin in need of repentance, and the other is justice that needs none.
    Do what's right, and you have nothing to fear. God's words - not mine.
I was struck not only by the right-wingnut “Christian” movement’s unflagging willingness to twist, turn, and selectively quote the Bible--that document which they purport to revere above all else and all others--in order to get it to support whatever it is they purport to inflict on their fellow human beings...but especially by the strange fact that the author tells me he intends to "educate Christians who believe that Jesus would not support the death penalty," and then proceeds to quote almost everyone in the Bible except Jesus!

Well, this could not be allowed to pass unchallenged, and so I drafted the following, which the local rag saw fit to publish a few weeks later (at about the point where I had decided they would not):

    One must always approach with caution those who assure us that they know what Jesus would or would not do, what God does or does not favor. A recent letter from Austin E. Vanderzee ("Righteous difference is clear") is a case in point.

    Mr. Vanderzee says he wants "to educate Christians who believe that Jesus would not support the death penalty," and suggests we read the Bible.

    He then supplies several Bible verses and scenes that purport to support his point of view. Curiously, none of the verses he sites actually quotes Jesus! He references Paul; he references Peter; he references the Old Testament...but his only reference to Jesus actually quotes "the good thief" who was being crucified with Jesus, not Jesus himself.

    I draw from Mr. Vanderzee's examples that King David was in favor of the death penalty; that the apostles Peter and Paul were okay with it; and even that "the good thief" had accepted it, but certainly not that the Prince of Peace would elbow the hangman out of the way so he could pull the gallows lever himself.

    The Jesus of whom I read in my Bible preached love, forgiveness, peace, and tolerance—not death, retribution, and revenge. That’s the Jesus whom I strive, in my feeble way, to imitate.
Sheer poetry, no?

But as I subsequently shared with one of my far-flung correspondents, I restrained myself pretty virtuously. For instance, I omitted mentioning that the Bible was written--and translated, and altered whether by accident or by design--by people, not by Jesus, and not by God. All you get when you bring that up is a bunch of people who erroneously conclude that you’re "against" the Bible or God or religion or maybe all of the above, and then you’re hopelessly off-topic.

I also skipped getting into how the "logic" of the original letter forces us to conclude that Jesus supports abortion.

No fooling. Read the letter again: He says, "Jesus allows the thief to die but promises him that his soul will be saved." (My emphasis.) The word "allows" is not there by accident, I’ll wager. I've no doubt that the author and the rest of the God-wants-blood crowd would make the argument that Jesus had it in his power to spare the thief but didn't (thus the word "allows"), thereby "proving" that God supports the death penalty.

Welllll...God thus appears to "support" abortion, since he isn’t stopping them (and the right-wingnuts assure me abortions are happening all the time).

And, with this kind of "logic," one might conclude that Jesus "supports" suicide, since, presumably, he could have spared himself but didn't.

One might also use this "logic" to "prove" that God "supports" war, since… Oh. Wait a minute. The right-wingnuts do use that sort of "logic," all the time. Never mind.

You see the rhetorical sleight-of-hand, I hope--the quick, easily missed substitution of supports for accepts.

There is a difference, and it’s important, indeed essential. That Jesus, for instance, occasionally indicates an acceptance of civil authority's actions does not constitute support for same, no matter how hard the right-wingnuts try to make it so. I accept that the state has asserted for itself the "right" to kill certain people for certain reasons; I certainly do not support or endorse same. I accept that sometimes wars are inevitable; I do not support or endorse war. The specious arguments put forward by the likes of this world's Austin Vanderzees are meant to convince us that God's/Jesus' apparent refusal to put a stop to something translates into support. But as I mention above, that sort of argument leads us to conclude that God "supports" abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and all the other bĂȘtes noires of the right wingnuts--including, speaking of bĂȘtes noires, bestiality, too, I imagine--since, after all, these things and plenty more exist in the world...or, to borrow Vanderzee's unsubtle phraseology, God allows these things to be.

But obviously the right wingnuts would argue vehemently that God most certainly does not support these things. And so I have once again runs rings round them logically.

For all the good it does. Logic never trumps viscera, and I am of the opinion that the right wingnuts--especially those who take such pains to assert their "Christian" credentials--behave almost exclusively in accord with their viscera and almost never employ heart or mind.

Perhaps this is what Cromwell meant by "the bowels of Christ"...

I did point out to one of my far-flung friends, Jerry, that one of several questions I beg in my response is the central question of biblical "authority"--or, indeed, "authenticity." (See above re who wrote the Bible...and who didn’t.) Although I consider him something of a grandstander, Bishop John Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile; The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love; etc.) does have the gist of it when he (frequently) writes phrases such as, "In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is made to say..." and so on. Jesus did not write the Bible. And as Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) and others have pointed out, a goodly portion of that which is ascribed to the Apostles and the Evangelists are of dubious authorship. Given all of this, even if the Bible were to quote Jesus explicitly as favoring the frequent application of the electric chair, inquiring minds would have to wonder...

But those who are comfortable asserting that God invariably agrees with them seldom, in my observation, fall into the "inquiring minds" category.

Meanwhile, the last line of the original letter--"God's words - not mine"--might cause me to conclude that its author is a fan of The West Wing, though that seems unlikely. I’m reminded of this now-famous (or infamous, in conservative camps) exchange with "Dr. Jenna Jacobs,” clearly a stand-in for Dr. Laura Schlesinger, in the second-season episode “The Midterms”:

    President Bartlet: Forgive me, Dr. Jacobs. Are you an M.D.?

    Jenna Jacobs: Ph.D.

    Bartlet: A Ph.D.?

    Jacobs: Yes, sir.

    Bartlet: In Psychology?

    Jacobs: No sir.

    Bartlet: Theology?

    Jacobs: No.

    Bartlet: Social work?

    Jacobs: I have a Ph.D. in English Literature.

    Bartlet: I'm asking, 'cause on your show, people call in for advice and you go by the name of Dr. Jacobs on your show. And I didn't know if maybe your listeners were confused by that, and assumed you had advanced training in Psychology, Theology, or health care.

    Jacobs: I don't believe they are confused, no sir.

    Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

    Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

    Bartlet: Yes, it does. Leviticus.

    Jacobs: 18:22

    Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:2, clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important, 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?

    Think about those questions, would you? One last thing, while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tightass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.
As I’ve been in the habit of saying, as soon as someone starts to tell you the Bible makes it clear… your best bet is to hot-foot it in the opposite direction.