How Would Jesus Vote?

 Religion  Comments Off on How Would Jesus Vote?
Feb 282016


Election season always seems to be kicking around in the U.S. Two years to decide on the next president does strike me as rather extravagant. How do other countries manage to do it in a matter of weeks? It’s a gigantic distraction in the U.S. You’d hardly know that Obama was president, and will be for another 10 months. Government business is at a standstill. I suppose that’s a good thing inasmuch as it limits the damage they can do.

I’ve always been deeply distressed by pastors getting into the political act – especially from the pulpit. The separation of church and state should cut both ways. But more and more U.S. politicians, especially on the right, feel a need to parade their “Christian” credentials, and a large percentage of the electorate weighs the “Christian” bona fides of candidates when choosing a candidate for office. I can’t imagine any notion farther from the gospel message than this one. Jesus enjoins us to be IN the world, but not OF it. Politics is most decidedly OF the world. John’s gospel is very clear. At his trial Jesus has this to say (John 18:35-36):

35 Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

What could be clearer? The Christian (follower of Christ) should be concerned with the kingdom of God and NOT with earthly nations. In other words, pastors should butt out of politics.

Should pastors vote? Would Jesus vote if he were on earth today? My first question is purely rhetorical; do what you want. My second can be answered with a resounding NO. As for me, I don’t vote and almost never have. I have voted precisely once in my life. When I was 19 the U.K. government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, thus in one fell swoop granting me the right to vote, and robbing me of a traditional 21st birthday celebration. I was in the sixth form at the time, and a big change came in the mood of my classmates. We began talking about the coming elections, who we would vote for, and whatnot. It was all heady stuff. On election day, feeling very empowered, I went to the polls and cast my vote. That was the first and last time.

Now I am registered to vote in the U.K., U.S., and Argentina. I feel that it is important to be registered so as to underscore the fact that I don’t vote as a matter of choice, not because I am ineligible. When I am in Argentina I am required by law to go to a designated polling station about once every two years. Failure to do so incurs a big fine. But you can still avoid voting if you put something other than an official voting slip in the envelope provided. If you simply turn in an empty envelope your vote is cast for the current leader, so you have to deliberately spoil your ballot to avoid casting a vote. It’s all a nuisance, but I used to do it when called upon.

The general circus that is world politics holds my attention from time to time, and, of course, I have to do what various governments ask of me. I “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” But my duty is to God, not to Caesar. I don’t put my faith in governments to do God’s work. They are largely incapable.

When it comes to aiding the poor and sick, governments should play a part, and I do my bit to kick them into it. They’re also good at building roads and such – now and again. But it’s a mistake to think that governments serve the people. They don’t. They serve themselves and the interests of their friends, and it’s only by accident that the people get what they need. So . . . all power to you if you want to support a particular candidate, get out the vote, and all the rest of it. I’m putting my effort elsewhere.

To be continued . . .

Science versus Religion — Again.

 Religion, Spirituality  Comments Off on Science versus Religion — Again.
Feb 192016


We live in an age in which simplistic dichotomies such as science versus religion dominate public discourse, with what I take to be the majority lining up on one “side” or the other. Within this climate there’s a certain arrogant smugness that can be all pervasive, but definitely comes through in public pronouncements by self-proclaimed atheists who champion the “obvious” correctness of modern science and the delusional nature of “believing in” the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, or whatever. I suppose it’s normal nowadays, and probably through all of history, to settle on a worldview that makes you comfortable without thinking about it too much. The loudest voices have quite often delved the complexities the least.

In this regard I’ve already spoken a little about celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and his unwillingness to read beyond evolutionary biology. As far as he is concerned God does not exist, therefore all theists are morons and he, therefore, does not have to pay attention to their work. This attitude in itself strikes me as mind-numbingly stupid. I’m not a Hindu nor a Buddhist; does that mean I should disregard anything written by Hindu or Buddhist scholars as pitiable claptrap? Wouldn’t it be more intelligent of me to at least have a nodding acquaintance with their beliefs before I write them off as delusional?

To me, the starkest failure of people like Dawkins is their willingness to accept at face value certain simple notions of God and the spiritual which, unhelpfully , get propounded by numerous public figures. It takes no effort at all to deride the popular image of God as a powerful old, bearded man sitting on a throne somewhere in the sky and ruling the earth like a puppet show. That image does not work for me either. Nor does it for many of the great theologians of the past 200 years. Yet these giants are largely unread, except by other theologians, clergy, and seminarians, and almost never get an airing from the pulpit on Sunday.

I’m particularly sensitive these days to internet news services, such as The Young Turks, who purvey this patronizing vision of the religious as being, at best, good hearted, but misguided people. They usually reserve their sharpest barbs for fundamentalists of all stripes, which is fair enough, but there’s a decided undertone of condescension for anyone who believes in God, with a general hint that religious people are well meaning but it will be a better world once everyone believes in science and not God. Well, thanks for your condescension, but I’ll pass on your judgment of me and my beliefs.

Here’s the crux. The science that is being touted by these pundits (a) cannot answer all of our questions, and (b) has been the cause of no end of problems in the world. When was the last time that science helped you with issues concerning love or beauty or death, for example? Also . . . science has definitely improved our lives in many ways, particularly when it comes to matters such as public health. But it’s created no end of problems as well. I’d lay global pollution, for starters, at science’s doorstep. We’d never have had the Industrial Revolution were it not for the scientific Enlightenment, and pollution is the direct outgrowth of industrialism. I’m not knocking what we have these days (what I have). I’m writing on a computer and spreading my words on the internet. But we have to be holistic. We can’t just say “I’m doing better” or “on balance, things are getting better.” Are they really? Tell that to starving billions, those killed, maimed, or made homeless by modern, scientific weaponry, those suffering and dying from cancers created by the results of modern science.

I put my faith in science when it is practical to do so, but I have other problems that science can’t help with. Yet, I don’t want my life divided into two regions: the scientific and the spiritual. What I want is for both “sides” to wake up and realize that we have a joint mission and if we put our heads together rather than squabbling we can achieve a worldview that is richer, more complex, and more satisfying.

When I was a professor of anthropology in New York I was often asked, “how can you be a professional anthropologist and an ordained minister?” Interesting question. Without taking a poll, I’d estimate that the vast majority of anthropologists are some brand of atheist or other. Yet they study religious behavior. They do so “scientifically” and in consequence, in my humble opinion, get nowhere because they have no clue what it is that they are studying. Without intending to do so, they are being ethnocentric. Without saying so directly they are often asking the question, “why do people behave in ridiculous ways?” The answer, “it makes them happy,” is certainly correct, but horribly incomplete. WHY does it make them happy? There we have barely scratched the surface.

There has been a small movement, that barely gets noticed, to forge links between the scientific and the spiritual. There is, for example, a glimmer of understanding by a few people that there are overlaps in parts of Buddhist philosophy and quantum mechanics. But the attempts to see the connexions are rather crude. I’d like to see a concerted effort in this direction and less drawing up of battle lines between two sides. We would all be the wiser.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:25 pm


 Bible  Comments Off on Reciprocity
Feb 122016

good sam

My last post ended with a discussion of the Golden Rule (“do unto others . . .) with no ultimate resolution, but a promise to return to the subject. I always keep my promises – well, almost always. Sometimes, I can’t for good reason. This time I can.

The Golden Rule is often mistakenly called a rule of reciprocity. It is not. It does not say, in effect, “do good things to others because they will do good things to you in return.” It simply says “do good things to others” (or avoid bad things) and stops. This is perfectly in line with multiple things Jesus is recorded as saying. This passage in Luke 10 is very instructive:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

There’s the Golden Rule again, but with a little question or quibble at the end. Jesus follows up with the parable of the Good Samaritan. His point in all of this is quite simply that you love EVERYBODY because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect a reward.

This discussion rather reminds me of a common, rather crass, Western interpretation of the Eastern notion of karma, namely, that if you do good stuff the universe will reward you (and if you do bad stuff you will be punished). So your job in life is to keep a healthy karmic balance. This is such a crude way of interpreting karmic law. But many so-called Christians think this same way about God – do good things and God will reward you. Do bad things and God will punish you. Much of the Greek Bible, both Jesus and Paul, is in express opposition to this simplistic notion of reciprocity. God does not hand out rewards because we are good. He helps us because he is God, and he is a loving God. Our duty is to be like God. There’s no reciprocity involved.

People just can’t seem to get their heads around this notion because we live in a cynical world where you just don’t get something for nothing. But that’s exactly what Jesus in enjoining us to do – to love others freely without thought for reward. The big question is whether a society could be built on such an idea. Many social scientists believe that reciprocity of one sort or another is what holds society together. I talked about this here . I think that we can build a society on pure love without a notion of reciprocity, but it will not be easy because we are very set in our ways. Marriage and the family ought to be our models of pure love, but they have been so hopelessly corrupted by culture that they now operate, by and large, as if reciprocity should be normal – “I’ll cook if you clean the dishes; I’ll take care of the car if you wash the floors; I’ll pay your college tuition if you get good grades.” It’s all wrong, but it’s the world we live in. I’ll love you if you love me. No no no no no no no !!!

Back to my original question – what is this thing called love? It’s one of those things that I can’t define but I know it when I see it. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 gives us his famous list of attributes of love without really defining it. That’s a good start, but not the whole answer. Best I can say is that we must take Jesus as our model. After all, that’s what “Christian” means – being Christ-like.

To be continued . . .



Timeless Truths

 Bible, Spirituality  Comments Off on Timeless Truths
Feb 032016


The notion of “timeless truths,” especially as regards the Bible, has always troubled me. As an anthropologist I’ve always worked on the assumption that context is everything. The most famous illustration of this fact is Laura Bohannan’s paper “Shakespeare in the Bush,” in which she describes the problems of telling the story of Hamlet to Tiv elders (in southern Nigeria in the 1960s). She thought that the story of Hamlet was a great example of “timeless truths” only to be completely disabused of the notion by the Tiv who could not understand the story of Hamlet at all. For them it held no moral value.

The Ten Commandments are often cited by evangelical Christians as “timeless truths” aka inflexible human moral laws. They are listed twice in the Hebrew Bible, first at Exodus 20:1–17, and then at Deuteronomy 5:4–21. Here they are in summary (roughly translated):

1      Don’t have other gods before me
2      Don’t make any graven image       
3      Don’t take the name of the Lord God in vain
4      Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy       
5      Honor your father and your mother
6      Don’t kill
7      Don’t commit adultery
8      Don’t steal
9      Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor
10   Don’t covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals, or anything else

There are a few problems in translation that are by no means trivial, but I’ll pass them by for the moment. The gist is here. Are these “timeless” and universal moral laws? Furthermore, do the people who trumpet them as such actually follow them? I think not.

Conservative “Christians” are always railing against what they call “moral relativism” yet they are not beyond relativism of their own when it suits them. How may Christians of any stripe obey #2, for example? Are we to have NO images of ANYTHING? Certain sects of devout Muslims follow this precept, but Christian history is flooded with religious imagery, and I don’t hear voices arguing against it. But, never mind that. Let’s get really basic. Do evangelical Christians ban the use of cameras? Do they object to having their photographs (i.e. images) taken for passports, drivers’ licenses etc.? Does it even occur to them that having and using a photo ID breaks God’s law?

Do arch-conservative, evangelical politicians work or make speeches on Sunday? Do they support the death penalty? Do they condone the use of firearms by police and the military? Of course, I know the answers; they are all morally relativistic. They are of the order – “I am prohibited from killing another person UNLESS . . .” But that’s NOT what the law says !!! #6 is unequivocal – “you shall not kill” – PERIOD. This, however, does not gibe with God’s endless commandments in the Hebrew Bible to slaughter. Is God confused? I think not – but PEOPLE are. I prefer, as ever, to use my rules of Biblical interpretation and infer that (moralistic) humans like to adjust their moral codes to suit their prejudices, and then give them the imprimatur of “God’s law.”

So, let’s leave the Bible behind for a minute and look at something seemingly more universal – the so-called “Golden Rule.” In one form or another this rule is found in just about every culture in every historical time period, and so has a claim to universality. There are three related versions:

  1. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  2. Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself.
  3. Wish upon others what you wish on yourself.

These are sometimes called the “positive,” “negative,” and “empathic” forms of the rule, respectively. It does not take a lot of pondering to realize the problems with this rule, whichever version you choose. Chief of these problems is that the rule is deeply narcissistic. What if others don’t want to be treated in ways that I like? I like to eat meat; should I therefore prepare a steak for a vegan? One way around that objection is to say that you should treat people in ways that THEY prefer. Wrong !!! Do you give heroin to an addict because he wants it?

So where do we stand with these “timeless truths”? In a bit of a muddle I am afraid. Can we follow the model Jesus set in the Sermon on the Mount by trying to get below the letter of the law to seek the spirit? Given Matthew 7:12 we are in a bit of a pickle taking that route:

Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you
shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets

The empathic version of the Golden Rule !!  But let’s turn to Mark 12:28-31:

28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?

29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:

30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a slight twist on the Golden Rule but with an important difference. The commandment is essentially to love others. I know, I know, I know – what is love? Paul helps – but only a little.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. (1 Corinthians: 4-8).

We’re still going around in circles. Why is it that whenever I tackle the really hard questions I end up falling back on my faith? I think I know what love is when I feel it – in myself and in others – but I cannot define or explain it. I know when I am being loving and when I am not – I think. It looks like being kind, generous, caring, and sharing etc. But how do I know if I am right?

To be continued . . . (I promise)