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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Jesus and the Sword

This post is about scripture and life. Or rather, it is about the way in which a particular scripture is applied to our lives in a way that I think is dishonest and spiritually dangerous.

America is involved in a period of armed conflict. Though we have tried desperately to avoid religious undertones in our motives for waging war, I have been quoted scripture by several people defending our right to go to war.

However, it is my firm belief that there is no text in Jesus’ message or in his actions presented to us in any of the gospels that can be construed as justifying the use of force to achieve one’s ends, physical or spiritual.

The scripture most often quoted, of course, is Matthew 10:34. I would like to spend a little time excavating this scripture and explaining why it is most definitely not a justification for Christians to wage war in Christ’s name.

Matthew 10:34 (NRSV) - "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

I often hear this verse as a justification for armed conflict. This use of Matt. 10:34 is not only textually incorrect, but is one of the better examples of ways in which our forefathers have mangled our theology almost beyond recognition.

There's a reason that verse appears only in Matthew's gospel. Matthew is the gospel written to rural Jews (btw, at the time they were called "pagan," which originally just meant "unsophisticated country bumpkin," but that's not relevant, but just interesting to me) by a Jew. Matthew's basic message is "Christ calls you out and demands sacrifice." The cultural setting of the text was to address the plight of Jewish Christians, still living among their traditional Jewish families and friends, who were being pressured to renounce this divisive new faith and rejoin their "proper heritage."

In Matthew's gospel, the words of Jesus are a justification for leaving behind your family, to exalt your loyalty to Christ before that of your family. Just as Jesus left his father to join us, Jewish Christians should be willing to leave their families (if necessary) to join him.

Jesus is the realization of prophecy. He fulfills the old and ushers in the new, and his message is about cultural change.

So let's put 10:34 back into context.

Matthew 10:27-40.
27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

So what is he saying? Be bold before men. If people threaten you, do not fear them, for they can only harm your body. If you stick up for me here, I will stick up for you before God. If you deny me here, I will reciprocate.

Now the crucial part. Jesus is explaining that his teaching will cause discord in the Jews' families. His message will not bring peace, but the sword. To the Jews, the symbol of the sword is not one of violence, but of "splitting." The sword brought to a cloth parts it into two pieces. What Jesus is saying here is that his message will polarize relationships in the Jewish household. Some will see Him as messiah, others as a blasphemer. But when these conflicts occur, Jesus does not want family unity at all cost, he wants allegiance to him to come before the family, even if that means that sons will have to oppose fathers, and daughter-in-laws will oppose mother-in-laws.

There’s a reason those specific examples were chosen. The author is saying the younger generation (the Jewish Christians) may have to part with the older Jews (their parents). Jewish sons brought their brides into their father's household at that time, and it was a Jewish tenant that the son must honor his father's authority in matters of faith. But Jesus calls the young husband and wife to turn against the son's parents, if necessary, in order to pursue a relationship with Christ. The devotion to the "old ways" is not an excuse to not follow Christ's calling.

And so then read the rest. It's VERY anti-family. But again, it's just saying that Christ must be our first love and our first devotion. Anyone, even a cherished family member, who comes between us and Christ represents proof that we are not worthy of Christ or his message.

Matthew 10:34 is not a call to violence. It is simply a dramatic statement of how radical Jesus' message truly is. Christ first, family second, even if this order creates conflict in your family and makes your elders your enemy.

This verse has to be one of the most misquoted in the New Testament. Well, maybe not as much as the 1 Corinthians passages people use to argue that Paul thinks women should not participate in worship. Still, this one is pretty commonly taken out of context.

Why someone would choose to make Jesus say that conflict is the answer based on such a tortured misuse of scripture when his own actions in the garden seem to contradict any belief in violence for any reason is beyond me. When Peter drew his sword to defend his Christ against soldiers who were going to lead him to death, he was chastised. And Jesus' actions and opinions against violence appear all over each of the gospels.

Just think about who Simon the Zealot was. He was a revolutionary who had murdered people in order to attempt to being about the end of the Roman occupation. In our terms, Simon was a terrorist. But did Jesus seek to kill him? No, Jesus made him a disciple and a member of his own circle.

And Judas, the one who would betray him? Did Jesus kill him or even lift a finger to prevent him from condemning him to death? Of course not.

Jesus brings a sword to our lives. It is an instrument of division, should we ever doubt who commands our highest allegiance.

He does not appear at any point in any of the Biblical narratives to condone violence as the solution to any problem, no matter what the stakes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Harry Potter is the devil?

The third Harry Potter movie is out, and I have yet to see it. I came very late to the series, only reading the books when the fifth book was released. And I read all five of the first few books in just a few weeks.

What intrigued me about the series were not the rave reviews or the shining endorsements from all of my literary friends, but actually the strong resistance and criticism posed by the more conservative religious brethren in our country.

“Harry Potter teaches witchcraft” and “Harry Potter is not family friendly” were just two of the cries delivered when conservative Christians began to rail against this book series. So I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In a nutshell, the series is quite good. And though it does contain elements of fantasy and magic, it is hardly as heavy as the Lord of the Rings series, a series that Christuans seem to praise.

This paradox has always amused me. While I think that people are not entirely rational in their choices of what is socially acceptable (ok, I know that was a rather large understatement), I think that Tolkein gets clearance by the Christian community because his books have weathered the test of time and they have received historical support.

Many people who oppose contemporary mass culture are actually fighting against the unfamiliar. And certain properties that have a traditional standing are not easily dethroned.

I believe a characterization of the argument would sound like:

"I've got to be careful and protect my children from negative influences. Harry Potter? This isn't teaching the Christian message. BAD. BAD. The Hobbit? Well, my dad used to read me the Hobbit when I was a kid. I know it's not overtly Christian, but it made me feel good and I love the memory of listening to my father's voice trilling through the dark night as I lay huddled in my covers. It made me feel good, and that means it couldn't have been bad. So I guess that means there was an indirect Christian theme in the book. Yeah, now that I think about it, Bilbo IS kind of a Christ figure. He has to sacrifice his comfort (by leaving his home, which Hobbits NEVER do) and travel through a dangerous land with a rag-tag group of people (kind of like the apostles?) in order to save the world from what is probably just Tolkein's metaphor for Satan. Yeah, that's it. My father WAS reading me a Christian story. And if it was good enough for my father to read it to me, it will be good enough for me to read to my children ..."

I have heard similar mental gymnastics applied to everything from Dr. Suess to the Matrix and even to several John Woo movies (I recently had a friend who kept trying to convince me that Mission Impossible 2 was a metaphor for the gospel story. I found his arguments rather unconvincing.). The Matrix example really galls me, because I think the point the screenwriters were pushing for was that the world is about perception, and perception is formed by those who control perception. Some are able to see through the control of the powerful, but they will always be in the minority, and though they fight for the salvation of others, they will rarely be recognized for what they are.

This really comes out in the second installation, where several seemingly divergent worldviews are brought into conflict, suggesting that how we organize reality and meaning is more dependent upon where we are in the system than what actually is true. Hardly a Christian story.

Even so, the third installation parallels more of the proto-religious theme of the first, and viewers from many different walks of life looked to the series for inspiration.

But, the real reason I am galled by the interpretation of the Matrix as a specifically Christian story is that if it were, the story would convey the wrong messages about Christianity. If Neo is Christ and Morpheus is John the Baptist, there are many factual problems with the story. The virtue of the Morpheus character IS in recognizing the Christ figure, but having him being more aware than the Christ figure is more representative of the Buddha story than the Christ story.

And what kind of Christ is Neo? The selfless defender of the innocent and weak? Maybe after a fashion, but not one consistent with our story. Christ did not seek to topple Rome, but to help those who were being crushed under its yoke. He always diverted from any sense of political struggle to directly intervene in the affairs of the actual people in need. Christ seemed less concerned with power politics and policy than with relieving suffering wherever he encountered it. I really struggle with accepting a Christ figure who is less concerned with the survival of the individual pod-people than with toppling the system that enslaves them.

I guess the fact that so many Christians consider the Matrix a popular spin on the Christian story embedded in a new style of text bothers me, because it makes me think that either they are willing to compromise the point of our story to get SOME elements of it into popular discourse, or that they have missed the point of the story themselves.

But the Matrix, the Harry Potter books, the Lord of the Rings books and the Chronicles of Narnia all have virtues in their storylines. Some more than others. But whenever we try to replace the real story with anything from our popular entertainment, I think we lose too much.

I guess I'm suggesting that while portions of most works of fiction are consistent with our ideals, none of them hold the monopoly on consistency. And if one reinforces a particular set of ideals better than another, a closer look usually reveals that it does so at the expense of another set of critical ideals.

I think reading Harry Potter is fine. And I think that people who rail against it should read more of the Old Testament. There are a lot of stories there that contain dark forces and evil intentions by the characters in the storylines. And while we do censor such stories from children's storybooks about the Bible, unless we are prepared to start editing the actual contents of the Bible, I think we are in danger of hypocrisy at condemning stories just because they contain power sources not consistent with our beliefs.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The New Rome challenges Old Rome

I recently came across a book review for Fallen Order, a book about pedophile Catholic priests in the 17th Century. It raised the salience of the Catholic scandal back into my consciousness and I reflected on some interesting religious aspects of the scandals from a few years ago and my negative reaction to the treatment the church received.

Not that I am defending the priests involved. I think what those specific men did was indefensible. But the problem I had with the debates at the time were that the litigants were suing the church, not the individuals. And the justice department was talking about threatening the church's tax status and holding the Bishops legally accountable for their subordinates' actions.

The original case had come to public attention when a family made a public outcry about a priest who had molested their sons was about to be appointed as a superintendent of a Florida school system. They argued that such a choice was a violation of human decency and that the individual in question should have been stripped of his collar.

Ironically, the family was violating a non-disclosure clause of their hefty settlement 25 years earlier to bring this to public attention. They were technically the ones breaking the law.

Several things struck me as odd about this initial case:
1. Even if the priest had been charged with a crime, the statute of limitations had long since past.
2. Not having been convicted in a court, he could have sued the family for slander.
3. The family was also going after the bishop in charge of the man's relocation as an accessory to the sexual abuse.

In that case (which was different than some of the ones that followed), we saw a priest who had committed an action, been reprimanded by his church superior, and then reassigned to a job away from children. Twenty-five years later, he gets a job as an administrator in charge of an organization that educates children, and not a position that even really brings him in contact with children.

The issues that burned me in that case were the question of church authority. Does the Bishop have the right to discipline and take confession from said priest and forgive him? Does forgiving that man of his sin really wipe it away (as the Catholics believe), or is he still accountable to a secular legal body? In essence, does the Catholic Church have the legal ability to forgive sin?

The justice department was coming dangerously close to saying that it doesn't. That the church must conform itself to the regulations and norms of contemporary society, or be judged accordingly. That a Catholic priest or Bishop has no real authority in spiritual matters outside of the boundaries of what the law of the land provides.

And ultimately, that the Church of Rome must adhere to the cultural norms of the United States of America or face legal, financial and political sanctions.

We blast the Catholic Church for not taking a more active and counter-cultural stance against the Nazi Socialist movement and then in the same breath demand that they bow to our cultural values?

I struggle with this.

I'm not Catholic, and I don't acknowledge Papal authority over my soul. But I respect those who do. And I read in the Constitution how the state is not supposed to intervene in the matters of church (an interpretation that stood until Kennedy became the first Catholic president and Congress became afraid that the Pope would rule over the country. The Establishment Clause's contemporary interpretation, which is about 50 years old now, is about protecting state from religion, and the U.S from the Pope).

I believe that the United States Department of Justice cannot have authority over the spiritual and personnel decisions of a religious body. That was precisely the scenario that drove many of our ancestors from the Old World in the first place.

And yet it does. We forced the Mormons to change portions of their religious culture before we would allow Utah to enter the union. We do not respect the religious cultures of people not of the Book. We certainly didn't hesitate to mount an assault on David Koresh.

We have a tenuous relationship between our faith and our social science. We just don't know where one is supposed to end and the other is supposed to begin. It's a problem that was created 200 years ago and we're not any closer to solving it today than we were then.