As some of you know who’ve read my silly personal essay, I’m a recovering Pentecostal. When I was a teenager, I went to the Assemblies of God Church (just like Sarah Palin), and later continued onto the far less intense yet just as committed denomination of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my childhood before that, my family converted to Judaism for several years. I went to Hebrew school and attended synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.
I have a long history of biblical study. While I certainly am not as up on my verse quoting as I used to be since I ceased to be a believer in 1996, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in both Old and New Testaments. As a result, while imperfect, my understanding of what many would call The Word of God is better than average. And I recall vividly the intellectual Cirque du Soleil I had to perform each day to make sense of my life as I tried to follow Christ.
So, when I see a non-believer telling Christians what is or isn’t “Christian” — and I see it multiple times a day in my social media feeds — it’s clear that they have a superficial understanding of the Bible. Of course, the definition of “Christian” has been an apocalypse-inducing topic for 2000 years. But the surface definition that secular people are using is only creating deeper rancor in our discourse as we struggle with cultural issues like the rights of LGBTQA people.
Did Jesus Preach Acceptance?
The greatest secular misconception about Jesus regards The Golden Rule. He certainly did preach in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (New International Version)
We love this. It makes sense and helps us get along, creating a more compassionate society. It’s not necessarily acceptance, though, or even tolerance, which is what secular folk crave.
You see, Jesus profoundly contradicts himself in other verses, giving Christians the ability to construct a far harsher, more nuanced stance on social issues.
Many non-believers don’t understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. You know Leviticus? That book with all the horrific commandments about stoning people to death for committing adultery and homosexuality? We like to trot out some of the more esoteric and ridiculous-sounding verses from that book as examples of its irrelevance to modern life, like how it’s an abomination to wear mixed fabrics or to eat shellfish.
But here’s what Jesus says about The Law in Matthew 5:17-20:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
By these words, Jesus was not only down with not eating shellfish, he was for stoning your daughter to death for adultery.
But What About “Casting the First Stone”?
This story (which was not even in the original Greek text) is told at the beginning of John 8. Most secular people are familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 7: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
What most do not know is how that story ends in verses 10-11.
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
11‘No one, sir,’ she said.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’”
That’s my emphasis. It’s clear that even when Jesus was hypocrisy hunting, he didn’t let anyone off the hook. Just replace “leave your life of sin” with “stop having gay sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s a Hot Mess
I first encountered the crazy dance between Jesus and The Law when I was in my early teens, trying to convince my parents who had purportedly converted back to Christianity that it was okay to eat “unclean” meat like pepperoni. One verse would say one thing, but the next two would reverse the previous conclusion. Whenever I questioned pastors and Bible teachers, they sorted out the contradictions by making priorities. Who cares if you eat pork? Just don’t murder anyone or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time. That’s more serious.
So, Christians actually have quite the scriptural arsenal at their disposal if they want to create an argument, say, against gay couples adopting children or for denying employees health coverage for abortifacients (or what they think is an abortifacient, anyway). It’s perfectly “Christian” to do anything legally or morally that supports what the Bible says about certain human behaviors, even in the Old Testament.
That’s why secular folk are better off not playing the “This isn’t Christian” card in social issue debates. It doesn’t in the least, nor should it, shame a believer into thinking they don’t understand the Bible when they do — far better than the person making the accusation, in fact. You can imagine how infuriating and insulting that might be. Think about the last time someone contradicted your understanding about climate change evidence or even the age of the earth. We’re not talking about the same kind of data, obviously, but it’s the same reaction.
It’s totally legitimate to point out that people are clinging to some verses over others, such as eating lobster over stoning people to death. (For the record, even in my holy roller days, I was always a lot more about eating lobster. Not so much about stoning.) That’s getting to a deeper issue about biblical inconsistencies, but it isn’t about being Christian per se.
The Stronger Position
And I understand why this is so frustrating. The rest of us for the most part like to see the similarities in religions, to take the wisdom of each to create a more loving and peaceful place for us all. We seek tolerance in a world where religious conflict is eating us alive, destroying nations, ripping apart families, murdering LGBTQA people, and oppressing women and young girls. In our rage, our fear, we latch onto anything that might give us leverage in our discourse. But this, I’m afraid, isn’t it.
I don’t have any answers. All we can do is continue our quest for compassion and tolerance, to promote peace and understanding where possible, and to fight for justice for those who have been treated unfairly. Staying on our own turf and speaking about the benefits of compassion and inclusion rather than venturing into a religious debate when we don’t know the intricacies of that religion is the stronger position, giving us a more powerful voice.
And now I’m going to go eat some pepperoni.
(I’m also turning off comments. For the sake of my sanity and time, I have no interest in publishing the sort of debates that might ensue here. Thanks for your understanding.)