Saturday, May 18, 2019

Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Jesus was a maverick 1st century Jewish rabbi, an outsider who threatened the insiders of his ancient Jewish religious establishment.  That insider versus outsider dichotomy can be compared to progressives today who “think outside the box” and question the religious doctrines and politics of establishment religious and political authorities.

When Jesus began his subversive ministry over 2,000 years ago, he and his disciples were chastised by insider Pharisees (Jewish teachers of the law) for associating with outcasts and sinners.  Jesus responded to them: It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:16, 17)

Jesus was being sarcastic.  The sanctimonious and hypocritical Pharisees were the sinners in need of God’s healing, not the social outcasts who were seeking forgiveness.  The Pharisees taught that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of legitimacy, while Jesus taught a new standard of legitimacy, or righteousness, for the Jews--it was the primacy of love over law.

The universal and altruistic concepts of legitimacy taught by Jesus are relevant today. Those white Christians who support Donald Trump and his Republican minions are religious insiders who sacrificed the altruistic standards of legitimacy taught by Jesus on the altar of partisan politics.  If the teachings of Jesus are the word of God, then those insiders are sinners.

Sin is not disobeying a law; it’s ignoring the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions.  That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted by Muslim scholars as a common word of their Abrahamic faith.

Today’s outsiders are challenging Trump’s egregious immorality and the distorted religious doctrines of his supporters with the altruistic standards of legitimacy taught by Jesus.  The same is happening with demagogues in democracies around the world, where outsiders are minorities since insiders in both religion and politics have majorities supporting their power.

Like Trump in America, al-Sissi in Egypt and Erdogan in Turkey are demagogues who have corrupted Islam and their democracies by violating the human rights of their opponents to promote their power.  Like other demagogues around the world, they have exploited the dark side of religion with distorted doctrines that promote fear and hate, and condemn all outsiders.

Last weekend Vice President Pence warned graduates at Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University that they should expect to be “shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.”  He then boasted that Trump “protects religious liberty.” To Pence that meant that he and evangelical Christians have the right to discriminate against homosexuals in the name of God.

The truth is that Trump, Pence and their white “Christian” supporters--including Falwell and Liberty University graduates who support their views--should be shunned and ridiculed for making a mockery of the teachings of Jesus.  They are insiders in Trump’s immoral regime who have corrupted the church with distorted family values and a politics based on white supremacy.

It is reminiscent of Germany In the 1930s, when most German Christians supported Hitler’s Nazi party based on white supremacy and anti-Semitism.  The Republican Party, like the Nazis, promotes radical-right politics of white supremacy. But the Democratic Party offers little hope for change.  It’s a hodge-podge of liberal extremists that can’t relate to mainstream voters.

Over the years, religious and political insiders and outsiders in America have reversed their roles.  Republicans have replaced Democrats as the party of white supremacy, and racism continues to plague our religion and politics.  But Trump can’t keep immigrants out of America forever. If white Christians don’t fix the problem soon, they will lose their majority status as insiders and become outsiders, leading U.S. religion and politics into unchartered waters.


Notes:

This commentary introduces Lesson #1, Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous at pp 17-20 in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith sudy guide posted in Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.  It addresses theological issues on sin, repentance and forgiveness that relate to religion, legitimacy and politics.     

On Vice President Pence’s comments at the Liberty University graduation last weekend, see  https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/443262-mike-pence-tells-liberty-university-graduates-to-prepare-to-be.

John Fea has said that “Pence’s persecution complex should not surprise us. Evangelicals in America have seen themselves as victims since the 1960s. The Christian Right emerged in the 1970s with an agenda focused on returning prayer and Bible reading to public schools, resisting demographic change in the wake of new immigration, defending segregation in Christian academies, overturning Roe v. Wade and stalling the gains of the feminist movement.  The movement gains strength by scaring evangelicals into believing that they are constantly under attack. Without this discourse of victimhood, the donations will stop, and the Christian Right will lose its hold on the levers of power within the Republican Party.
For Pence, who came of age spiritually and politically at the time of the Christian Right’s ascendancy, there is little difference between evangelical faith and a political agenda. He sees the world in black and white. It is “us vs. them” in an epic battle for the soul of the nation.  And the Liberty University crowd, students and supporters of what Falwell Jr. claims to be the largest Christian university in the world, cheered. At one point the crowd even began a chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/13/dear-mike-pence-real-persecution-christians-isnt-here-america/?utm_term=.200fa9a7c6f1&wpisrc=nl_faith&wpmm=1

Steven Waldman has asked, What happened to U.S. evangelical leaders?  In early America, they were our freedom fighters.  Waldman pointed out that 18th century evangelicals were outsiders in the church persecuted by insider Anglicans for practicing the moral standards taught by Jesus.  See https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/08/what-happened-us-evangelicals-early-america-they-were-our-freedom-fighters/?utm_term=.be7a75428646&wpisrc=nl_faith&wpmm=1

On Christian support for Hitler’s Nazi regime, see Religion in Nazi Germany at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Nazi_Germany.

The increasing number of white Christians becoming “nones” coupled with demographics that predict a decreasing percentage of whites in America will lead religion and politics into unchartered waters.  See  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/05/14/religiously-unaffiliated-voters-are-leading-us-politics-into-uncharted-waters/?utm_term=.73be8960d63c&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1
   
For an example of mean-spirited and divisive partisan remarks, see comments of Republicans Steve Scalise (R-La) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo) related to Representative Rashida Tarib (D-Mich), a Muslim, at  https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-republicans-criticize-rep-tlaib-over-remarks-on-holocaust-israel/2019/05/12/50939fea-74f5-11e9-b3f5-5673edf2d127_story.html?utm_term=.08f7c933305c&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.

Related commentary:

On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within

On religion, race and politics:
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity   http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(7/19/15): Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(7/16/16): The Elusive Ideal of Political Reconciliation
(10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(2/18/17): Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics
(8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(12/9/17): Religion, Race and Identity Politics                   
(1/6/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(10/20/18): Lamentations of an Old White Male Maverick Methodist in a Tribal Culture
(12/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Justice in Religion and Politics
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America


Saturday, May 11, 2019

Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson's Jesus in the 21st Century

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr., May 11. 2019


Thomas Jefferson was 77 years old in 1819 when he completed The Jefferson Bible.  It presented Jesus as a maverick Jewish rabbi with no claim of divinity.  Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and biblical scholars now consider Jefferson’s Jesus an early step toward discovering the historical Jesus.

Jefferson was a deist who authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the U.S.  While he considered the teachings of Jesus a supreme moral code that should be applied to politics, Jefferson considered “corruptions of those teachings by the church and state a conspiracy against the civil and religious liberties of man.”   

Jefferson’s Jesus taught God’s truth in the prophetic tradition.  Jesus never suggested that he was divine, or that God favored his religion over others.  Jesus taught love over law and was critical of sanctimonious and hypocritical religious leaders who taught that Mosaic Law was God’s holy standard of righteousness, and who put their own interests over the needs of others.

The greatest commandment summarizes the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus to love God and our neighbors, including our neighbors of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  It’s a common word of faith taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus; and it has been recognized by Islamic scholars as a common word of their faith as well.   

That common word of altruistic love can reconcile the Abrahamic religions and promote a politics of reconciliation, but not for religions that claim to be the one true faith and condemn all unbelievers, or for one that claims a God-given promised land and a right to exclude others from it.  Such religious exclusivity exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it must end.

Jesus never mentioned democracy and human rights--but then he never condemned slavery either.  Jesus addressed issues of his time and place, leaving it for future generations to apply the universal and timeless concepts of God’s love for their time and place.  In a modern democracy that requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.

Democracy has proven dangerously divisive.  A toxic mix of religion and politics now seems to validate the prophecy of Edmund Burke that in a democracy we will forge our own shackles.  In America an obsession with individual rights and identity group demands have produced polarized partisan politics that now threaten to unravel the fabric of democracy.
      
Christians, Jews and Muslims have made a mess of God’s will in politics, undermining democracies around the world by supporting authoritarian demagogues.  In America, white Christians support Trump. In Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews support Netanyahu. And Islamists support al-Sissi in Egypt and Erdogan in Turkey.  It’s an unholy mix of religion, hate and politics.

The universal and altruistic teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus are not only relevant but essential in the 21st century.  In a world of increasing religious diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims must reject exclusivist religious doctrines and promote a politics of reconciliation based on the moral imperatives of the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and politics.


Notes:

The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy is an interfaith study guide posted in the Resources for this website.  It compares the teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus to those of Muhammad to promote the reconciliation of the Abrahamic religions with a common word of faith.
The Introduction at pp 10-15 explains why Jefferson’s Jesus was used in the study guide; and End Note 2 at page 425 describes Jefferson’s admiration for the teachings of Jesus and his contempt for the church.  

For the Islamic perspective of a common word of faith, see https://www.acommonword.com/.

A recent study indicates that anti-Muslim hate is driven by politics, not faith--and it’s preventable.  It affirms the need for a politics of reconciliation through better interfaith understanding and relationships.  https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/05/02/anti-muslim-hate-driven-politics-not-faith-and-its-preventable-study.

On how the Trump regime’s support of corrupt partisan electoral practices in the U.S. and support of anti-democratic practices of demagogues around the world undermine America’s democracy, see https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/08/no-democracy-is-an-island-congo-hungary-orban-tshisekedi-trump-sisi/.
   
Related commentary:

On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within

Other related commentary:

(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?   
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(1/6/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(2/3/18): Musings on the Search for Truth through Interfaith Dialogue
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(11/17/18): Christianity and Clashing Identities in Politics and Religion
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/05/musings-on-good-bad-and-ugly.html.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Musings on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Religion is the primary source of our standards of morality and describes God as good and Satan as bad or evil--and usually ugly.  But Satan knows how to look good. He has done a convincing imitation of God in the synagogue, church and mosque, as well as in politics.  And his impersonations have often confused the good with the bad and ugly in our religion and politics.


Today’s economy looks good, but is it?  Greed and ambition motivate the super-rich on Wall Street.  They make obscene profits exploiting consumers and wield the real power in America.  When the economy tanks again as it did in 2009 (and it’s only a matter of time), the masters of Wall Street will be the first in the lifeboats, thanks to their supplicants in Congress.


Religion is a big part of the problem.  The masters of Wall Street are disciples of Ayn Rand’s self-centered crony capitalism, and they have the support of white Christians who have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics with a prosperity gospel that makes a mockery of the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  They have confused Satan’s evil with God’s goodness.


But there’s no confusion about the increase in hate crimes in the U.S. in recent years.  Many are motivated by distorted religious beliefs, as was the attack on April 27 on a synagogue in Poway California.  It seems that the gates of hell have been opened and evil has ascended to motivate dysfunctional people to commit hate crimes in the name of God.    
For Jews and Muslims, religious laws define what is good and bad: Mosaic Law for Jews and the Sharia for Muslims.  For Christians, the definition is more nuanced: Goodness is defined in the greatest commandment as loving God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  God is love, and loving God requires loving others.


Being good is based on altruistic love.  It’s about loving or caring for others as we love ourselves.  Being bad, or evil, is the opposite of altruism; it’s based on narcissism, or self-love.  Jesus taught and exemplified altruism, while Donald Trump exemplifies narcissism. Altruists serve others, while narcissists exploit others to promote themselves.


Affluence in America has produced a materialistic, hedonistic and triumphalist culture.  I once naively believed that America the Beautiful described our nation.  Now I know better, but that doesn’t mean that we should accept America the ugly.  We’re still a democracy and we can make America the kind of nation that we want it to be; but it will take a majority of us to do it.


With God’s help we can make America beautiful; but in a democracy God needs our help since God doesn’t have a vote.  The future of democracy is up to us, and in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan is winning the popularity contest.  The worst part of it is that Satan has religion on his side. That’s an ugly reality in religion and politics.


Is religion good, or bad and ugly?  Our religion, like our politics, is whatever we choose it to be.  Popularity has always been a high priority of the church, and the altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love have never been popular in our self-centered culture.  That has allowed evangelical charlatans to distort Christianity and promote a narcissistic demagogue like Trump.


In the past, cataclysmic events like economic crises and wars have forced Americans to become more altruistic in their politics.  That happened in the Great Depression and in World War II, and it may be the only way that America can escape its ugly reality and become America the beautiful.  If it takes a crisis to save us from ourselves, let’s hope it isn’t a war.


Whether America’s religion and politics are good or bad--or beautiful or ugly--is up to us.  Over 70% of Americans claim to be Christians. We can make America good and beautiful if we assume the stewardship of our democracy and follow the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and politics.  Otherwise, America the Beautiful will remain an elusive dream.


Notes:


On public confusion over whether the booming U.S. economy is good or bad, see Populist economic frustration threatens Trump’s strongest reelection issue, Post-ABC finds.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/populist-economic-frustration-threatens-trumps-strongest-reelection-issue-post-abc-poll-finds/2019/04/28/44f64cbc-6a02-11e9-9d56-1c0cf2c7ac04_story.html?utm_term=.f9a8f3512f89.  On Why the U.S. economy feels like the 1990s, but with more inequality and less prepared for a downturn http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/04/musings-on-legitimacy-of-crony.html.


Kate Cohen is an atheist who wants political values to be independent of religion, but she recognizes that the values of political legitimacy in America are shaped by Christianity.  She supports the values of Pete Buttigieg, who advocates that “Democrats should not be be afraid to use religious traditions as a way of calling us to higher values”and “that the same things that are being preached on Sunday apply to the policies that we’re making on Monday morning.”  Cohen also notes that Jeff Sessions as Attorney General cited Romans 13:1: “Everyone is subject to the governing authorities since there is no authority except which God has established;” and that Stephen Colbert responded with Romans 13:10 in which Paul described loving our neighbors as we love ourselves as “the fulfilment of the law.”  The Bible provides conflicting standards of morality and concepts of good and bad; and Christian morality is ambiguous. That was evident when a majority of white Christians voted for Trump, who exemplifies the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus. Cohen asserts that Buttigieg’s values “exist not because of religion but are independent of it.”  But that’s not entirely true. She failed to note that Buttigieg’s values are based on the teachings of Jesus, and his teachings on altruistic love are not ambiguous. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/pete-buttigieg-please-dont-equate-religion-with-morality/2019/05/01/19bad08a-6c38-11e9-8f44-e8d8bb1df986_story.html?utm_term=.6b47e289992a&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.


John Earnest is the alleged gunman in the shooting on April 27 at a Poway, California synagogue.  He is religious and a churchgoer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and he wrote a manifesto citing scripture that has upset some evangelical leaders.  Chad Woolf, an evangelical pastor in Fort Myers, Fla., said, “We should recognize that somebody could grow up in an evangelical church , whose father was a leader, and could somehow conflate the teachings of Christianity and white nationalism.  We should be very concerned about that.” Several pastors found parts of the manifesto troubling, because they agreed with them. Earnest espoused a Reformed, or Calvinist, theology, with salvation based not on his actions or lack of sin but on God’s will.  “‘You actually hear a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology in certain sentences and paragraphs. He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church,’ said the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Washington pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America which shares many of its beliefs with the OPC.  Kwon pointed to the evidence that the writer shares the Reformed theology of evangelical Presbyterians that only God can offer salvation to those he preselects. Kwon said, ‘Obviously something went wrong. I think it’s important for Christians, both those in the pews as well as those in the pulpit, to take a moment for some self-reflection and to ask hard questions.’”  See

Shortly after posting this commentary, I was sent a 2014 article by Professor Gary Laderman of Emory University entitled, Religion: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Laderman was spot-on when he said: Religion is complex and confusing. The real danger with religion is absolutist thinking, whether it's believing all religion is false and harmful, or believing that only one religion contains the truth. The messy middle ground is where the truth resides, a place that requires an open mind, a desire to learn more about religion's complexity and history, and an ability to accept the shifting sands of multiple truths that display the good, bad and ugly in religion. Had the article been written after white evangelicals began publicly supporting Trump, Laderman would likely have noted the absurd ambiguity of Christian morality.  See https://www.huffpost.com/entry/religion-the-good-the-bad_b_4489454.

This is the elusive ideal of America the Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates (1904):   
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!
America, America!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
The United Methodist Hymnal, p 696
For more on America the Beautiful, see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful.