Monday, May 26, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/26 Post

I ought to know better than to tangle that kind of bait in front of a world religions scholar! Borrowing forms, stories, language and the like, of course, is not in dispute. That happens. My point was that it would have a been a shame had they simply imitated (done nothing more, or become like) their own oppressors.

They, as you demonstrate, did not do so. Instead, the Hebrews did something creative with it. From my perspective, the Ninth Commandment is an example of that creativity: it provided protection for the accused, said protection including the weight of divine sanction. Viewed in this fashion, the Ninth Commandment becomes a piece of a larger way of life in which slaves, the poor, and the powerless potentially enjoy the same legal status and protections as the powerful. From there, it's not too far a conceptual leap to begin to say that God takes the part of the underdogs of society (again, some of the prophets come to mind). That was a revolutionary idea (and still is, more often than we care to admit).

I'm intrigued by your brief discussion of "this world" versus "after-life" centeredness. Christianity is not monolithic, never has been to be truthful. In any given era, large numbers of Christians function out of a concern for the after-life. Even in those cases, though, one finds a considerable emphasis on spiritual growth. When we unpack the written documents, we often find that "spiritual growth" implies learning to live in the present moment as if already in the presence of God (the classic definition of Heaven). Good works, prayer, embracing joy, putting work and play and family into proper relationship, and a host of "worldly matters" assume great importance. One does not so much die and hope to go to Heaven as one learns to follow the way of Christ and thus enter into "eternal life" in the present life.

That being said, Christianity often veers in the direction you indicated. A number of casuative factors come into play. A few examples include sermons consistently focused on the potential terrors of the afterlife, human despair in the face of war and plague and the like, and the effects of mass-conversions oriented revivalism. Sooner or later, though, the system somehow self-corrects. In the past half century or so, for example, an increased appreciation of the Hebrew prophets coupled with a renewed sense of the "this world_emphasis" of Jesus has helped. The "emerging church" movement, in some measure, represents a recovery of this aspect of Jesus' intentions. You'll find the same kind of thing happening in many mainline denominations.

Personally, I find both emphases helpful. My strongest inclination is to deal with this life, to affirm it as a gift from God, and to seek to use it well (in accordance with the way of God). I also draw a kind of strength from the hope of a life beyond this life (from my perspective, resurrection and a new creation). It's not so much a hope for continued existence as it is a hope that evil shall not have the final word, whether with regard to the individual or the creation itself. To put it another way, I see my redemption and any redemptive act I may do as a minor foreshadow of a greater, conclusive redemption wrought by God.

That's probably more response than anyone needs or wants. I'll be interested in your comments, and I'll also look forward to seeing what else you pull from the Ninth Commandment.


MaryAnn said...

Bearing false witness is something that affects the lives of people adversely all the time, in the lesser form of gossip and rumors. My grandmother always said, “vas you dere, Charlie?” Meaning did you actually witness this before passing it on as truth?

I hope you will forgive my broaching this subject, but I simply have to. The larger issue is too big to go into here, but this one aspect of it really bothers me.
Most evangelical Christians are opposed to gay rights and often try to legislate against them. They have a set of propaganda points that is commonly used to make their argument – a tract of some kind – which contains horrific fallacies and truly appalling verbal images that make me wonder what kind of minds its authors must have to imagine such twisted stuff. The first time I heard it, I experienced total cognitive dissonance at the foul words coming from the mouth of an innocent-looking little old church lady. Oklahoma state representative Sally Kerns recently used some of this material as a political tool. Since the accusations are basically fictional and incredibly slanderous (as well as quite pornographic), to me this is a direct instance of bearing false witness, and yet it is done in the name of the church. How does that jibe with the commandment? Is it a case of believing the end justifies the means? I am not bringing this up to be provocative. It is an issue of false witness that is jarring and disturbing to me.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. I appreciate you bringing up the matter. Your grandmother's question is on target. Whether the issue at hand is gay rights, universal access to medical care, immigration, or racism, Christians often have a bad track record with regard to "bearing false witness."

Like you, I've encountered various tracts and diatribes that simply spread lies. Talk radio and the internet contribute to the tragedy.

Bearing false witness may well be the characteristic sin of our era. It undercuts Christian charity and makes a mockery of the faith.

What are it's sources? Never underestimate plain sin. Fear, laziness, our all too human love for gossip, secular politics specifically fuel false witness. I get a tad bit cynical when someone writes or says, "Send a donation today that we may continue our fight against (fill in the blank).

Christians must commit or recommit to seeking and speaking truth. Even if we do so, we'll still make our share of mistakes, but at least they will be honest mistakes.

MaryAnn said...

Thanks for you very thoughtful response. I really appreciate it. I completely agree that this goes well beyond that one issue. I'm equally appalled by what I hear re immigration, heath care, political character assassination, and on and on. This stuff is by no means limited to Christians! I have had some truly appalling chain political emails from Jews.
I think speaking truth is one of the most important factors in religious life, whatever the faith.
The more we do it, the stronger we become.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. I share the pain the two of you feel over this issue, and simply want to add that Evangelical Christians do not have a monopoly on homophobia.

I hear a radio show recently about a kind of "underground" railroad helping gay and lesbian Palestinians slip into Tel Aviv, Israel's most cosmopolitan city. Being gay can be life-threatening in many Moslem countries.

I would also encourage people to read Andrew Harvey's memoir "Sun at Midnight" to see how homophobia can play out in Hinduism as well.

Homosexuality threatens some people at such a deep level that fighting it justifies all kinds of evil. And while I believe we must secure and defend the civil rights of all people, we must also have compassion for those so frightened of some humans as to have lost their own humanity in the process.