Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘The Epistle of James’

Pure Religious Hypocrisy

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government, Secular Humanism on April 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Paul Ryan shame

It has been a very long time since I’ve blogged the New Testament, which is a shame really as it was one of the primary reasons for starting this blog. I was very impressed with David Platz’ blogging of the Old Testament for Slate, and I wanted to attempt to do the same thing for the New, with a similar, rational, secular approach.

I could blame the Great Firewall of China or a variety of other hindrances, but that would only be partially true. The thing is, when I post a couple of photos on my travel blog, I get 500 ‘likes’ right away, but I can’t even get that many paid likes for a 1500-word essay on secularism. (Seems like you can easily generate 100k or more likes with cute butt photos, but I’m not sure how to tie that in to the topic). But I don’t feel bad – I notice on my twitter account that other secularists, agnostics, and atheists are unable to generate a dozen re-tweets a day, and they’ve got much greater name recognition.

Writing rationally about religion is thankless work – writing and speaking irrationally about it pays millions.

Furthermore, as Sam Harris mentioned in his podcast, with Donald Trump as POTUS, somehow, as scary as theocracy is, suddenly there are ideas – like nihilism, fascism or WWIII – that are just as scary or more so.

But, let’s suppose global thermonuclear war is not imminent, and pick up where we left off, with the Epistle of James. Take a few minutes to read about what we’ve learned so far about one of the earliest New Testament books written. We’ve learned that it’s unlikely that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the letter – and that it doesn’t really matter if he did or not. We’ve learned that James is not a fan of the idea that the wealthy are job creators, and that Christians need to listen more and stop shouting angrily at pro-Trump rallies. We’ve also learned that, according to James, Christians should be working for a greater morality for themselves, not for the nation as a whole – more on that in a minute.

Perhaps the most astonishing idea I’ve written about, for me personally as an ex- Sunday school teacher, is that when James tells us to be doers of the word and not hearers only – one of the most well-known verses in the NT – he could not possibly be referring to the Bible. And we’ve only covered the first chapter. If a person unfamiliar with American politics read only the first chapter of James, he’d have a hard time reconciling it to most every conservative Christian/Republican policy over the last 20 years – why do Christians vote Republican again?

We’ll finish the first chapter today, in short measure, by examining part of James 1:27, the part about looking after orphans and widows.

If you’re a regular reader, you already know where I’m going with this. But let me go there more forcefully than I usually do – in part, because drastic Trump times require it, but in a greater part because this is an example of Christian hypocrisy that really gripes my ass.

There are no two areas that reveal the hypocrisy of the evangelical, politically involved Christian – out of the many hypocrisies – than the issue of war, and the issue of taking care of the unfortunate. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, yet Christians keep putting warmongers in office. Jesus said ‘as you’ve treated the least of these, brothers and sisters, this is how you’ve treated me’ – referring specifically to the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. I don’t even need to give you chapter and verse, dear Believer, as you know it is exactly what Jesus said.

And yet – you vote overwhelmingly for the Paul Ryans and the other ‘fiscal conservatives’ who – with great joy – funnel more tax dollars into the war machine, and to the coffers of the rich (whom James disparages) and would strip the poor and sick of what little safety net they have. (Note the recent failure to pass healthcare reform because conservatives thought it didn’t punish the poor quite enough). Given that any pro-lifer logically should be anti-war and pro social safety net – how the hell do you sleep at night? (But logic is not a conservative forte – when Tomi Lahren stated the obvious logical consistency between being pro small government and pro-choice, she lost her job as a conservative commentator the very next day).

If I ever meet Mr. Ryan, aka Ebenezer Scrooge / Simon Legree – that’s the only question I’d want to ask – how, as a Christian, Mr. Ryan, do you sleep at night, knowing that you have purposely disobeyed many of the commands of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and are personally responsible for the suffering and perhaps even death of thousands – so that the Koch brothers can stack up a few more mil? I mean, forget about those whom you must consider to be the dregs of society – what about your personal salvation? (Although, being Catholic, I suppose you can just go to confession after each major legislative push – as can much of the Supreme Court). On another hypocritical note, it’s amazing that Evangelicals consider Catholics and Mormons to be anathema when it comes to worshipping together – but a-ok when voting. How can you let a man make decisions for millions of Americans, when you wouldn’t let him teach a Sunday school class or serve as a deacon in your church of a hundred souls?

James reinforces Jesus’ message – pure religion has a personal and public aspect. Personally, maintain the high bar on morality. Publicly, take care of widows and orphans. But American Christians skew their politics completely vice-versa, where morality becomes something that should be legislated and charity is an individual virtue, not a public one.

I’m familiar with your hypocritical dodge of this scriptural imperative, dear Christian (in fact, as an agnostic, I’m probably familiar with much more of the scripture, your worldview, and your theology than you, my hazy-thinking friend, are yourself. Yes, I know, even the Devil can cite scripture to his own advantage – thank Shakespeare for that one, not Jesus). Your excuse is that being a peacemaker and taking care of the poor are personal commands, not national ones. I see this argument everywhere online, and certainly in the comments section of my Facebook page.

Really? Please show me in the Bible where it’s explained how your actions and your voting are different – chapter and verse, if you don’t mind. Voting doesn’t count as an action? How, specifically, is voting for someone you know will punish the poor different from you making extra-sure that the poor are indeed punished? How is voting for a profane, immoral, warmonger not an act of profanity, immorality, and warmongering? How do you explain to your own children that you vote for people who exhibit behavior that you would not condone in – your own children? Even taking for granted the Herculean feats of circular logic it takes to maintain your system of belief against the everyday onslaught of increasing evidence – isn’t this a bridge too far?

And furthermore, what I consider to be the epitome of hypocrisy, Christians have spent decades insisting that the dictates of the Bible should be the the guiding light of government. God isn’t only telling me not to engage in homosexual activity – he’s judging us as a nation. Not only is God telling me not to have an abortion, he wants us to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. The Lord’s Prayer should be on public display in courthouses and schools, and every public square should have a little baby Jesus come Christmas.

Oh but, feed the poor, well that’s personal, that shouldn’t be what government does. Peacemaking? That’s me making amends with the woman down the street that criticized my apple pie at the last church social. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bomb the shit out of ISIS or the North Koreans.

Listen to yourself – your hypocrisy is worse than pathetic. It’s foul, poisonous equivocation – and left unchecked it will destroy our nation.

James, whom you believe to be Jesus’ own brother, tells you to take care of widows and orphans. He tells you this is the purest form of Christianity. And yet you vote for politicians who will punish the poor for the dire straits they find themselves in, while rewarding the rich – whom James says are exploiting you and blaspheming God. (But I’m ahead of myself – that’s James 2).

Shame – by your own Biblical standard – shame on you. When I see such odious, unrepentant hypocrisy, I think that Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell – were it really to exist – is too good for you.

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Pure Religion

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on March 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Read James 1:27.

I have received a few emails from readers who don’t understand why I’m writing. On the one side are those who think I’m wasting my time looking at the Bible and trying to reason with believers about its inconsistencies. Like Sam Harris, this group feels that the best thing to do with religion is to eradicate it. On the other side are believers who think that I unfairly paint all Christians with the same brush, or that I waffle between saying the Bible isn’t true and chastising them for not following its teachings more closely.

To the first group, I would say that, while I am a big fan of Mr. Harris, the elimination of religion is neither constitutional nor within the realm of possibility. I am unequivocally against any form of what I would call ‘thought police’, whether it be for or against religion. I am free to question the claims made by Christianity and other religions – others should be free to accept them. What people do in the public sphere is another matter; if Christians want to push American scientific understanding back into the dark ages, for example, that hurts all of us – and therefore non-believers need to push back.

To the latter group, my reasoning goes something like this: There is a very vocal group of conservative Christians in our country that feel the Bible is a guidebook of sorts on how America should operate. These folks are convinced that their interpretation of ‘the word’ and how it applies to government is in line with God’s plan. Anyone who disagrees with them is either motivated by Satan or Socialism. I am told there are many moderate Christians who do not feel the same way – if this is true, they are certainly very quiet. In the US at least, I don’t see much resistance against the politicization of Christianity and the hard right ideological direction it continues to go in. If you pass along Sarah Palin quotes on your Facebook account without criticism, I’m going to assume you agree.

Of these folks, I would ask two things. First, try to really understand the nature of the document on which you base your worldview. If necessary, ask your church to offer a Bible history class so that you really understand where the New Testament came from and how it was put together. If you’re going to say you have the road map, you should learn how to read it. Second, if you decide that you still want to read the New Testament as the literal, inerrant word of God, then pay attention to ALL of it, not just a few pet passages. I mean, really, it isn’t that long of a book – would it kill you to read it in a couple of different translations, maybe think about how it fits (or doesn’t) into the scheme of a democratic form of government?

Once the believer has done these things, it is my hope – not that he will lose his faith – but that he will realize that his religious claims are no more or less valid than those of any believer of any other creed. Perhaps he will at least realize that many of the claims he makes really do not have that much basis in the actual writings of the New Testament, but more in our American interpretations of those writings. That, in my opinion, is the kind of secularism that would be an important step in getting our democracy back on track.

liberty-religion

A case in point would be a reading of the last verse of James chapter one. Here he says real religion, accepted as pure and faultless by God, involves basically two things – taking care of widows and orphans, and keeping oneself from moral pollution.

Let’s look at the latter part of this verse first. No matter how ‘moral pollution’ is defined, it doesn’t seem like church folk are doing a very good job on this front. Numerous studies show that those who call themselves believers differ very little in their daily habits from those who do not. There are a few minor variations – Christians smoke a few more cigarettes than non-Christians do. They drink a bit less, but pay for a little more pornography. Young people who take ‘chastity pledges’ remain virgins on average about six months longer than other teenagers. But by and large, there is little difference between believers and non-believers when it comes to infidelity, child abuse, theft, fraud, drug use, murder, prostitution, alcoholism, and a host of other activities that could be described as immoral.

Notice that the writer does not demand that Christians rid society of immorality – he admonishes them to purge themselves of impurity. James is not pleading with Christians to become more politically involved. He is asking them to to raise their lives to a higher level of morality than those around them. Ted Haggard should have spent less time preaching about how homosexuality was ruining America and more time worrying about his own activities – even if you don’t classify homosexuality as immoral, certainly extra-marital, paid-for sex, crystal meth use, and jerking off in front of one’s parishioners would qualify.

I know, I know – for every Haggard, there are hundreds of Christians living wholesome lives, winning some battles with sin, losing some, but mostly managing to do right by most everyone, raise families, and stay out of jail. But the same could be said for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well. In fact, atheists, by almost every measure, are more ethical than the religious.

One of my greatest frustrations as a believer was that there was little evidence of the power of the gospel in the life of most believers, including my own. If being a Christian makes one no more able to live a ‘good’ life than anyone else – then Christianity loses one of its major claims to relevancy. If my life as a Christian differs from that of the non-believer in only what I say, not what I do, then I have succeeded in becoming nothing but a hypocrite. If my religion makes me feel guilty about my actions while offering no real means to improve myself, then it’s no good. Most people want to live a life in harmony with society – in a melting pot like America, religion is not conducive to that goal.

James does not say that the purpose of faith is to cleanse society of immorality – he only says that it can effectively cleanse the believer. I would say that statistics generally do not support that claim, and that Christians who want to legislate morality understand neither the thrust of the gospels nor the foundations of democratic government.

But go ahead and believe if you want, if you feel it makes you a better person. Just don’t claim that others are infringing upon your religious liberties when they disagree with you.

As for the first part of James 1:27, taking care of widows and orphans – well, that’s another post.

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When the Church Had No Bible

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on March 9, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Saint_James_the_Just

Read James 1:21-27 here.

Sometimes you are reading a passage from a book or text that you’ve read many times before, and inexplicably, you see something so obvious you can’t believe you never saw it before. Back in my Sunday school teacher days, if this occurred while reading the Bible, it was taken as evidence that God had spoken to me, revealing spiritual truth to my heart by his grace, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a truth my fallen nature was unable to comprehend through the reasoning of my natural mind alone. Yes, I used to think and talk that way.

Today when such an epiphany occurs, I recognize that it is my brain responding to a new piece of information acquired since my previous reading. In other words, there was a gap in my knowledge at that time that has now been filled. Or a faulty bit of information was lodged in my mind that, now removed, allows me to understand a key phrase or idea more clearly. You can translate the phrase laissez les bons temps rouler easily enough, but the full meaning never really clicks until after you’ve visited New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You realize using the word ‘party’ to describe both that event and your last office birthday gathering is criminally misleading.

Or, in the case of the Epistle of James, you imagine that when he writes about ‘the word’, he is referring to the Bible – when of course this couldn’t possibly be true.

There is a haziness – some would say laziness – in the thinking for most believers when it comes to how exactly the New Testament was put together. When I was a churchgoer, for example, I guess I just sort of assumed that the four gospels were written by four of Jesus’ disciples, you know, people who would have first-hand knowledge of his life. But if pressed, I wouldn’t have been able to name all twelve of those disciples – I doubt many Christians could. Imagine my surprise at finding that there were no disciples named Mark or Luke. Matthew’s gospel may or may not have been written by the same Matthew know as Levi, the tax collector. And even the most conservative Christian scholar places the writing of John’s gospel a full 40+ years after Jesus’ death. Pretty shocking when you realize that the supposed words of Jesus cannot possibly be direct quotes, as they were written down decades after he would have said them, often by people who weren’t even there at the time. Any other biography written to this standard would never be published.

I know that Christians, even when faced with these facts, will argue that they really don’t matter, because the Holy Spirit is the true author, and the men whose names are attached to the letters and gospels were writing as the Spirit moved them – this was my line of thought in my fundamentalist days. But I never stopped to think it through. So, there are these documents that are supposed to persuade me to believe in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the main evidence supporting these documents is that they, themselves, were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Which means I’d have to buy into the argument before accepting the facts that are meant to prove the argument. Can you say circular logic?

This really hit home as I was reading James’ letter earlier this week. In the very first verse, there are cross-references to Galatians and Acts; in other parts of the first chapter, James seems to be referring to John, Romans, Thessalonians, even Revelation. Of course, he could not have had any of those writings in mind – as they hadn’t been written yet. With the exception of perhaps 1 Thessalonians, the Epistle of James is the oldest of the canonical New Testament writings. These references were of course added by an editor at a much later date, perhaps in an effort to show the ‘harmony’ amongst the various letters and gospels.

So James – along with every other first-generation Christian – had no New Testament. No written gospel. No letters of Paul or Peter or John. No Bible. In modern Christian parlance, when we say ‘the word’, we mean ‘the Bible’. But there’s no way this could be what James means – as there wasn’t one yet. In fact, the New Testament as we know it today wouldn’t exist until a man named Eusebius put it together early in the 4th century AD. One could be forgiven, I suppose, for not realizing this, as it certainly isn’t something that would come up even in the most advanced Sunday school class – perhaps not even in the vast majority of conservative divinity schools.

In fact, the common icon representing James (see above) shows him holding what looks like – you guessed it – a Bible! Some have said this denotes his authorship of a venerated letter – and indeed, very early icons show New Testament writers holding scrolls or pieces of parchment. But by Eusebius’ time, James, Paul, and others are all depicted with a heavy tome under their arms – perhaps a kind of retroactive stamp of approval for the new canon?

Christians are guilty of this kind of proleptic thinking all of the time. We cannot help but read first century writings through the lens of our own time, twenty centuries later. We ask, “What would Jesus do?” when there is no possible way for us to know what he or any other person living at the time might do. Even men who spend their lives studying that specific juncture in history could not do more than postulate on what a given individual might or might not do.  So, rather conveniently, ‘God’s will’ ends up being pretty close to our own. Yes, yes, I hear you God – buying the Cadillac would certainly bring you more glory than the buying a Ford. Jesus hates homosexuality, so I’m agin’ it too.

What then could James possibly have had in mind when he wrote his most famous verse, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…”? Well, he could have certainly been referring to the Law of Moses, copies of which would have been available at the synagogues where Christians were at this time meeting. In fact, in the next verse he says that anyone who really studies the law, really looks into it, will be blessed. So the only written ‘word’ that James could encourage his flock to read would have been – – and then the epiphany.

Look closely. James isn’t demanding that people read ‘the word’ at all – he’s demanding that they listen. He clearly differentiates his vocabulary – study the law, read the law, look closely at the law – but hear the word. What’s the difference? ‘The word’ is not the Bible, it is not something that is written – it is whatever James says it is. When James says you have to hear and do the word, what he really means are his words – because, of course, he speaks for God. A year or two after this writing, the church decides that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised, not because of some new findings about Moses’ law – but because James decides that it’s OK with God.

Searching several online versions of the Bible, I was amazed to find that not a single New Testament writer demands that we read ‘the word’ – they all basically make the same connection that James makes – the true Christian must hear the word and do it. Go ahead and read the law for yourself, my friend, but if you want to go to heaven, you have to agree with my interpretation of what it says. Faith comes by hearingnot by reading, and the believer needs to do what he hears the preacher say. This is what James is truly saying, and Paul, John, and others say the same thing elsewhere.

James was not a disciple of his brother when Jesus was still alive – he did not believe. He was not an eyewitness of many of the events listed in the gospels. Nor was Paul; not only was he an unbeliever in Jesus’ lifetime, he actively persecuted Jesus’ followers, encouraging a mob to kill the first martyr, Stephen. Yet these men claim to know God’s will – even though they obviously didn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God when he walked in their midst.

You have to believe in Jesus, and you must believe what I tell you about the scripture – or you’ll die and go to hell. Why? Because you were there? Because you heard the words fall from Jesus’ lips? No. Because after Jesus died, God spoke to me. And, as is always the case in these situations, he told me what you need to do.

How convenient.