This issue is Part 1 of a series,
It has long puzzled me how Christians ignore their public, social obligations, as taught by Jesus. Sure, usually they claim to follow the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity, though their interpretations are sometimes twisted and perverted. However, when it comes to their public lives – lives beyond their immediate family, friends, and acquaintances – the Rule and the ideals of charity usually are tossed out the window, sometimes without any pretence to the contrary. I’m not sure that this is entirely intentional, or even knowing. In fact, I’m coming to understand that this disregard of, and hatred for others, is a sin whose roots go back for centuries. The logical underpinnings of this attitude precede Jesus himself.
A hallmark of genius is simplicity, and Jesus had both in abundance. His parables are marvellous gems, suitable for children and adults of all ages. It’s easy to take away lessons from what he taught. On the other hand, such simplicity can be completely opaque to those who come to the class with the wrong preconceptions. As Zen puts it, you must empty the cup of old ideas before you can fill it again with new thoughts: you must have beginner’s mind. Moreover, the details or story used in the teaching isn’t always the important part. As Gautama Buddha explained, “There is no Buddha. It is only a figure of speech. I only taught you about the Buddha to get you thinking a certain way.” We are all children before God, and often times we need fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and children’s stories, for the deepest truths are beyond any words.
Once upon a time, all we adults lived, as many children still are privileged to do, in magical worlds. The earth really was inhabited by mythical creatures, and all things both good and bad were possible. The stones were alive and could sing and shed tears. Those stars in the sky had names and stories. Jesus tried to bring his followers into the world of miracles and magic, if they weren’t already there. In such a world, miracles are an everyday thing: when the miracles are gone, you know that something is very, very wrong. His miracles were not to prove his powers or knowledge; in fact, he said that others would work miracles, as well. Rather, his miracles were to lead the listener firmly into a world where all things are possible, into the only place where his profound messages could be fully understood.
Nowadays, it is extremely difficult for many of us to enter that space.
In the time and culture of Jesus, re-incarnation was accepted by many as fact; that belief was abandoned by most Christians a few centuries later, although many Hindus and Buddhists continue with it in different ways. In the same time and culture, we know that many people assumed that humans could become gods, and vice versa; although Hindus and Buddhists still know that (again in different ways), in the Christian world only the Mormons have an inkling of those possibilities. Gods and jinn and other beings would sometimes interact with one another and with humans. Any contrary beliefs limit God, who cannot be limited. We know these things, but our minds mostly refuse to accept them literally, taking them as mere metaphors or misunderstandings due to the ignorance of the uneducated. In consequence, we separate Heaven from Earth and Hell, and God from ourselves, oblivious to the Islamic advice that God is as close to us as are the veins in our own necks. When Jesus said that the kingdom of Heaven was within us, we wasn’t making a metaphor, he was speaking a truth which we now find too simple and literal to comprehend, because we cannot shake these grasping monkey mind preconceptions off from our mental and spiritual backs. Beginners' minds are few and far between, and we misunderstand Jesus’s warning that we must become as children to enter Heaven. He meant it, in a way that we refuse to believe.
It was this separation of Heaven from Earth, of God from Human, brought about by so-called rational thought, which resulted in justifying the sin of abusing, hating, dehumanizing, and abstracting our neighbours.
Jesus’s message regarding the Golden Rule was simple. His message regarding taking care of the poor and unfortunate was simple. His message regarding salvation was simple. It was all genius, but the followers made sure to complicate it. They missed the context about all of the possibilities, about the miracles and the magic, and couldn’t comprehend the simplicity. Over time, the closeness and the immediacy evaporated, God was no longer so close that he could be felt and touched, and Heaven withdrew ever further away.
From shortly after his death, Jesus acquired a wide variety of followers, not all of whom were Christians, but many of which believed he was somehow special, even partially or completely God. Some of the followers believed in multiple gods, some were almost atheistic, some saw the world as a great battle between light and darkness, others were less dualistic. The followers included Jews and Romans, pagans, Gnostics, Essenes, and many others. Although during his lifetime, his disciples and other followers were mostly Jews, his message was universal, and, to use a horrible but descriptive contemporary term, it went viral, distortions and all. In his own words, the two most important laws were to love God, and to love one’s neighbour, commandments he described as like each other.
One of his various groups of followers, the Christians, focused, not on this simple message about loving God and one’s neighbour, but rather on who Jesus was. Who he was overshadowed what he said, and the pattern was set for Christian debates and beliefs from then onward. It didn’t matter to the Christians if you loved God and your neighbour, unless you also subscribed to some specific set of beliefs regarding the nature of his divinity and humanity, his origins, and so on. The universal message fractured into myriad particularized messages, with the commandments taking a back seat to various doctrinal and dogmatic questions relating to the personhood or godhood or other attributes of Jesus himself. Some of the other groups also focused on these issues, but the Christians took it to an extreme. Eventually, they took to suppressing opposing groups, banning them, excommunicating them, exiling them, sometimes torturing and killing them. The very name of Christianity comes from a Greek word, christos, meaning anointed, because they believed that this anointing of Jesus – with various meanings depending on the specific Christian sect – was the key determinant of what they called “salvation”, a word which also has various meanings depending on who you ask. The love God, love your neighbour message was drowned out by the noise of debate about the anointing.
Christians tend to describe these seemingly endless debates on the finer points of christology (along with matters of eschatology, ecclesiology, theology, philosophy, and other topics) as theological debates. In fact, as a practical matter, they were mostly political and irrelevant to loving God and neighbour. Eventually, about three centuries after Jesus, the Christians, who were by that time pretty much the victors in the battles among the followers of Jesus, formed an alliance with Constantine, then Emperor of Rome, and founder of Constantinople/Byzantium. The Christians won a powerful ally, along with relief from centuries of persecution, and Constantine gained the support of an increasingly strong political force. Although Christians remember Constantine as a Christian, the Emperor also made deals with other sects, supporting Apollo, Diana, Hercules, and other deities. In fact, he had the Christians change their day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday: Apollo was connected with the Sun, and Apollo/Sun worship took precedence in public matters over Christianity. Thus, perversely, most Christians worship on Sunday to honour Apollo the Sun God; go figure. Long after the beginning of the alliance, pagan symbols including the Sun continued to appear on Roman coins, but Christian symbols were absent. It is said that Constantine “converted” to Christianity, but it is clear that he hedged his bets by supporting other religions as well, that the conversion was political theatre, and that such a claim to be a Christian would be considered ludicrous today.
Just as were the talking points in the absurd debates over christological trivia, the rational underpinnings for the alliance were manufactured, almost ex nihilo, to suit the occasion. The alliance was amazingly sturdy, and a hundred years later, one of Christianity’s leading lights, Augustine of Hippo (a.k.a. Saint Augustine) was declaring that there was an earthly kingdom and a heavenly one. Effectively, the Christians and the Roman Empire divided up the world, not along geographical lines, but rather upon political ones. Three generations after Augustine, Pope Symmachus wrote to Emperor Anastasias, “Defer to God in us, and we shall defer to God in you.” The subjects of the Empire were controlled in this way for a thousand more years, until the Renaissance eventually came to crack the foundations of the alliance. Despite the fractures, new structures were, as we shall see below, built on the same design.
Almost exactly a thousand years after the letter from Symmachus to Anastasias, another figure appeared, one Martin Luther, who was appalled at the corruption of the Church fifteen centuries after Jesus. He struck at the Church with his 95 Theses, questioning, among other activities, the authority of the Church to pardon from sin in return for money. However, he did not question the long held belief which arose from the partnership between Church and Empire, that there were two independent but cooperating kingdoms, one on earth and one in Heaven. Echoing Augustine of Hippo, he wrote that earthly governments were instituted by God, just as was the heavenly government. Jesus, speaking on the impossibility of serving two masters, made it clear that it was impossible to serve material interests while serving God. This fantasy of God having instituted governments, provided a loophole allowing one to serve material interests while serving God, since (magically!) serving material interests was in fact serving God! Therefore, both masters were one, contradicting the plain meaning of what Jesus said.
Jesus, in another passage, declared that the lawyers had killed the prophets. Here we have a sterling example of a continuing pattern of criminal propheticidal behaviour: Augustine, acting as a Church lawyer before the Court of the Earthly Kingdom, had provided a rationale for killing Jesus, and Luther in a later case in the same venue argued for another acquittal based on stare decisis.
Actually, it was worse than that. By this point, the idea of two governments had been extended to encompass a great deal more than what we commonly think of as “governments”. In Martin Luther’s conception, every position which we hold in society is an “office” in this secular government established by God. For instance, when a man is head of a family, his position is an office: he has the offices of father, husband, breadwinner, and so on, while holding the office of subject to his earthly lord or king. Furthermore, we have an obligation – from God, no less – to perform the duties of our offices. If the King of the earthly realm (Reich, in Luther’s German) demands that we pay taxes, then that is an obligation to God, even though those taxes might go to support sin.
This division of the spoils, of the right to control and exploit the masses, by Church and State, was no different in principle from any other two criminal organizations partitioning up their turfs. It was the same as the crime families getting together and saying, “X family will have gambling, Y family will have liquor, Z family will have drugs, and we’ll each handle prostitution in our own neighbourhoods”.
Luther’s phraseology caught on as justification for much subsequent nefarious activity. It became part of received wisdom, and to this day the separation of church from state is axiomatic in most political systems of European background. On the other hand, the recognition that there may be alternatives to God as sources of earthly governmental authority is partly what makes the language of the United States Declaration of Independence such a radical departure from previous assertions: the Declaration claims that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, rather than from God.
To his credit, I note that Luther considered some cases where there might be conflicts between the commandments of God and the commandments of secular authorities. In such situations, he asserted that God’s was the higher law. In fact, once he told a soldier caught in such a dilemma to “run from the field... to save his soul”. Unfortunately, religious authorities more often than not deal with such quandaries mostly when they are forced to do so, not by actively seeking to determine the morality of public policy. Despite such exceptions as Luther’s, which are even written into some churches’ doctrines, it is more common for Christians to cower before secular authority, in violation of the First Commandment.
While some from the religious world have little hesitation to criticize governments based on moral principles, as a general rule churches steer clear of politics in most cases. In the United States, churches are afraid to lose their tax exemptions, and government leaders don’t wish to antagonize major voting blocks. This is the modern form of the compact described by Symmachus, “Defer to God in us, and we shall defer to God in you.” The deal between church and state is not exactly a pact with Satan, but Satan is certainly a third party beneficiary. All of the major churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon – are signatories to the treaty, even in the United States where such a theory contradicts the “consent of the governed” clause of the Declaration of Independence.
Mostly the battle lines are quiet, as it’s easier in the short run to maintain the status quo. Sometimes, a preacher or bishop or other church leader ignores the partnership, and rails against the government for one reason or another: such dissenters are usually mocked by the secular powers that be. The U.S. government has sent death squads to assassinate some. In other cases, by merely withdrawing protection, it and other governments ensure the destruction or death of others who are the targets of unofficial, self-appointed agents of the earthly kingdom. Thus, both state terrorism and private terrorism keep the dissenters under control.
Despite the acquiescence of the parties, this is all merely putting lipstick on the pig, especially in what is allegedly some kind of “democracy”. You can smell the hypocrisy miles away; with the U.S. as the New Rome in its global empire, you can smell it everywhere on the planet. We are responsible for those we employ. If we hire someone who is bound to commit a sin, that sin is upon us as well as upon our agent. This is no less true with those we employ by election: if we vote for a politician who initiates or sustains killing, stealing, torture, and other sins, those sins are upon us, as well: we become killers, thieves, and torturers, ourselves. Christians tend to find countless excuses why they ought to be justified in their support for these crimes, but, in doing so, they are acting just as the lawyers, killing the prophets including Jesus himself.
(This essay will continue, with Part 2 of the series, in a subsequent issue.)
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