an important message
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reveries, reminiscence, reflections
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We all suffer from lethargy from time to time, or they may be mood swings, depression. We’re all, I imagine, bipolar to a more or less pathological degree. And we’re driven, not just to keep going, but to improve, to progress, to get smarter and wiser, to experience and learn more. And then we fall into a bit of a funk and feel ashamed, disappointed, overwhelmed by our ignorance, our uselessness, our vanity, our vaunting ambition.
It’s a particular problem, perhaps, of individualism, the myth of the auto-didact, the Nietzschean Ubermensch. I’ve said we, but I have no right to generalize from myself. I wish I was a team player. I wish I had a family of my own. A daughter in which I could recognize something of myself. Myself but more confident, more sociable. More of a team player.
In recent times I’ve been trying to get my head around science, in my dilettantish way. Science, I suppose that reveals the amateurishness of my quest. Not astronomy, not genetics, not oceanography or neurophysiology. Just science. This might seem to suggest ambition, and maybe in my youngers days that might’ve been so, but I’m no longer young, though not old.
It seems to be a search for somewhere to belong. Even a mental place in which to belong. A way of thinking that is mine, and also shared, appreciated, understood, warmly welcomed. Science, or philosophy, something analytical, speculative. A place in which to get lost, safely, delightfully.
Here I am, an unprepossessing member of the species Homo sapiens – I’ve also heard it designated Homo sapiens sapiens, I don’t know why – one of over six billion currently inhabiting the biosphere of this small planet. My essential purpose is to reproduce, like every other member of the species, and like every member of the species Semibalanus balanoides [one of some 1220 species of barnacles], the species Aedes aegypti [one of some 3500 species of mosquito] and the species Nocardia opaca [one of a number of bacterial species, the number being so great, and so much in flux, as to be meaningless]. I haven’t managed to fulfil this purpose, but I’m reliably assured that, given the nature of our highly social existence, there are other ways to contribute to the success of our species. Knowledge, artistic excellence, possibly even a smile displayed at the right time and place. So I need not despair.
I have my heroes, as we all do. Let’s take some big splash-makers – Darwin, Shakespeare, Einstein. All rather remote, I admit. From my life, I mean. My next door neighbour might have led a heroic and admirable life, after all, but those great, instantly recognisable splash-makers at least provide fine examples of success beyond mere reproduction. I know Darwin produced ten kids but they weren’t his most successful productions. It makes me wonder about the meaning of the word offspring. That’s what civilization does to you, it complicates simple meanings with all these metaphorical overlays, confusing the purpose of life.
5:44-48 ....I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. [God] causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, don’t they? To sum up, you are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting [see also Luke 6:27-28, Luke 6:34-35].
I’ve always liked the maxim that we should be judged not on how we treat our friends but on how we treat our enemies, but I never associated it with Jesus, I thought it was La Rochefoucauld or someone. The point being that it’s common sense – of course we treat our friends well, of course it’s therefore a good idea to work on our treatment of our enemies, or strangers. To work on your generosity is always good advice, and many ‘sages’ throughout history have given it.
Of course there’s a paradox here. If you really managed to love your enemies they wouldn’t be your enemies – or would they? The renowned antitheist Christopher Hitchens has a real go at the ‘love your enemies’ injunction, calling it suicidal, amongst other choice epithets, and he certainly has a point, but, looking at the phrase in context, we can find a more sympathetic interpretation. Jesus really does seem to be trying to get people to extend the range of their generosity, to consider whether there are good, or good enough reasons to consider certain people our enemies. Often when we make a decision that person x is our enemy, or is a ‘bad’ person, we shut down on them, refusing to listen, referring to our earlier decision. Jesus is arguably saying nothing more than this, that we shouldn’t be too hasty in our judgements, and that we shouldn’t revile people for being different.
On the other hand, if we look at the actual language used, Jesus does seem pretty decisive himself about good people and evil people. This heightens the paradox. Should we really love evil people?
The phrase ‘love your enemies’ has a somewhat similar logical form to the paradoxical phrase coined by the French anarchist Proudhon, ‘Property is theft’. Such phrases have a momentary cleverness, but are soon shown to chase their own tails or to disappear up their own arseholes. To say that property is theft is to legitimise theft and to illegitimise property – both sides of the equation are diminished to the point of meaninglessness. There’s a similar problem with ‘love your enemies’, for if you love your enemies equally with your friends – if you love everyone equally, then the term ‘love’ ceases to have any real meaning, not to mention the terms ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. So why would Jesus have said this? Well, why did Proudhon say property is theft? My favoured response is a rather boring one. They were both only human, they sometimes preferred the flashy to the deep, they didn’t think things through.
Returning to Hitchens’ comment that this philosophy is ‘suicidal’ – this is based on an entrenched attitude about enemies. Our enemies will always be our enemies, they cannot be otherwise. It reflects a kind of evolutionary perspective, where the word ‘enemy’ is synonymous with ‘predator’, someone who threatens our very existence, someone we must either avoid or overcome. It doesn’t seem very useful to love your predator. Indeed it seems suicidal, as Hitchens claims. Better to know your predators, to work out their weaknesses, and to build on your own strengths in combating them.
We humans are inordinately good at that of course, to the point that we have no predators, outside of our own species, to be afraid of. We ourselves have become the most deadly and efficient predators on the planet. Our realisation of this is causing us to rethink notions of predator and prey, and even enemies and friends. A subtle Christian might try to convince us that Jesus anticipated all this with ‘love your enemies’. He was a god, after all. But this would just be another example of seeking other-worldly sources for our own ever-changing and increasingly nuanced view of ourselves. We invest ancient moral statements with all the subtleties that we have gleaned from the intervening years. We do this all the time.
6:3-4 ...when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden. And your Father, who has an eye for the hidden, will applaud you.
Of course it’s impossible to keep your charitable or any other acts hidden from yourself, but the Jesus Seminar has a collective view that Jesus loved such paradoxical remarks. The idea, clearly, is that you shouldn’t do good works for the applause of others, but this is completely undermined by the claim that God will applaud you – thus assuming we still need applause to be charitable. Perhaps, though this is the moral message of Christianity in a nutshell. God will reward you for your good works. Is this the moral foundation of western civilization?
This sort of advice – don’t pray in public but in private, where God, who sees all that’s hidden, will applaud you, and forgive the failings of others because then God will forgive your failings – continues for several more verses. It of course captures the essence of all religious morality, that there are spirits or deities who are consumingly interested in human moral activities, who see clearly the good and bad in everyone and are able to dispense a proper and absolute justice at the end of things. It’s what you might call the ‘constant surveillance’ approach to morality. God’s cctv cameras are everywhere, get used to it and act accordingly.
5:21-22 As you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not kill’ and ‘Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you: those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal. And those who say to a companion, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to the sentence of the court. And whoever says, ‘You idiot,’ deserves the fires of Gehenna.
Considering that Jesus himself got a bit shirty with his companion-disciples at times, especially in Mark’s version of events, this condemnation of ill-temper sounds a bit rough. I mean, if you can’t call your mate a moron, where’s the fun in life?
By the way, the term ‘Gehenna’, so much more evocative than ‘hell’, refers to a spot outside Jerusalem where the town’s rubbish was routinely burnt, along with the bodies of crims and the carcases of animals. Some of course dispute such a lowly truth, but they would, wouldn’t they?
5:23-24 So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.
For those who value friendship, this is a ‘nice’ piece of advice. It also seems typical of Jesus to value substance over form [unless I’m simply creating the Jesus I prefer], and to cock a snook at rigorous and traditional religious practice. Anyway, it’s one of the few of Jesus’s adjurations with which I would wholeheartedly concur.
5:27-28 As you know, we once were told, ‘You are not to commit adultery.’ But I tell you: Those who leer at a woman and desire her have already committed adultery with her in their hearts.
This is a tough one, but we can always rationalize our way out of it. In fact, it’s quite easy. Committing any crime in your heart is vastly removed from actually doing it. Murder is an obvious example. And we don’t punish anyone by law for anything they do ‘in their heart’, for very good reason. I wouldn’t like to guess how many women I’ve ‘committed adultery with’ [I prefer to think of it in fruitier terms] in my heart. Far more than in my bed, sadly. This whole business of thought-criminality is one that should be wholly rejected in my view – and generally it has been. Whether this remark has impacted on western morality, I can’t say. The thing is that lusting after someone who ‘belongs’ to someone, or who is happily devoted to someone else, or who doesn’t know you from a bar of soap, or who actively dislikes you, brings with it a sense of guilt as a matter of course, you feel you are imposing, though since you can convince yourself you’re not imposing that much, the guilt is minimalized and even lends a certain piquancy to the thoughts. Anyway, better a lustful thought than a murderous one. And of course the world of advertising and celebrity culture relies on lust and desire rather heavily – and a surer thing to rely on can hardly be found. I know of at least one female acquaintance who lusts after Barak Obama. Good luck to them I say. Anyway, Jesus just points out that lusting after someone is ‘adultery of the heart’, but he doesn’t call it a sin. Just don’t look at the tenth commandment.
5 33-37 Again, as you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break an oath,’ and ‘Oaths sworn in the name of God must be kept.’ But I tell you: Don’t swear at all. Don’t invoke heaven, because it is the throne of God, and don’t invoke earth, because it is God’s footstool, and don’t invoke Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king .You shouldn’t swear by your head either, since you aren’t able to turn a single hair either white or black. Rather, your responses should be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Anything that goes beyond this is inspired by the evil one.
Here’s another example of remarks attributed to Jesus that have been ignored by cherry-picking sermonizers down through the ages – though there have been Christians sects, modelled on a return to ‘the true word of Christ’, who have refused to take oaths for religious reasons [e.g. the Waldensians]. And how could any Christian argue with them? In fact, considering the last line here, there’s not much wiggle room for true believers – if you take an oath on the holy book, or on anything, you’re infected by Satan. How could the vast majority of Christians have gotten it so wrong for so many centuries? More positively, Jesus’s message here is that you should just tell the truth and make no fuss about it. Another example of his preference for substance over ritualistic form. Again, not very Catholic.
5: 38-42 As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you: Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for you shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you; and don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you [see also Luke 6:29-30, Luke 6:34-35].
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar were pretty well unanimous in their conviction that these words about turning the other cheek, offering your coat as well as your shirt, and walking the extra mile, were the authentic words of Jesus. This is quite unusual, they’re generally an admirably sceptical lot. They usually reach such consensus when the words are very striking and paradoxical, when they contain no elements that could be attributed to the struggling, persecuted and sometimes paranoid early Christian community, when they make no exaggerated claims for Jesus himself, when they don’t go on about the Last Days, etc. Of course, I’m a little sceptical myself about whether a ‘real’ Jesus can ever be revealed by the careful removal of what are calculated to be the gospel writers’ innumerable additions and modifications, but the argument for their version of Jesus as a framer of paradoxes and phrases that stick in the mind, creating an oral tradition before the gospel writers got to them and half-mangled them, seems plausible enough. As to the ethical significance of these teachings, certainly they’ve been much sermonised, but few have actually followed Jesus’s advice here. They are much honoured and much ignored ideals. Is that what Christian morality is all about?
Perhaps more importantly, there’s an unhelpful vagueness and lack of detail and context about this advice, which is typical of all Jesus’s pronouncements. What’s meant by ‘the one who is evil’? Someone who annoys us? Someone who steals all our money and murders our children? No distinctions are made. We all know that sometimes turning the other cheek or going the extra mile is precisely the most effective response to mean-spirited or cruel behaviour, but not always, as some people are far less easily shamed than others. Of course, sermonisers often provide the detail and context the gospels lack, but they pull it from their own experience, not from Christ.