In a recent article, Chris Hedges excruciated organized religion for its impotence in the face of a rising tide of anger and amorality. He opened his article by saying:
It is hard to muster much sympathy over the implosion of the Catholic Church, traditional Protestant denominations, and Jewish synagogues. These institutions were passive as the Christian right, which peddles magical thinking and a Jesus-as-warrior philosophy, hijacked the language and iconography of traditional Christianity…The obsession with personal piety and “How-is-it-with-me?” spirituality that permeates most congregations is undiluted narcissism.
With few exceptions, Christianity and organized religion are as oil is to water. Historically, organized religion has so much blood on its hands it is impossible to tell where the fingers end and the nails begin. All of this violence surfaces as soon as the church gains political power. When Church and State wed Hell pays for the reception for the child of the union is Death.
The message of early church missionaries to indigenous people was, “Jesus died for your sins, and so can you!”
The truth is that organized religion chokes on the teachings of Jesus. Early Christians referred to their faith as The Way. For them, the essence of this faith was internalizing Jesus’ teachings and actually living them. The Way included little annoyances like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. (The Religious Right would have us believe that what Jesus actually said was turn the other’s cheek with a fistful of knuckles.) Living the Beatitudes is a pain in the ass, so it is easier for organized religion to get its knickers in a knot over evolution and same-sex marriage.
The separation of church and state was not the creation of eighteenth century secular humanists, but of a clergy man, Roger Smith. The Puritans booted Smith out of Massachusetts because of his heretical beliefs, so Smith founded Rhode Island. Based on his experience in the Bay State and England, Smith realized that nothing corrupted a religion faster than being made a state’s sanctioned religion. So in Smith’s view the separation of the two was necessary to keep religion healthy and uncorrupted by the quest for political power. (The corrupted faith of the Religious Right becomes understandable when we remember that from the 1820s to the 1960s a White, male-dominated Protestantism was the de facto state religion of America. The poor boys want their power back.)
The Way, once it frees itself from the corrupting influences of the state is grounded in one of the world’s most misunderstood concepts: Christian love. At the mention of Christian love many people envision a white-robed maiden skipping through La-La Land with a beatific smile on her face.
It is anything but!
Christian love demands a descent into the deepest pit of Hell and a willingness to love every low-life son of a bitch one finds there even though one’s knee-jerk reaction is to tear their freaking throats out. In Greek, Christian love is called agape and is defined as an attitude and not an emotion.
I am always amused by the Christian right’s efforts to place the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Progressives missed a golden opportunity when Judge Roy Moore wanted to place blocks of granite, engraved with the Commandments, in the country’s courthouses.
What Progressives should have done was help him move the goddamn blocks. And when they were in place, a good Progressive would have mopped his brow, stepped back and said, “Damn Judge! Have you read these things? They’re little more than anti-capitalists tripe. Look at what they’re telling us: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t exploit. How in the hell can you run a multinational with an albatross like this around your neck.
As for myself, I am a renegade Christian. Being one means living the Tao of Christ. For the renegade, dogma is an irritant that is either shaken off or ignored. It means understanding the Bible as a repository of spiritual, not literal, truth. As one contemporary theologian has put it, “Everything in the Bible is true. Some of it actually happened.”
Such an approach is difficult for Americans because most of us were raised to be technicians. (I define “technician” to include everything from neurosurgeons to the front-end specialist and your local Ford dealer.) The mantras we were brought up with were: say what you mean; get to the point; don’t beat around the bush. It was a world in which every word had but one meaning with little room for metaphor. Consequently, we bark our shins every time we stumble into one. So when confronted with the Bible, we treat it as an either/or proposition. Either it is all literally true or it is all hokum. For technicians who believe, the Bible is a technical manual that must be followed to the letter. But, as Hedges puts it, “The Bible works only as metaphor,” which is why most Americans don’t get it.
To the renegade Christian, God is the Ground of Being whose qualities we will never know. Metaphorically, we might speak of Her as a person, but we run into trouble when we literalize this metaphor.
And, no! I am not one of those Christians who believe God is going to bail us out of the mess we’ve created simply because She gave us dominion over nature. According to the Bible, humanity’s dominion was brief. It lasted until Eve went apple picking. If you read God’s curse on Adam and Eve (Genesis, 3:14-19) it is obvious that humanity is stripped of its dominion and becomes just another derivative species.
God promised Noah no more floods because the flood punished the Earth and the Earth was innocent (Genesis, 8:21). She said nothing as protecting us from self annihilation. Hell, the next Messiah could well be a cockroach. Nor was dominion restored to humanity after the flood. All God said was, “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal on the earth…” (Genesis, 9:2)
Hedges is correct when he says:
We are not going to be saved by faith in reason, science and technology, which the dead zone of oil forming in the Gulf of Mexico and our production of costly and redundant weapons systems illustrate….The essential teachings of the monotheistic traditions are now lost in the muck of church dogma, hollow creeds and the banal bureaucracy of institutional religion.
The sad truth is we are probably screwed.
Granted, God has entered into numerous covenants with humanity. But the covenants were in force only as long as humanity loved God and didn’t kill, steal, lie or exploit. The average lifespan of a covenant was measured in nanoseconds.
So here we are, knee deep in a sea of bile, which the Religious Right equates with Christianity. There is anger, uncertainty and hard times. Our leaders, aided and abetted by a subservient media, would have us project our anger on those with skins darker than ours, be they immigrants of Muslims.
For the past sixty-plus years, fear and paranoia have driven America’s politics, both here and abroad. According to our leaders, danger lurks everywhere: in the food we eat, the air we breathe and the second-hand smoke we inhale, not to mention a multitude of germs, bacteria and exotic diseases. America, they tell us, is constantly under siege, first by Commies and now by Islamofascist terrorist.
The first order of business for the still sane is to challenge this atmosphere of fear and trembling. Some of us who dissent from our national paranoia will find the spiritual strength to stand up and proclaim that there is nothing to fear. For myself, I draw this strength from the Tao of Christ and from the Liberation Theology of Latin America. This is not for everybody, nor should it be. But, it could well be that at some future date it may be missionaries from Latin America who will teach us how to live life in harmony with creation.
Tragically, there is no guarantee we will listen.
But as Hedges reminds us, “Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus, fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism…Freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to oppose and challenge those in authority.”