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writing for godot

Hey Wait; Jesus Didn't Say That. Time to Call Out the Religious Right

Written by Rosemary Agonito   
Wednesday, 11 July 2012 01:36
For too long evangelicals have put the force of religion behind their political pronouncements. The appeal of the religious right for so many is its claim to represent Christian morality. What if the “religion” behind these claims isn’t there at all?

Although evangelicals claim to speak in Jesus’ name, their “Christianity” is no such thing. The religious right has, in fact, created a set of “Christian” values that flatly contradict what Jesus taught, as well as values he never taught. While claiming the Bible is literally the word of God, evangelicals hypocritically ignore what Jesus said and modeled in the Gospels, preferring to pick and choose quotes from the Old Testament even when those quotes contradict Jesus.

The point of this article, as I’ve shown at length in my book, Hypocrisy, Inc., is to debunk the religious right’s social and family values as fabricated, demonstrating how far they deviate from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels on every major point – on women, family, patriarchy, hierarchy, homosexuality, abortion, war, poverty, wealth, economics, and much more. It’s time to stop letting them get away with it and say, “Hey, wait; Jesus didn’t say that!”

This is important, of course, because evangelicals use these ”Christian” values to establish a social, political, and economic ideology that exerts great power on American culture, politics, law and policy. They exploit Jesus to prop up the status quo and conventional thinking when, in reality, Jesus lived and preached a message so radical and other-worldly it turned tradition on its head.

How strange that Jesus has become an icon of traditional social values. In his lifetime, he left his family, became homeless by choice, lived a celibate life, never married or had children, owned no material possessions but the clothes on his back, preached the virtue of poverty, survived off the charity of strangers, and oddest of all, hung around with disreputable characters, sinners and outcasts. Jesus engaged in behavior so unconventional it scandalized religious leaders of his day and his own followers.

So how, exactly, do the religious right and Jesus differ on social and family values?

The religious right defines family as the nuclear family, insular and complete in itself – the basis of social structure and the path to salvation. But Jesus radically redefines family as the community, stating again and again that we are all equal bothers and sisters. He goes so far as to repudiate his own nuclear family. When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him as he speaks to a large crowd, he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he turns to the crowd and affirms, “Here are my mother and my bothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Throughout his ministry, he reiterates that he has come to redefine the family – that all of us are bothers and sisters, worthy of love. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” Indeed, when Jesus specifies who will “inherit the kingdom,” it comes down to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those imprisoned – all members of the family. “Just as you did it to one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus goes so far on a number of occasions to state that unless one is willing to leave behind biological family ties, he cannot be part of the new order Jesus has come to establish, as when he is selecting disciples to follow him. One young man says, “I will follow you Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus will have none of it. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” Another tells Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Jesus and evangelicals have radically different “family values” based on their different definitions of what constitutes family. For Jesus, community is the central value (we all count; we’re all in this together; we care for each other); for the religious right, the individual and his biological family is the central value (me and mine matter; every man for himself; community needs are not my responsibility).

We cannot understand the small government mantra unless we understand the centrality of the nuclear family for evangelicals. To be subject in any way to community – secular community at that – undercuts what they see as a direct relationship with God. They are answerable only to God, not government. In a democracy, government, which represents the community, can impose laws, restrictions, and policies that evangelicals object to. The “common good” may not correlate with their good (defined by God, in their view). Thus the conflict between the individual (and his family) and the community and its representatives in government.

What’s more, as part of their definition of family, evangelicals accept patriarchy, the primacy of the male, the father, as leader/ruler in the family and in society. But Jesus categorically rejects patriarchy and hierarchy, both deeply entrenched in traditional culture. Again and again, he calls his disciples to task when they try to assert authority or primacy over each other. “Do not be called leader since you have only one leader, the Messiah.” “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Jesus endlessly calls for everyone to be like a child . . . the contrary of a patriarch.

As a corollary to patriarchy, evangelicals view men as superior to women in the natural order (although men and women are equal in the eyes of God). Jesus, on the other hand, is a radical egalitarian. Indeed his treatment of women in daily life is identical to his treatment of men, so much so, that his disciples are often shocked by his behavior. He speaks in public to women he doesn’t know, discusses theology with women, travels with unrelated women in his ministry, allows women to touch him, and more – all unacceptable in Hebrew culture. He speaks repeatedly of all men and women as equal brothers and sisters in the new order/family he has come to establish. This equal treatment of women is so radical, it even violates Hebrew law, as when he calls a deformed woman to him (to the all-male section of temple), touches her (forbidden by Hebrew law) and cures her on the Sabbath (also forbidden). Another shocking example is his affirmation that women have the same rights as men is his redefinition of divorce as applying equally to men and women, holding both to the same standard – utterly contrary to the Law of Moses.

Evangelicals insist on different roles for men and women. Jesus does not. Time and again, he flaunts convention by affirming the same roles for men and women. There’s the time Jesus berates Martha when she complains that her sister Mary is not helping with the housework and is sitting with Jesus as he teaches. He tells Martha to get her priorities straight, that Mary has “chosen the better part” (learning) and it will not be taken from her. It’s clear that his followers understood this message of equality and sameness of male and female roles, for before and after Jesus’ death, women did everything in the new order that men did – they preached the Word, traveled as his disciples and missionaries, converted Jews and Gentiles, held Christian services, broke bread in memory of Jesus.

How do evangelicals define the role of women? They specify women’s role as child-bearing and they glorify motherhood. Jesus does no such thing. When given the chance to glorify his own mother as mother, Jesus does not. For example, while Jesus is preaching to a crowd, a woman shouts, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” Jesus does not support this, answering instead, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” This statement that bearing children is not a woman’s greatest blessing correlates with a complete absence of any statement by Jesus assigning women the role of child-bearing. On one occasion he shocks his listeners by affirming, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breast that never nursed” – this in a culture that held barren women to be cursed.

Those on the religious right promote having children, claiming that children are a blessing from God. But for Jesus it’s not having children that matters, but being like children. Nowhere does he urge having children. In fact, at times he glorifies those who make themselves “eunuchs.”

As for the poor, embers of the religious right often blame the downtrodden for their sorry state, thereby absolving themselves of responsibility to help. What’s more, they despise government (representatives of the community, Jesus’ family) and its efforts to help the needy. To grant that would mean granting their own responsibility to help. Yet Jesus’ most repeated social mandate is the requirement that his followers help the poor and downtrodden. He demands compassion and love for everyone, including the poor, the homeless, the unclean, the sinner, and sets no conditions for providing that help, no litmus test that they be blameless in their plight. So important is this to Jesus that he affirms helping those in need to be the basis of final judgment.

Evangelicals, on the contrary, in their support of (indeed their shaping of) the Republican party that condemns “entitlements” designed to help those in need, seem to make a virtue of heartlessness while trashing compassion. They are in the incomprehensible position of accepting the virtue of individual acts of charity, but condemning community acts of charity – it’s fine when they individually choose to help the poor, but not acceptable when the group, the true family, and the representatives of community, help the poor and downtrodden.

Evangelicals support great wealth and worldly success. Some even preach the gospel of “prosperity theology.” But time and again, Jesus stresses that wealth is incompatible with salvation and urges his followers to sell all they have and give it to the poor. There’s the story of Lazarus, a desperately destitute man, who sits at the gate of a rich man dreaming in vain of eating scraps from rich man’s sumptuous table. When Lazarus dies, angels carry him to heaven. When the rich man dies, he is cast into the fires of hell, where he pleads for relief in the form of drops of water. The prophet Abraham tells him to remember that while on earth he had all good things and Lazarus had all evil things. God’s judgment: Lazarus is comforted, but the rich man is in agony. In another story, a ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus replies, “Sell all that you own and give the money to the poor.” The ruler is shocked and leaves, for his wealth is great. Jesus’ condemnation of wealth is repeated throughout the gospels: “Blessed are those who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God . . . but woe to you who are rich.”

Evangelicals are obsessed with condemning abortion and homosexuality and make this opposition central to their social/political agenda. Many go further and object to contraception. Jesus apparently did not obsess about these things for he never speaks to them, although all were practiced in his day. If these are such important Christian values, it’s hard to see why Jesus never addressed them. Yet they are the burning issues for evangelicals (and the conservative Catholic hierarchy). What Jesus does say, repeatedly, that bears on this question: No one is to judge another.

Evangelicals and their political party promote militarism, justifying war in religious terms, referring to the enemy as “evil.” (Ronald Reagan’s “the evil empire” and George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” for example.) The fact that wars invariably kill innocent people doesn’t matter – they are collateral damage (unlike fetuses, which it’s always wrong to kill). On the contrary, Jesus promoted a radical pacifism along with forgiveness and love of one’s enemies as a central value of his ministry. There’s the story of Peter who asks Jesus how to treat anyone who commits an offense against him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In short, endlessly. Jesus went so far as to advocate “turning the other cheek” when attacked and provided the ultimate model when he forgave his murderers as he died on the cross.

The religious right supports and promotes guns (God, guns, and country) and stands among the strongest opponents of gun control. But Jesus condemned the weapon of his day, the sword, and ordered his disciple to put away his sword when that disciple tried to protect him – “Who lives by the sword, perishes by the sword.” Nor does support of guns square with Jesus’ call to love and forgive one’s neighbor, including one’s enemies. Despite a country awash in as many guns as people, despite the rampant violence in American cities, despite the death and suffering promoted by guns, the gun culture rules, supported by those who claim to follow Jesus. When asked why they own guns, one answer invariably presents itself: “to protect myself and my family.” Again, the nuclear family trumps all. What’s more, the religious right’s embrace of individualism and small government, as well as their lack of community orientation, reinforces the notion that guns are necessary to protect the family. The myth of rugged individualism is, after all, best exemplified historically by the gun-toting male.

The inability or unwillingness of evangelicals to identify with community and the common good is terribly serious. If ever there existed a direct conflict between a perceived individual right (the “right” to own a gun) and a community right (the right to safety and security), this is it. The cost to the family as defined by Jesus (community) is incalculable: over 100,000 dead and wounded by guns in the United States every year and the cost to taxpayers estimated at 100 billion dollars a year in health care, long term care and disability payments, a staggering burden for the community. And what of the terror for people living in violence prone areas and for children in school where guns keep rearing their ugly heads. For Jesus, allowing concern for one’s biological family to exclude concern for the communal family is indefensible for a true Christian.

The chasm between the values of the religious right and Jesus’ values could not be more profound. Putting the force of religion behind their demands amounts to an utterly hollow prop. Evangelicals have enshrined Jesus as defender of the status quo when, in fact, he was a radical figure who overturned the conventions of his day and today, who explicitly promised an extraordinarily difficult life, one where others would revile and persecute his true followers.

Small wonder then, that evangelicals, mired in the comfortable status quo, have thrown Jesus under the bus and concocted a comfortable lifestyle and political ethos that is no different from the legions who went before, and came after, Jesus. For the rest of us, when those on the religious right foist their sham “Christian” values on us, it’s incumbent that we stand up and hold them to account. “Hey, wait; Jesus never said that!”

[Rosemary Agonito, a feminist and progressive activist, is an award winning author who’s written eight books, including HYPOCRISY, INC.: How the Religious Right Fabricates Christian Values and Undermines Democracy. ] your social media marketing partner
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