Thursday 29 November 2012

How to beat evangelicals, using the Bible

One can argue that the Bible is a good book. But it’s not good all the way through.

We can reject the Bible as a moral code because its laws are numerous, often silly, and often outdated. Long lists of “crimes” requiring the death penalty, to include the incredibly cruel punishment of death by stoning: one crime even requires the stoning execution of a wild bull, which clearly was not ordered by anybody who ever tried to do it. Long lists of food restrictions including ham, enjoyed today by many Christian families and churches. Long lists of requirements for the pampering of priests, to including the golden glory of their synagogues and the waistline-busting list of meats which must be sacrificed for the priest. No interest on loans, no skyscrapers, no tattoos, no trimming of sideburns, no blended fibers, no gay sex, few rights for women, circumcision for all men. Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are regularly violated by Christians every day.

 We can reject the Bible as a moral code because nobody even knows where the damn thing came from. First of all, even if you believe in revelation, “divine revelation” is only revelation to the man receiving the revelation: to everyone else, it’s just hearsay, or hallucination if you prefer. Second, most of the Bible can’t be divine revelation: a lot of it involves reporting on earthly history, Aesop-like fables and proverbs, poems, songs, a little pornography (see Song of Songs) and sheer weirdness (see Revelation). None of which is revelation from any divine source: clearly man-made. And all of the Bible was written down by anonymous sources and adulterated with a thousand changes, errors, interpretations, translations, contradictions, human choices: not only do religious leaders argue about what it all means, they can’t even agree on what should be in the Bible, or what they mean when they call the Bible “infallible”. Is it infallible just on religious doctrine, or on science and law too?

 We can reject the Bible as a moral code because the people who are identified in the Bible as the leaders of the faith are often the most morally repellent of all. Jehovah himself, jealous and paranoid, regularly murdering a man or a city or all of mankind, just because he didn’t get enough love to suit him, and then killing his own son to drive the point home. Joshua committing genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape with Jehovah’s approval. Abraham prostituting his wife to save his life, and Lot doing the same with his daughters, who later got Lot drunk and seduced him. Abraham and Jephtha planning infanticide. Solomon writing Song of Songs which is essentially pornography. David arranging the killing of his mistress’ husband. A priest giving his concubine to a gang which raped her until she died, and then cutting up her body. Slavery, senseless cruelty, intolerance, racism, masturbation, voyeurism, adultery, bestiality, polygamy.

This was in time followed by centuries of celibate priests lecturing us on what normal sex is while raping altar boys and molesting their “housekeepers”. And along the way murdering and torturing thousands who were suspected of wavering in their faith, or accused of trying to demonstrate that man is an animal and the earth is a satellite. Three thousand years of moral crimes committed by men holding Bibles in their hands. And above all, the terrible moral crime of teaching fear, hate and ignorance to a hundred generations of children. Again wielding the Bible as the instrument of torture.

All of these reasons to view the moral precepts of the Bible with suspicion suffice on their own. But we don’t need to rely on such logic. Because even the people who founded Christianity told us not to follow the Bible.

 After the crucifixion, the men who build the Christian church, Peter and Paul and the others, did the usual apostolic stuff: preaching, working miracles, arguing with priests, getting thrown in jail over and over. But the first important thing they did, when they got together to discuss what Christianity meant, was to declare that they would not require followers to go back to the old Jewish Bible and follow those rules, even though they were Jews by birth. They realized that Mosaic law could no longer be interpreted literally as the will of God which must be obeyed without exception: those rules were the laws of man, and other men could decide for themselves whether they were valid, which is exactly what Peter and Paul did.

Paul even criticized Peter when he wavered on this point. Peter, under the influence of the old hardliners, refused at one point to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles because it would anger Jews, but Paul argued that Peter shouldn’t reject people for ignoring a Biblical code which was, by their lights, no longer valid. Paul accepted that some people would follow Mosaic law and even followed it himself sometimes, but did not want anyone coerced into it, or punished for violating it.

In fact, the main story of the birth of Christianity, the Acts of the Apostles, is dominated by a single plot line: Paul’s endless clashes with Jewish leaders over doctrine, observance and ministry. The first great chapter in Christianity is the story of the founders of the faith casting off ancient Biblical law and squabbling with the defenders of that law. When Paul spoke before the Jews and the occupying Romans in Jerusalem, he specifically referred to his past life as a vigorous enforcer of Jewish law, and to his subsequent conversion and abandonment of that life, which he implied was sinful. 

Not only did the founders criticize overzealous adherence to religious law, they also criticized organized religion, just as Jesus himself did throughout his ministry. Something that the leaders of today’s churches don’t like to emphasize.

 When Peter and Paul went beyond the Holy Land to spread the word, they preached what Jesus preached: love one another. They were not tramping all across the Mediterranean basin demanding that the Greeks and Romans circumcise themselves, give up ham and shrimp, and grow side curls. In part this was because they knew the locals would beat the hell out of them. They left Mosaic doctrine behind in Jerusalem and preached Jesus instead. Particularly, they did not want their flocks across the ancient world divided into circumcised and uncircumcised, pork and not pork. And they didn’t want earthly “referees” standing between the devout and the Almighty.

 When the founders weren’t preaching, they were writing letters to their churches across the Roman Empire. Again, they knew that the church leaders in Greece and Asia Minor would laugh at the notion of being asked to follow dozens and dozens of Jewish rules unfamiliar to anyone outside the Holy Land. So instead the Christian founders wrote to the churches that Christians should stick to the very basic precepts such as avoiding sexual immorality, which they didn’t even bother to define.

The founders of Christianity let people use their own judgment and follow a lot of local customs, just as the Romans very wisely did when they conquered territory. The Jewish priests of the day should have been thanking their lucky stars that the ruling Romans weren’t as rigid about religion as the priests were, because if the Romans had been that rigid, they would have killed the priests and eradicated Judaism forever. Actually the Romans did wipe out Jerusalem and the Second Temple a decade after Paul left the city for the last time, in response to a local rebellion rooted partly in religious pigheadedness by Jewish zealots. Paul would have been among the first to warn Jewish religious leaders not to go down that dangerous path: adhering rigidly to any doctrine without any thought or reflection is the short road to disaster.

Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans all argue that only some of the Bible is really God’s law. Even Christ’s teachings are in question. Over the centuries Christian leaders have asserted that even Christ’s words shouldn’t always be obeyed literally. Some argue that Jesus was just exaggerating in some of his admonitions, or that his suggestions were only general guidelines, or that it was okay to modify his actual words, or that the New Testament contradicts itself on some points, or that Jesus made those rules only because he thought the world was going to end very soon, or that it was sufficient merely to emulate Jesus’ attitude, or to obey Jesus only if you wanted to go beyond mere salvation to attain perfection, or to apply his precepts only on spiritual matters (that according to Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism). Some argue that Jesus knew his rules were impossible to follow, which would lead to sin, repentance, and stronger faith; others say that keeping Jesus’ rules perfectly is impossible in an imperfect world, but adhering to that standard would be possible in a better future. Paul himself, founder of Christianity, not only said we could ignore ancient Jewish law:  he also indicated that Jesus' words were not sacrosanct. In First Corinthians verse 7 he contrasts his own views on divorce, from those of Jesus. So there you have Paul and Luther, the founder of Christianity and the founder of Protestantism, saying that even Jesus’ own words cannot be taken literally. Jesus himself taught many of his lessons in non-literal parables, and gave advice which in literal terms would be insane or suicidal: if you see something tempting, pluck out your eye, let your attackers hit you twice in the face, etc; Jesus clearly never intended his words to be followed literally, as law.  

In other words, the Christians of today who insist that their faith and their Bible force them to reject abortion and homosexuality as immoral are contradicting the very people who founded their religion. The founders said “don’t follow the Bible”. Or rather, don’t cling bitterly to it. That’s the stance which the founders chose for their new faith, that’s what they told the keepers of the old faith, and that’s what they told the Roman world.

Remember all this when evangelicals fulminate about abortion and gays, and remember also that even the Bible is unclear on these issues anyway. On the abortion issue, the Bible asserts repeatedly that a fetus is not considered a human life with the same rights as a living person, that God does sometimes allow the killing of fetuses, newborns and pregnant women, and that God sometimes causes abortions himself – read the book of Numbers. Something which Christian conservatives neatly leave out, when they are carefully cherry-picking their Bible quotes.

Likewise the evangelical argument against homosexuality is founded on two fallacies. First, they refer to Leviticus, which is part of the Mosaic law which the founders of Christianity said we shouldn’t even be following anymore. Second, they refer to Bible passages which they claim to be condemnations of homosexuality, but which don’t really say what they’re claiming, or are in dispute: the story of Sodom, and passages from Matthew, Acts, Romans and Corinthians. Meanwhile – more cherry-picking --  evangelicals neatly ignore the story of Ruth and Naomi, and the story of David and Jonathan, the love that surpasses the love of women. This is why the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Methodists are all helping fight for LGBT equality.
The dirty secret is that evangelicals who cite the Bible don't actually read the Bible very carefully. So to beat them in an argument, just be smarter and better-informed than they are. And how hard can that be?


PS, just in case you forgot why this is relevant. Mississippi, led by these Bible-misquoting evangelicals, is slated to become abortion-free in about a month. Unless a federal court intervenes, the state’s last abortion clinic will be forced to close its doors, in accordance with a state law requiring doctors to apply for approvals which everyone knew were never going to be granted. This effort works in parallel with efforts in other red states to illegally overturn Roe v Wade by regulating abortion providers into submission and driving them out of business. When Republicans are allowed to run amok with their fallacies and Biblical bullcrap, real people get hurt.

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