Archive for category Legalism
The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book. It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways, to encounter God. By this definition alone, it is a sacred book. But as St. Paul once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.
The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral. Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.
The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples. These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice. At the same time, different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.
The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha. Everything else (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences. There has always been a very active, and often heated, debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.
The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today. The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice. They have also been used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war. If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.
Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions, it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden. It is undeniably a very, very important book. It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest. But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book. In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.
When a supposedly moderate Islamic government like Pakistan’s has a law on their books making blasphemy a crime, well, they don’t make it any easier for those of us who are friends of Islam. And when a person is sentenced to death for speaking their mind then it is time for Muslims around the world to speak out against Pakistan and sharia law. There is no way that any reasonable person, of any religious persuasion, can justify persecution.
I don’t care if the women is Christian. That is irrelevant. It certainly is a big deal to a lot Christians, but this would be just as insanely horrible if the accused was Hindu or Wiccan or Muslim. Yet, this incident is providing Christian Islamophic factions (as well as some impassioned atheists) some heavy ammo in their battle against Islam. And frankly, this particular Muslim fundamentalist position is pretty well indefensible.
I used to think of Pakistan as a civilized place. The country has produced some extraordinary people who achieved extraordinary things in science and the arts. Cosmopolitan cities. Ranked in the top 15% of the world’s economies, according to GDP. Heck, they even have the atom bomb.
A theocratic country with a medieval mindset that has the atom bomb. Actually, dozens or maybe hundreds of them. Gives one pause, doesn’t it?
Now, in Pakistan, there are some loud and courageous dissenting voices, in the media and in government as well. One politician has introduced an amendment to the anti-blasphemy laws that would eliminate capital punishment for the offense. Now that’s a good thing but it is not good enough. No country should have any laws on their books having anything to do with blasphemy or any law protecting any religion from spoken or written criticism. No country should ever have an overt alliance with any religion, Muslim, Christian or Jewish (sorry Israel and Texas).
I’d like to ask what a lot of people have asked before: where is the American Muslim outcry against Islamist tyranny? I just spent a lot of time searching for something like this on the web and, well, I can’t find anything of the sort. Why doesn’t CAIR have anything to say about this? I mean, how can they see a major threat to American Muslims with Juan Williams’ relatively harmless off-the-cuff remarks and not see the danger in keeping silent on the tyranny of Pakistani sharia? This is like upbraiding a smoker for polluting the air while sitting behind the wheel of an idling SUV.
I have friends and neighbors who are Muslim. We tend to keep the conversation outside of religion and away from international politics. But tonight I might risk propriety and ask for their take on this. Do they think my question is a valid one? I’ve also met some interesting Muslims on this blog and would like to ask for their thoughts as well.
Unlike many Christians, I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, day or even month when I became ‘saved’. I know it was about seven or eight years ago when God, through Jesus, became the focus of my life. I certainly thought that I was saved, or at least most of the time I did. Well, maybe some of the time. My new life was usually pretty good, certainly better than it had been, at least spiritually. I just kept praying it would get better.
I do remember the circumstances when God answered my prayers and things did begin to get better, much better. It was while reading “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning. Manning‘s relentless prose exposed me for the helpless legalist that I am and inspired me to begin trusting in God’s infinite and unquenchable grace. I now understand that there was no one moment when I became saved but that I was always in God’s good graces. I just needed to accept that God accepted me – exactly as I am.
Reading the book again, I was reminded how forcefully the following passages struck me:
“Yes, the gracious God enfleshed in Jesus Christ loves us.”
“Grace is the active expression of his love. The Christian lives by grace as Abba’s child, utterly rejecting the God who catches people by surprise in a moment of weakness—the God incapable of smiling at our awkward mistakes, the God who does not accept a seat at our human festivities, the God who says “You will pay for that,” the God incapable of understanding that children will always get dirty and be forgetful, the God always snooping around after sinners.”
“At the same time, the child of the Father rejects the pastel-colored patsy God who promises never to rain on our parade….
…the child of God knows that the graced life calls him or her to live on a cold and windy mountain, not on the flattened plain of reasonable, middle-of-the-road religion.”
“For at the heart of the gospel of grace, the sky darkens, the wind howls, a young man walks up another Moriah in obedience to a God who demands everything and stops at nothing. Unlike Abraham, he carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for the fire…like Abraham, listening to a wild and restless God who will have His way with us, no matter what the cost.”
“This is the God of the gospel of grace. A God who, out of love for us, sent the only Son He ever had wrapped in our skin. He learned how to walk, stumbled and fell, cried for His milk, sweated blood in the night, was lashed with a whip and showered with spit, was fixed to a cross, and died whispering forgiveness on us all.”
“The God of the legalistic Christian, on the other hand, is often unpredictable, erratic, and capable of all manner of prejudices. When we view God this way, we feel compelled to engage in some sort of magic to appease Him. Sunday worship becomes a superstitious insurance policy against His whims. This God expects people to be perfect and to be in perpetual control of their feelings and thoughts. When broken people with this concept of God fail—as inevitably they must—they usually expect punishment. So they persevere in religious practices as they struggle to maintain a hollow image of a perfect self. The struggle itself is exhausting. The legalists can never live up to the expectations they project on God.”
“A married woman in Atlanta with two small children told me recently she was certain that God was disappointed with her because she wasn’t “doing anything” for Him. She told me she felt called to a soup kitchen ministry but struggled with leaving her children in someone else’s care. She was shocked when I told her the call was not from God but from her own ingrained legalism. Being a good mother wasn’t enough for her; in her mind, neither was it good enough for God.”
“In similar fashion, a person who thinks of God as a loose cannon firing random broadsides to let us know who’s in charge will become fearful, slavish, and probably unbending in his or her expectations of others. If your God is an impersonal cosmic force, your religion will be noncommittal and vague. The image of God as an omnipotent thug who brooks no human intervention creates a rigid lifestyle ruled by puritanical laws and dominated by fear.”
“But trust in the God who loves consistently and faithfully nurtures confident, free disciples. A loving God fosters a loving people.” [Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel]
And why didn’t he? Because God told him not to, that’s why. Too often tist seems to be the answer. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
When we were children our parents told us to stay out of the street, avoid all strangers and make sure we were home before dark. Of course, that’s because we were immature and unable to ascertain on our own what constituted safe and proper behavior.
As mature adults we (hopefully) can make those distinctions, but even so, we rarely adhere to the laws laid down by our parents. Safer though it may be, what would life be like without ever crossing the street or meeting new people? Not to mention other ‘dangerous’ activities like mountain climbing, sky diving, eating raw oysters or even driving the family car.
Maybe legalism is a necessary part of the maturing process, not only when it comes to life in general but also as it pertains to matters of faith. Although casting off the rules and regulations that govern our early childish lives results in a freedom that we would not willingly give up, it can be a very painful process. We feel anxious when we realize that we no longer are having our hands held, that we must make decisions on our own and are now expected to act responsibly, without the reassuring rules that once spelled everything out – to the letter. The busy road of life can look pretty scary to us chickens.
Phil Yancey, in “Reaching for the Invisible God”, suggests that one major downside to legalism, in our homes or in our faith, is that we tend to rebel against the authority who lays down the law; we invariably break the rules. We also like to keep score, see how we are stacking up against others (or how they are stacking up against us). St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, puts it this way:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. (emphasis mine) Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
In the short run; rules, both familial and religious,seem to work. For the long haul: rules don’t work. At least not with those who want to enjoy mature, loving and honest relationships with their parents – and with their God.
In an earlier thread, Logiopath and I shared this exchange:
Logio: The next time your boss tells you something, try and read a double meaning into the words. In other words, if the Gospel texts have any reflection of Jesus’ words, then what is said is probably what is meant (regardless of the accuracy of the statement).
Me: That’s actually not bad advice. Never having managed people in a business setting you probably have never encountered the overly literal employee who ONLY does precisely as he is told or perhaps follows the instructions so ‘religiously’ that he botches things up….”But that’s what you TOLD me to do!” It helps to understand your bosses general intent (bad bosses kept this secret – Jesus did not).
Logio: You’re right, I’ve never been in management, but I understand giving instructions to students who are literal in their interpretation.
When I discussed this conversation with my friend, Jack the Trivia King, he snapped his fingers and, nodding his vigorously, said “Just like Greg Brady’s exact words!” Which meant absolutely nothing to me.
It turns out that this is a famous episode of the Brady Bunch (a TV show that puberty saved me from having to watch) in which the eldest boy (Greg) is told that he is forbidden to drive the family car for two weeks because of his carelessness behind the wheel.
Taking his father’s words quite literally, Greg instead borrows the neighbor’s car for a drive. Having been found out and now grounded, Greg complains that he did not disobey his parents; after all, he didn’t drive the family car. He was actually very obedient and followed his dad’s instructions to the letter. To avoid further confusion, Greg suggests that from now on everyone should only say EXACTLY what they mean, using only EXACT words. His wise (and very hip) dad readily agrees and wholesome family hilarity ensues.
This sitcom episode is apparently a classic example of a literary ‘trope’ – “a storytelling device and convention that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”; like the Genie granting three wishes or the boy who cried wolf. In this particular case someone is taking an authority’s instructions so literally that they actually, and quite legally, subvert the authority’s purpose in giving those instructions in the first place.
In the workplace this is known as “Malicious Obedience” or “Destructive Compliance” or “Bothering by the Book”. In order to further their own agendas, the workers obey the rules so religiously that it subverts their employers intentions. Any well run business will encourage their employees to ‘take ownership’ of their responsibilities, allowing them the flexibility to be innovative in their interpretations of the workplace rules, as long as they remain in the spirit in which the rules were written. In fact, good companies don’t give rules, they provide guidelines. Some of the most successful companies today (like Yahoo!) are quite radical in this respect.
This, I think, is a pretty good analogy for the differences between fundamentalist religion and progressive religion. Jesus would have been considered a progressive, if not even a radical -breaking the religious rules in order to better serve the spirit of those rules.
We’ve all witnessed the sometimes silly but often tragic results of people reading scriptures by their exact words. More often than not they end up subverting the spirit of those words. Just as in how some have changed Jesus’ imploration to not judge others (in that case, adulterers) into a new legalist ‘sin’; sexual titillation.
Much worse, many have used the ‘exact words’ of Hebrew and Christian scriptures to justify slavery, prejudice and war, the ‘exact words’ of Matthew and John to justify anti-Semitism, the ‘exact words’ of Paul to justify male chauvinism and homophobia and the ‘exact words’ of Mohammed to justify misogyny and initiate violent intifada; all zealously bothering by the Good Book.
As Greg Brady painfully learned in that episode, taking someone at their ‘exact words’ is something you learn to avoid as you grow up. If you want to avoid confusion and if you want to better serve authority.
Did Jesus think that his primary purpose was to stand in our place and receive the punishment from God that we deserved? Did he believe that God considered mankind to be essentially his own enemy? Did he think that God was such an inflexible judge that mankind’s universal and eternal damnation was the only way to balance the cosmic books?
If so then why does the Gospel of Matthew have Jesus say this:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love for Enemies
* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 38-48)‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,
Can God only love those who love him, as so many Christians claim? In other words; is God no better than the tax-collectors? It doesn’t really make sense, does it? That Jesus would advocate a behavior that God the father will not even practice himself; demanding instead either hellish retribution or the murder of a divine scapegoat. Though God might demand an eye for an eye (his rightful pound of flesh) when we choose not to seek this but instead forgive our enemies then we are in some way more like God? Curious.