Jesus, Simon and me

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It took me long time to accept who I was. Most of my life, in fact. When I was in my late teens, I had a relationship with a young man the same age as myself. This was illegal at the time as the age of homosexual consent in the UK was 21, remaining so until the late 1990s when it became 18. (In 2004 it was finally made the same as heterosexual consent: 16.) We didn’t care. We had a lovely time and I for one was very happy. I think Sam was too. We lost touch eventually as life took us down different paths.

Not long after, I fell in among Christians. A friend – let’s call him Simon – thought it would be a good idea if we started going to the YMCA. This was long before the organisation became synonymous with the Village People and hangin’ out with all the boys. The YMCA I encountered was markedly evangelical. Once we’d visited a few times we were ‘invited’ to one of their young people’s meetings. I can’t remember what snappy title these meetings went by, but essentially they were a mixture of worship, bible reading and ‘teaching’. Sometimes there’d be a guest speaker who would tell us all about their relationship with Jesus, which, in case we had any doubts, was just marvellous. Before long I was giving my life to Jesus too, though in the long run it turned out to be only a temporary loan.

Occasionally, one of these guest speakers would talk about relationships, those with other human beings, and sex. From them I learnt that sex was almost always wrong: sex before marriage, sex outside marriage, sex with yourself – all of them were sinful. Even imagining sex and fancying someone (which qualified as lust) were wrong too. Who knew? But the most sinful, wicked and sordid sex of all was sex with someone of the same sex.

It didn’t seem it to me. The encounters I’d had with Sam were far from sordid and not at all evil. On the contrary, they were a lot of fun! But these people, these Christians, seemed to know what they were talking about. And hadn’t I given my life to Jesus? He detested homosexuality, or God did anyway, so Jesus must’ve felt the same way (actually this was all in the present tense, Jesus being alive and monitoring us from Heaven and all; Jesus detests homosexuality, they’d tell us.) Sometimes they’d read verses from the bible that proved it.

And so I started to suppress my feelings. They’d kinda got me in trouble anyway, when my body betrayed me in the showers after gym at school. Other boys would torment me about it. I wasn’t actually ‘out’, as we’d say today, and terms like ‘queer’ and ‘poof’ (the British equivalent of ‘fag’) were bandied around as general insults – they didn’t necessarily mean anyone actually thought you were gay. Nonetheless, they came a little too close to comfort. All things considered, a retreat to the back of the closet (not that I knew this terminology then either) seemed the best option. It was what Jesus wanted, or so I thought. I started to deny myself for him, as he insists his followers do, and began a life of self-deception.

Which would’ve been fine, except it’s impossible to live a lie in isolation. Others invariably become involved.

Enter Jane…

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How to spot a Christian

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What is being a Christian actually about? Do you qualify as a Christian if, like Paul seems to suggest, you believe a particular set of propositions; ‘right belief’ that ensures you’re saved and will go to heaven after you die? Do you have to sing songs about how marvellous Jesus is and how much you love him? Do you show you’re a Christian by defending God’s ‘standards’, which you know about from a very selctive reading of the bible? Does being a Christian entail arguing vociferously that Jesus is God, that he rose from the dead and that the bible is God’s inspired word? Is it insisting, with all the loving aggression you can muster, that non-believers are bound for hell, that homosexuals are disgustingly evil and that these, like every other period in the past two millennia, are the end times?

This is what a modern Christian looks like. He or she does these kinds of things, and a whole lot more, that Jesus, as he’s portrayed in the synoptic gospels, wouldn’t recognise. His idea of a Christian (not that he’d know the term) is a very different animal. Here’s what Jesus expects of one of his followers –

They:

cut themselves off from their family – hate them, in fact – just to follow him (Luke 14.26);

deny everything about themselves (Matthew 16.24-27);

forsake home, job, wealth, status, credibility and comfort to help bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mark 10.29-31 etc);

slave tirelessly in the service of others (Mark 10.43-44; Matthew 23.11 etc);

sell their possessions so that they can give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19.21; Luke 14.33);

turn the other cheek, repeatedly go the extra mile and give away the shirt and coat off their back – if they’ve still got them after giving everything away – (Matthew 5.38-40);

welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison (Matthew 25.35-40);

forgive again and again and again (Matthew 18.21-22);

don’t judge others in case they’re judged in return (Matthew 7.1-3);

love their enemies (Matthew 5.44);

regard persecution and injustices done to them as blessings (Matthew 5.11);

do miracles even more impressive than Jesus’s own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12);

heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons (Matthew 10.7-8);

are granted whatever they ask for in prayer (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22);

don’t subscribe to a magic salvation-formula (found nowhere in the synoptic gospels).

Yes, Jesus was completely insane, demanding all this, and more, of those foolish enough to align themselves with him. But demand he did.

I’m sure there are Christians today who do everything he expected… somewhere, possibly… but I don’t know any. They’re all too busy enjoying their affluent, middle-class lives, singing songs at PraiseFests, judging others and squabbling about doctrine from behind their keyboards. It makes you wonder why they call Jesus their Lord when they don’t do a thing he tells them (Matthew 7.21).

Woe to you hypocrites!

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Independent Fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Donnie Romero, an associate of Steven Anderson’s, resigned from his church this week after he was discovered paying prostitutes for sex, smoking weed and gambling.

Well, who cares really what such a pathetic little man gets up to in his spare time – apart, maybe, from his wife – except that Romero, like Anderson, is virulently anti-gay. He preaches that LGBTQ people are filthy animals who prey on children and calls for the state-sanctioned execution of all ‘homos’. He rejoiced when LGBT people were killed in the Pulse shooting a few years ago.

Christians can argue all they like that the bible is the Word of God™, that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that he was the Son of God come to save us, but even if all this were true, which it isn’t, it makes not the slightest bit of difference. Romero and his predilection for ‘sin’ demonstrate, once again, that Christianity does not work.

According to the bible, those who are born again are washed in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 1.5) and are cleansed and purified (1 John 1.7). They cannot sin (1 John 3.6), being possessed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19- 20) who changes their nature (John 3.3–7; Titus 3.5) and gives them victory over sin (Romans 6.1–10). So how do Christians explain believers like Romero, and the multitude of others who fornicate, abuse, steal, bear false witness and even, sometimes, resort to murder? Were such people ever really Christians in the first place?

IFB doctrine says they were; once a Christian always a Christian. Despite what Romero has done, he will be going to heaven.

Others say not; a Christian who visits prostitutes is not and never has been a real follower of Jesus, because visiting prostitutes is not something a real follower, one who has the indwelling Holy Spirit would do. Yet Paul admonishes some of the early church (1 Corinthians 6.15-18) for doing just this, without, strangely enough, tell them they were never true believers. Looks like Christians with prostitutes has been a problem from the very start.

Perhaps believers who cheat and fornicate are redeemed a second time, once they’ve sought forgiveness for their trespasses. The comments on the YouTube version of Romero’s resignation speech speak of how noble he is for confessing his sins, making him ‘a true man’ according to one. They seem to miss the fact that he does nothing of the sort. He leaves fellow zealot Anderson to explain what has happened. Is it scriptural that a believer can fuck up (literally) as many times as he likes, and so long as he admits it he’ll still be one of the Chosen? Hardly. Still, there’s got to be a free get-out of jail card for today’s fornicating minister, and this is as good as any. How long until Romero is back in front of a gullible and duped forgiving congregation? In the meantime his place has been taken at the ironically named ‘Stedfast church’ by an ignorant jerk who is every bit as hate-filled.

By their fruits shall ye know them, Jesus is made to say. I can’t help but think that prostitute sex, cannabis, gambling, homophobic rants and bare-faced hypocrisy weren’t quite what he had in mind.

 

Forgiven

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In the UK, as in the States, there has been a spate of sexual predators who, although admitting to their crimes, have claimed that God has already forgiven them their misdemeanours (the links provide only a couple of examples; there are many more out there). Naturally the abusers expect this to carry weight in any trial they face or in their rehabilitation into society, but it seems to me that such claims are, every one of them, bogus and fraudulent.

Overlooking the fact that God’s forgiveness is an impossibility – on account of there being no God – the idea is incompatible with the brand of Christianity, drawn from Paul’s theology, practised today. According to Paul’s reasoning – I use the term loosely – God doesn’t offer forgiveness. He provides the means to have one’s sins overlooked, covered by the blood of Christ. They are not forgiven, rather Jesus’ death serves as an atonement for sin. In those letters that are genuinely his (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon), Paul doesn’t mention divine forgiveness once.

On the other hand, Jesus, whose teaching is largely ignored by those who claim to follow him, does have plenty to say about forgiveness. This isn’t, however, the easy ‘get out of jail free’ card proffered by today’s offenders and populist preachers. Like all of Jesus’ morality, this forgiveness is hard to come by. If you want God’s forgiveness, Jesus says, it has to be earned; it is dependent on whether we ourselves forgive. Here’s how he puts it:

If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done. (Matthew 6:14-15)

The same idea is preserved in the so-called Lord’s prayer: ‘forgive us our sins in direct proportion to the sins we have forgiven’ (Matthew 6:12). This measure-for-measure approach is central to Jesus’ teaching.

So are those who’ve hurt or abused others claiming they’ve forgiven everyone else for offences that they’ve been subject to and have so earned God’s forgiveness? Even so, is this good enough? ‘I have God’s forgiveness because I’ve forgiven those who’ve hurt me,’ doesn’t begin to cover the hurt I may have caused others. What about them? As usual Jesus’ morality here is inadequate in the real world.

He has another go at it in Matthew 18:21-22 where he commands his disciples to forgive others innumerable times. But again this covers only those who have offended me; it doesn’t do anything for those whom I might have offended. It’s not good enough. His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) has the same problem.

If I’ve caused the hurt, have I the right to expect my victims to forgive me so that they in turn can earn God’s forgiveness for their sins? This seems to be the implication. And the answer is ‘no’, I can’t expect those I’ve hurt to forgive me just so they can be forgiven; it’s unrealistic. It doesn’t work.

Rather, when we have hurt or offended others the onus is on us to ask for forgiveness and to make reparation. This is how seeking forgiveness really works. You want forgiveness from others, you earn it. I need forgiveness from others, I earn it.

Jesus makes brief mention of this in Matthew 5:23-24:

So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.

‘Make peace with your brother’: it’s not enough, is it? Jesus doesn’t say how to ‘make peace’ and what sort of reparation he has in mind; his teaching is strictly ‘in-house’: believers are not being called upon to forgive those outside the fold at all, nor do women appear to be covered by his edict. This is a paltry, poorly thought-through version of how to seek and earn forgiveness.

The easy claims of abusers, rapists and other offenders, that God has forgiven them simply because they’ve asked him to, is cynical, insulting and cheap beside the sorrow and effort that is really needed to merit others’ forgiveness; not just cheap – worthless.

 

Judgement Day

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And the Lord said to them, ‘Let’s have a look how you got on. You fed the hungry, right?’

And they answered, ‘Well, we gave some money to charity a couple of times and we’re pretty sure the charity fed the hungry for us.’

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I suppose I can give you some credit for that, though I have to say I was looking for something a little more… hands on. How about when people were naked – you know, needing their material needs met. How’d you get on then?’

‘The charities did that too, we think. Maybe.’

‘And the sick and imprisoned? You bother with them?’

‘Not so much,’ they answered. ‘Look, Lord, if people can’t take care of their own health needs or choose to live lawless lives, then that’s up to them. It’s really not up to us to help them out, now is it.’

‘I see. So how about the stranger, the homeless, the immigrant? You take any of them in? You cared for them?’

‘Well, no. I mean, if you’d said that’s what you wanted doing we would’ve done it, wouldn’t we. But you didn’t make it clear.’

‘I thought I had,’ he said. ‘Maybe it got lost somewhere in translation. Selling all you have to give to the poor, then? Surely some of you did that.’

‘One or two extremists maybe, but look where it got them. Obviously that daft instruction was meant only for the guy you were talking to – you know, the rich young ruler or whatever he was.’

‘Well, not exactly. I said it so many times in so many ways you’d have thought you’d have got the message.’

‘We’re not socialists, you know, even if you are,’ they said.

‘So how about turning the other cheek, then? Or going the extra mile? Giving to all who ask? Surely you managed those?’

‘Well, no. We felt you were speaking metaphorically when you said all that. You didn’t seriously expect us to do such ridiculous things, did you? I mean, we’re not doormats.’

‘So what is it you did in my name?’

‘Well, we accepted you as Lord and Savior. That’s all that’s required, isn’t it?’

‘Not really,’ he said. ‘Not if you didn’t do as I asked.’

‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, becoming exasperated. ‘We’re washed in the blood of the lamb. Sanctified and redeemed.’

‘You’re what?’ he said.

‘Sanctified and redeemed. Made spotless. You know, like Saint Paul explained.’

‘Saint who?’ the Lord said.

‘We worshipped you and praised your holy name,’ they went on. ‘Filled with your Holy Spirit we witnessed unto you and defended your Holy Word.’

‘But you didn’t actually do as I commanded?’ he said. ‘And you think that’s good enough?’

‘We stood up for you and for family life. We spoke out against unbelievers and sodomites and all those who were unholy, lest they bring down the Father’s wrath on all of us.’

‘You didn’t consider that to be judging, then?’ he asked. ‘Something else I told you not to do?’

‘Oh no, Lord, not really. We decided what you really meant was it was okay to judge so long as it was done righteously. We always judged righteously, so that was fine.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘what can I say? You came up with a much better agenda than the one I left you with. Come in and dwell in the house of the Lord forever. You’re my kind of people.’

And, lo, the self-righteous stepped forward, ready to surge into heaven.

But he stopped them in their tracks. ‘Now you just hold on,’ he said, ‘I was being metaphorical there,’ and he stood up to his full height and cleared his throat. ‘Here’s the deal,’ he said, ‘Not everyone who keeps saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom from heaven, but only the person who keeps doing the will of my Father in heaven… So, get away from me, you who practise evil. I never knew you.’

‘What?’ they said. ‘We didn’t think you really meant that. We’re washed in the blood of the lamb, you know.’

 

Some Pig: Why God’s laws are not written on our hearts

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According to Christians, everyone of us knows the right way to behave because God has written his laws in our ‘hearts’. We don’t always bother to consult what he’s written there, however, because we prefer to do our own thing, which is when our consciences start to bother us about our wicked ways. Here’s how Paul put in Romans 2.15:

Gentiles show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

There’s no evidence that this is how it works, of course; Paul never cared much for evidence nor even for making sense. We know that, provided we are not born with psychopathic tendencies, we learn values, morals and how to relate to others from care-givers in our early lives. They teach us to share (or not) and how we should treat other people, and while it’s true we do seem to be born with a sense of empathy – watch a young child respond to the distress of another – this needs to be cultivated and nurtured. A knowledge of the 613, frequently absurd stipulations of the Old Covenant (which is what Paul is referring to) is demonstrably not genetic; we do not have an innate or instinctive understanding of God’s requirements. Psychologists point to the fact that it is only when she is three that a child learns that stealing is wrong; she is not born knowing it.

All of which is a far cry from ‘God’s law being written in (our) hearts’. Even if Paul meant we have a sort of general, non-specific understanding of how we ought to behave – though this is not what he actually says – there is no evidence this has been planted in us by a supernatural being. Certainly not one that thinks slavery is okay and whose prohibition against killing doesn’t extend to tribes beyond one’s own.

The Christian approach to morality puts me in mind of Charlotte’s Web. In that great children’s book, Charlotte the spider adds messages to the webs she spins to help save her friend, Wilbur the pig, from slaughter. When the gullible humans in the story see ‘Some Pig’, ‘Radiant’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Humble’ written in the webs, they inexplicably give the credit, not to Charlotte, but to Wilbur. No-one, either in the book itself nor in reviews, comments on the fact that it is not Wilbur who has these qualities, despite what the messages say, but the creature who made them (an anomaly I’m sure E. B. White was aware of when he wrote the book.)

If I might interpret Charlotte’s Web allegorically, we humans are Charlotte, while Wilbur, on whom everyone seems focused, is God. It is we who have developed moral codes throughout our existence, the latest versions of which our children learn from us, and attempt to follow (or not). Meanwhile, the likes of Paul and contemporary Christians refuse to give us one iota of credit. Instead, they insist, the credit goes to their god; a being nowhere near as pleasant as Wilbur, though he’s every bit as fictional – another of our creations, just like those moral codes we invented.

 

“When (a worldview) doesn’t include God, there is no basis for morality.” Roy Moore, 2008

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I planned to dissect Ravi Zacharias’ morality argument even before recent revelations that he lied about his credentials. I’m sure that, despite his fraudulent claims, he’s still a good Christian™, perfectly entitled to tell the rest of us what terrible sinners we are. If you’ve ever seen his grandiose sermonising, you’ll know he likes to pretend that Faith is something deeply intellectual, despite Paul’s contention in 1 Corinthians 1. 26-27 that it isn’t. Zacharias’ pseudo-intellectual Christianity is, like many of his qualifications, fake.

In common with other Christians desperate to prove their God, he relies too on circular reasoning. He tells us that our morality derives from God (you listening TC Howitt?) and then uses this to argue that, because of we have morality, God must exist. His unproven conclusion is his premise, with nothing in between to justify either.

Here’s his ‘argument’ in full:

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Let’s take a closer look:

‘When you say “There’s too much evil in the world”, you assume there’s “good”. Who says this? How much evil is ‘too much’? Do people other than Christians see the world in terms of good and evil? Does acknowledging evil mean one also assumes there is good? How is this ‘good’ defined? So many unanswered questions in this first muddled statement.

‘When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a “moral law” on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.’ The only one making assumptions here is Ravi himself. The considerate treatment of others, which is how we might reasonably define morality, is easily recognisable when it occurs. This presumably, given he fails to define any of his terms, is what Ravi means by ‘good’ (and conversely, inconsiderate or malicious treatment of others is his ‘evil’). There’s no reason to suppose, however, that the demonstration of good is a component of an objective ‘moral law’ that exists somehow independent of human interaction. Morality and any resulting goodness (or ‘evil’), is human interaction.

‘But if you assume a moral law you must posit a “Moral-Law Giver.” Well, of course we’re not assuming a moral law, not in the magical way Ravi is assuming we’re assuming. And how about that imperative: ‘You must posit a “Moral-Law Giver”‘! Must we? Morality is socially determined by human beings themselves; we see this is in the different moralities that have emerged in cultures with shared heritage; we see it in the changing attitudes over the last fifty years to the treatment of women and gay people. Morality is fluid; it evolves. The ‘Moral-Law Giver’ then, if we must have such a term, is we ourselves.

‘But that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove.’ Erm no. Ravi’s being disingenuous here. ‘We’ were not trying to disprove a Moral-Law Giver at all; he was trying to prove it (him? – note the capital sneakily added to ‘Who’). Let’s though, for the sake of argument say Ravi is right; let’s say there is a Moral-Law Giver out there somewhere. Why has he, over the expanse of human existence, issued such varying and often conflicting moral codes? Compare, for example, today’s moral standards with the harsh, brutal morality of the ancient Israelites, which demanded the death penalty for almost any infringement of the law. Compare that with the morality Christians today claim they derive from New Testament. Then compare Jesus’ impossible demands with how Christians actually behave. By and large, they’re happy to ignore him and, with the exception of one or two areas they get hot under the collar about (abortion, same-sex relationships), they go along with the consensus of the culture in which they live.

‘Because if there’s no Moral-Law Giver, there is no moral law.’ There is a ‘moral-law giver’: it is us. That is why moral laws vary according to culture and through time. Zacharias wants us to conclude that this capitalised ‘Moral-Law Giver’ is his God, yet he has neither demonstrated that a deity (any deity) decrees moral codes from on high, nor has he ‘proved’ (his word) that this cosmic law giver is his god, the barbaric and inconsistent YHWH. Rather, he ‘assumes’ this to be the case and hopes that his audience, failing to notice his assumptions, presuppositions and sleight of hand, will too. Given that most of them are Christian sheep  (Jesus’ term, not mine) they will no doubt do just that.

‘If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.’ This is where the argument, such as it is, turns back on itself. Zacharias thinks he’s being very clever (he always thinks he’s being clever) but all he’s doing is declaring his premise over again.

Of course there are moral standards; humans have devised them throughout their existence. The ‘Golden Rule’ promoted by Jesus, for example, is first recorded thousands of years before him. We determine for ourselves what is good and therefore what is ‘evil’; these defintions are not delivered to us ready made from a “Moral-Law Giver” in the sky.

(While Zacharias doesn’t use the argument, there are those who like to say, on the basis of Romans 2.15, that God has written his (ever-changing) rules in our hearts, a fallacy I’ll address in the next post.)

‘What is your question?’ clever Ravi finally asks. We didn’t have a question. Here’s one for him anyway: how has he got away with such fraudulent drivel for so long?