Monday, March 25, 2013

Didn't Jesus make it clear? No.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself"? The bible is hardly clear on this?

"Love thy neighbor, bro." From homebrewedchristianity.
I got this common question on the Twitters yesterday from a "far left" Christian trying to defend his beliefs that Christianity has no basis for being an anti-homosexual collection of organizations. Of course, holding such a position can be done, and is, particularly by the Episcopal Church and a growing number of other churches (contrast Pope Francis: "gay marriage is a machination of the Prince of Lies"). Holding it also requires some careful games with a few books of the bible, not least Leviticus and Romans.

I'm not particularly interested in getting into the debate about whether or not Christianity should be pro- or anti-LBGT (ethically, pro; theologically and doctrinally, anti). I want to discuss if the bible, and Jesus, is clear about the "love thy neighbor" thing. My answer is "No."

"Love thy neighbor," while listed as the second great commandment of Jesus by the Gospel writers (actually a summary of the last six of the Ten Commandments, the first four summarized under "Love thy God before all else," the first great commandment of the Gospels), is hardly a theme that is clear scripturally or in interpretation.


This passage from Matthew, and its parallel in Luke, is famous for disturbing clarity on the matter of loving one's neighbor, as it advocates division, potentially violent if at need, and even against one's own family, kin being closer than neighbors:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39, New American Standard Bible)
 The parallel passage in Luke reads:
I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49–53, NASB)
It's not surprising that these passages have been described as "the most uncomfortable" for Christians. They don't seem to resonate with the message of "loving thy neighbor" or extending fraternal love and charity to everyone. In fact, there's good reason to read it as Jesus being a socially conservative reactionary who is establishing an apocalyptic cult.

Though these passages are well-worn, for brevity we'll skip some of the others that might be relevant, even if we just stick to Jesus (a favorite such example is the withered-branch cast into the fire, John 15:6). If we venture into the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Romans 1, relevant to the LBGT question) or, heavens forbid, the Old Testament that "good" Christians want us to ignore, I'd say we're on firm ground to say that the bible is not clear about the command to 'love thy neighbor.' This isn't because the sentence isn't clear but because of so many other contravening themes.


Here's the real rub. Even if we take the claim that the bible is abundantly clear and unambiguous about "love thy neighbor," interpretation steps in to muddy the waters yet again. Christians like to say that this is "fallible man messing up God's perfection," but that's rubbish. If the bible was really clear on it, no such variation in interpretation would be meaningful. The really bad part is that the really nasty parts are more theologically grounded than the patty-cake liberal interpretations are too.

Take the Westboro Baptist Church, the "God Hates Fags" guys. They went on Russell Brand's show not so long ago, and the video clip went viral. It's worth a look because it changed how I think about them entirely.

It changed my thinking about them forever? Yup. They're not just a bunch of assholes, they're a bunch of theologically grounded assholes.

If you watch closely, you will see that the essential claim of the Westboro Baptist Church is that their outrageous protests and extreme hatred of the "sins" of LBGT are a manifestation of this very command of Jesus to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Their case is better than the love-everybody and be nice to them liberal Christian case too.

Why? Christian theology. If one actually accepts Christian theology, there are two key points that the WBC isn't ignoring:
  1. God is a reality and is how He is, whatever people want to think, however much or little they like Him or the situation (strongly supported biblically), and
  2. The wages of sin are death and eternal torment in hell. This is a maximally bad situation, and the imperative of love in this life is therefore not to make people feel good, be happy, or have good lives, but rather to avoid hell at any cost.
We might argue that this is a weird definition of love, or even one that's a horrible perversion of it, but I don't say it's not. I'm only saying that it's firmly grounded in Christian theology and scripture. Don't blame the interpreter, then, blame the source.

Of course, the WBC folks could be lying, as many have suggested--that they're professional trolls and provocateurs. This may be the case, but it's immaterial. They reveal that the bible is insufficiently clear to interpret what Jesus' actual commands for Christians are and that the most theologically grounded interpretations are almost universally reviled.

The core problem:

What the WBC's definition of "love" lacks, however much theological basis it has, is salience. That definition of love, particularly in the absence of evidence of the existence of heaven, hell, and God, while in the presence of copious evidence of real-world harm, doesn't have any salience. We reject it, and we do so viscerally. It's inhuman. It's unnatural. It's disgusting. It's grounded in Christian theology, however much liberal Christians want to play with the words.

The core problem here is that theology provides absolutely no methods by which we can determine which interpretation is the one that Jesus (and God) really mean for us to follow. Should we love each other as we actually understand that word, as is elaborated up on in other parts of the scriptures (notably in Ephesians, e.g. 4:32: “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”)? Or should we take the threat of hell seriously and see the WBC as acting from a profound source of higher, eternal love? We have no method to decide.

In the absence of a method, my recommendation is to err toward salience, but not because of Jesus or any other ancient book. We have evidence for real-world flourishing and suffering. We have no evidence for God, heaven, hell, or any of the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion, as a matter of fact). Put another way, luckily for us, Christianity isn't true, and so we don't have to accept the WBC's broken definition of "love."

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