[Disclaimer: I find religion of infinite interest from an intellectual point of view and of no interest in terms of practicing it. Readers are aware that I tend to editorialize on issues around religion (perhaps more than they would prefer. I am actually trying to limit the number of religiously themed blogs, so please indulge me on this one).
Much of my writing is critical of fundamentalist religion and especially of evangelical Christianity. This is not because I begrudge them their faith but because the evangelicals comprise a large segment of the most ardent supporters of reactionary and anti-democratic politics and politicians. Without them we would not have had Donald Trump and the current Republican party.
While I personally find the mythology of Christianity highly improbable in the literal sense, I want readers to be perfectly clear about the fact that I harbor no hostility toward, and have no wish to offend, mainstream Christians and the more enlightened segment of evangelicals who benefit from and do service to society through their religious faith.]
Too late. After an outcry from evangelicals over his Easter tweet, US Senator, The Reverend Raphael Warnock, deleted it. Rev. Warnock, you see, had the audacity to say Easter should remind us that there are more types of salvation than the heavenly type, such as that attained right here on Earth through social action.
“Blasphemy!” cried the White evangelical establishment. Easter is solely about Jesus’s resurrection and how we are saved by his grace alone, not by deeds. Social justice? That has nothing to do with Easter. (Nor, judging by their prevailing politics, with their brand of Christianity either).
To be more charitable, we could chalk this up to their Biblical literalism. We could, but that justifies being literal in the first place. Taking the Bible at face value is like having a crockpot and using it only to boil water. It would also ignore the fact that prejudice toward race, nationality, gender and anyone ascribing to any religion other than their “one true one,” is baked into their system.
Theirs is a narrow and intellectually impoverished view of the Good Book, fixated on the words themselves and blind to their historical context, myth, metaphor and allegory. Much of what Jesus (was reputed to have) said as well as the writings of many of the authors of the Bible were never intended to be taken literally. Making a jump from the idea of salvation of the mortal soul to social salvation is exactly what Jesus and the authors, who intentionally mythologized his story, wanted people to do.
Still, doesn’t even an entirely literal reading of the Gospels, one a fifth grader is capable of, portray Jesus as a champion of the oppressed and of the less fortunate?
The real irony is that evangelicals are, actually, heavily into social activism. That is, when it serves to maintain their White Christian privileges, exempt them from secular law and impose their version of morality on the whole world. This is why many proudly support the most un-Christian politicians and their reactionary agendas. To these folks, who see the hegemony they have enjoyed since before the founding of the nation eroding, the particular kind of social salvation Rev. Warnock talked about represents not a sacrament but a threat.
Jesus never imagined a new religion would be founded in his name. He encouraged his followers to be better Jews. Don’t tell this to an evangelical unless you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’, but Jesus was simply a man who was one of the many “apocalyptical prophets” of his era, all of whom had pretty much the same life story. These prophets were primarily social activists who preached the “end of times,” meaning the end to the era of Roman occupation of Judea. Like them, Jesus sought to get Roman knees off of the necks of his people and wanted to replace their corrupt high priest stooges (not unlike Trump’s modern day political stooges) with truly holy men. Of all the prophets, his story survives because his followers were good at public relations so he got all the press coverage. When the Romans saw how he was fomenting revolution, they did what any authoritarian government would do. Got rid of him. Some years after his death, thanks in part to his efforts, the Jews, temporarily, expelled the Romans from their land.
My college course in the New Testament was taught by an ordained Dutch Reform minister. He said that, to Jesus, the “Kingdom of Heaven” was not some place in the clouds. It was an allegorical referral to a utopian earthly society, the kind of place Rev. Warnock was saying we should strive to create.
My learned, and decidedly Christian, professor took an intellectual, nuanced view of the Bible not unlike the version I was taught in my early religious education. Jews take an historical-critical, not literal, approach to scriptures. In traditional Jewish thought, heaven is where God resides, not a posthumous reward for us mortals. God already gave us a real and tangible reward, the gift of life. Consequently, Jews are obligated to show gratitude by living a good life, one that puts them “right with God.” If we all lived this way our earthly world would would approximate the kind of perfection heaven is imagined to be. The kind of world real Christians, like Rev. Warnock, pray for and strive for.
With the exception of some ultra-conservative ultra-orthodox sects, the Jewish equivalent of evangelicals, Jews predictably tend to be politically liberal and to support social justice movements. This, after all, is how a good person behaves. The kind of person God, and Jesus would want us to be. But even if there were no God, this would still be a holy mission. Rev. Warnock’s message resonates with those who ascribe, as Jesus did, to that task.
By denigrating Warnock’s Easter message, evangelicals denigrate the teachings of their own Lord and Savior.
It’s sad, and a disturbing sign of our times, that a good person like Rev. Warnock felt he had to buckle under, to recant words that accurately mirror and honor those of Jesus on that most holy day of the Christian calendar.
Truly good Christians, and I’m glad to say I’ve known many, not only agree with what he said, but, to their credit, conduct their lives accordingly.