As comedians so helpfully and so often do, Kurt Vonnegut pointed out the hypocrisy of modern Christianity in so often demanding a public display of the Ten Commandments, with all of its harsh regulations and enumeration of sins, while they rarely mention the Beatitudes, which Matthew attributes to Jesus, with all of its more hopeful, inclusive, and comforting words. Though his son actually earned a degree in religion and at least flirted with the idea of being a Christian minister, Kurt Vonnegut probably had no idea what a powerful juxtaposition the Ten Commandments read along side of the Beatitudes really gives us.
I don’t want to bore you with a lot of seminary talk about the finer points of Biblical scholarship but allow me to just say briefly that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew, organizes his material in a way to present Jesus as a sort of “new Moses.” The gospel is even set around five major speeches the way that the Old Testament’s book of Deuteronomy is organized around five speeches from Moses, and there is little doubt that he offers the beatitudes as a new version of the ten commandments . . . not something Kurt Vonnegut would have known but, he also probably would not have much cared.
If you will allow me a brief jaunt into history: We don’t know if there actually was a historical Moses, and, in fact, if I had to bet, I would bet against it. We don’t have anything written down about him prior to the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE and, frankly, it is a tad too convenient for the Judeans, living in captivity as slaves in Babylon, to have a historical founder of their religion who had liberated their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Parts of the story certainly reflect a more ancient history but, all in all, I think we have to take the Moses narrative with a grain of salt.
We are not in possession of the tablets of stone we saw Charlton Heston holding in the old Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, but we do have this 7-foot-tall Babylonian stella from about the time period we would place Moses in, if he had actually been a historical character. This piece contains one of the most ancient examples we have of a king handing down laws to a kingdom. This is the code of Hammurabi. The two figures you see at the top show king Hammurabi receiving these laws from the seated and much larger figure of Shamash, the Babylonian god of the sun.
So, you see how the Hebrews reinterpreted the ancient belief that laws were given by god to the current ruler which is intended to give the laws much greater importance and to make it a rather more frightening thing to ignore.
You see, there is a kind of religion that is called “civil” religion . . . a religion that is useful to the state, the government.
If you live on an island by yourself, there are no laws. Whatever you do, when you live alone, is beyond much ethical deliberation. When there are just a few people in a tribe, conduct is governed by the consensus of the tribe. But when a society starts to get a bit more populous, then, as they say, every worksite needs a manager and a water boy. Someone has to be in charge and there have to be rules in order to maintain a stable society.
The code of Hammurabi is more complex than the Ten Commandments, but they have a lot of similarities. They both prohibit murder, stealing and lying, and taking your neighbor’s spouse, and they both demand a certain exclusive loyalty. All of that stuff in the Ten Commandments about honoring Yahweh was not so much about God being inherently jealous or possessive as it was about keeping the tribe of Hebrews separate and apart from all of the competing tribes in the region.
The exclusive monotheism of the Jews, along with their dietary code, and rules regarding family, property, and even how they dressed, helped to keep them from just being lost in the biological and cultural soup of the Ancient Near East. And, it worked pretty well because it isn’t too hard to find Jews in our society but turning up a community of Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites or Jebusites is almost impossible!
So, the Ten Commandments were more about maintaining a stable society in a region where you lived near competing cultures, religions, languages, and where resources were scarce than it ever was about starting a religion. Religious anxiety just helped to enforce the laws, the laws didn’t create the religion. So, as in the United States, we often see religious symbols in government buildings and we see American flags, literally, our battle flag, displayed in church sanctuaries. The church and the state are often two hands washing one another.
And, it isn’t hard to see how the laws served those who had something to steal or something to fear from the masses of the poor who might kill them to take their land and food and to put their feet on the furniture. Rich people can’t have nice things if they are always afraid of the poor who so terribly out number them. It is no great wonder then that it is usually the conservative white supremacists who live in majority Black parts of the country who keep wanting to put the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. . . but I digress.
Civil religion is not all bad. I don’t want to live in a place where murder and theft are not strongly discouraged. I don’t want to live behind security fences or be heavily armed to protect myself in my home or in public. I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut would have felt the same way, still, as useful and sometimes helpful as civil religion can be, it is not the same thing as the kind of loving spirituality we hope to see in the teachings of Jesus.
Again, not to wade too deeply into the weeds of biblical scholarship, but I very much prefer the version of the beatitudes found in Luke. Matthew’s are better known because they sound more like the Jesus you would find in stained glass. Where Luke has Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who hunger now for they shall be filled,” a promise of a reversal of the economics of poverty, Matthew churches that saying up to read, “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.”
Honestly, have any of you ever felt or even known anyone who hungered for righteousness? And if you did, would you want to hang out with them? Go to a movie, or out to get a beer with someone who could honestly tell you, “You know, what I’m really Jonsing for right now is more righteousness”?
Christians don’t bring up the Beatitudes very often for much of the same reason that all of those “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets disappeared from convenience store counters the day after 9-11. There are times we don’t want to ask ourselves what Jesus would do because we know good and well we are about to do the opposite…. For about 20 years, we have been bombing people who had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11 because we got scared. Still, there was never a market for the “Who Would Jesus Bomb” bracelet because, well, we didn’t want to know the answer to that.
The late evangelical preacher, Tony Campolo, at least tried to challenge the hypocrisy and narcissism of evangelicals when he pointed out that even though that whole thing about being born again only appears once in the gospels, and yet evangelicals all seem to be eager to identify themselves as having been born again, and yet the injunction to sell all you own and give it to the poor is actually in the gospels twice, but you just never meet a “I sold all I own and gave it to the poor” Christians.
Of course, while we have a little more reason to believe that there was a historical Jesus, any honest scholarship will acknowledge that we don’t know much about him and certainly he did not originate very much of what is attributed to him in the New Testament. However, the most reliable of Biblical scholars who have examined which parts of the gospel sayings that might actually have come from Jesus are things that most Christians would really very much prefer to believe that Jesus either didn’t say it or he didn’t mean what it looks like he said.
The single most universally affirmed verse of the New Testament that scholars agree is a legit Jesus saying is this: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. When was the last time you heard a sermon on that? Or that business about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? Or how about, “Forgive the one who has offended you, not 7 times, but 70 times 7 times!” Or, “Don’t return a blow to the one who strikes you but instead, offer them the other cheek?” and “If someone asks you for your coat, give them your coat and your shirt and shoes too!”
If someone actually showed up in most churches saying things like that you would not find them in the pulpit, it would be more likely that you would find them out in the parking lot behind the dumpster, bound and gagged. And, just as a thought experiment, what would happen to someone who said things like that on Fox News?. . . but we’re not here to talk about Fox News.
I don’t know if traditional brick and mortar churches have much of a future. As a corollary to what I said earlier about Moses, if I were betting on the church being around in another generation or not, I’m afraid that I would have to bet against it. I hope that I am wrong. Even as keepers of the traditions of civil religion, they have performed some useful purposes and are usually more or less free places to hold A.A. and AlAnon meetings and those are at least useful even if their Sunday services are more disappointing.
But sincere spirituality is not simply a hell avoiding ticket to heaven (neither of which actually exist) but rather a journey towards being a better person, a more generous, forgiving, loving, justice seeking person.
I have not personally identified as a Christian for several years now. After all of those years of seeing bishops and pastors writing responses to my newspaper articles telling me that I am not a real Christian, I finally realized that they are right. If they are Christians, then I am certainly nothing like them. But, there are some very challenging teachings that are at least attributed to Jesus, whether they originated with him or not, that we could all learn from and that’s probably all that Jesus would have wanted from us anyway. He didn’t ask anyone to wear his name, he really just asked us to be better people and I’m all for that!
Dr. Roger Ray