Chapter Nine: Robert Brinsmead- Compassion Before Religion
(This chapter covers some of the theological insights that led me to leave my religion and all religion. This is a detour into more theological themes so feel free to move on to the next chapter)
During my break in Canada I continued to read more of Robert Brinsmead’s essays. He seemed to be leading in the same direction that my own thinking was moving toward. He challenged and questioned everything. Nothing was sacred. And he went to the heart of what was wrong with my religion- religion itself. I found his approach refreshing and liberating.
Brinsmead always seemed to provide insights on issues of paramount importance for truly human existence. Consistently, he pointed to one central insight that I want to focus on in the following pages as absolutely essential to being truly human. It is an insight that is key to understanding the scandal of the life and teaching of Jesus, a scandal that has been buried almost completely by Christianity. This insight is also the main point that I am trying to make in my own story of leaving religion to return to humanity.
But sometimes Brinsmead could be very upsetting.
Over previous years I had started reading Reformed theology. Those writings included the work of Luther and Calvin, on through the Puritan writers, and even on into the work of present day writers. One of the dominant ideas in Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God. That teaching states that God has absolute, omnipotent control over everything. As the 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “Every grain of dust left swirling in the wake of a passing wagon wheel is following its eternally preordained path”. God omnipotently guides every atom to follow his eternally predetermined and fixed will.
While it is a very comforting doctrine- things only happen as God plans them to happen- it is very contradictory. It undermines human freedom entirely. There can be no spontaneous, free choice in such a predetermined world. Everything is following God’s will, not their own.
The idea that God or the gods have planned and are responsible for causing all natural events, accidents, and disease is perhaps one of the most widespread human beliefs regarding life and the gods. That belief is found in almost every culture and religion of the world. It is a belief that engenders much passivity in the face of dictating gods. It is also an idea that burdens people with intense distress under a sense of being punished by God. After the recent tornadoes, which killed 45 people in Oklahoma (May 1999), a fireman interviewed on TV said, “It makes you wonder what we’re doing wrong”. As an Evangelical Christian he felt that God was punishing local people through the disaster that had just occurred there. That adds unnecessary psychic misery to already unbearable suffering. Similarly, a Japanese woman wondered aloud after the tsunami there, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”.
Even the normally bright Hillary Clinton wondered aloud in an interview why God had caused her husband’s hormonal outbursts with the White House interns. She rhetorically asked the interviewer, “What is God trying to teach me?” God? How about testosterone?
Fortunately, indeterminacy or chaos theory has irrefutably undermined the idea of God predetermining all things. We now know there is randomness, spontaneity, and chance in matter, in all life systems, and in the macro structures of the universe. We know in the post-mechanistic era that there is genuine freedom in life.
The belief that God causes or is involved with disasters, accidents or disease can only lead to the conclusion that God is a cruel monster, doing such things as killing innocent little children in horrible disasters. Fortunately that God is a straw God that has never existed.
Theologians go to great lengths to try to reconcile the obvious contradictions in their sovereignty doctrine. But they only get lost in mumbo jumbo about something they call God’s permissive will. Predetermination and freedom are simply mutually exclusive realities.
And as mysterious and frightening as it may seem to us, God has such profound respect for freedom in life that he does not rush in to take control or “cause things to happen”. If only we had the same respect for the freedom of others and for the freedom of life in general. Authentic love values freedom highly. In fact, there is no love without freedom.
Only in true freedom do you get the valued moral good that comes from free choice. That free choice to do good is something highly prized by a God that is love. But such freedom also opens the way for poor choice, or harmful choice. Such is the risk in order to gain the authentic moral good that comes from free choice.
Another element of the sovereignty doctrine is the teaching on election which argues that in eternity past God chose his people that he would save, mainly Christian Fundamentalists, and all the rest (the non-elect) will be thrown into hell.
The only way you could be sure that you were elect was to join an Evangelical Christian church and become a good practicing member.
Brinsmead questioned such beliefs and offered information that undermined them. At first I was offended. Whoa, Mr. Brinsmead, that’s going too far now. But eventually, I calmed down and saw the conflict of those teachings with human freedom.
A pastor friend of mine in Louisiana, H S, believed that the sovereignty of God was the key belief in the Bible. It was a test belief, he said, to discern true Christians from false ones. He even had a test verse to use on people. If they agreed with his view of that verse, they were saved, and if they disagreed, they were damned.
Many Evangelicals do that. They confront people with what they believe is a basic Christian doctrine and demand a yes/no answer from them. For example, they will use questions like, “Do you believe there is a literal hell fire?” or “Do you believe Jesus was God come in the flesh?” The Prairie teacher, A D, used the last question to detect if people had demons or not. He said that if a demon was present then a person would not be able to say, “Jesus was God” without grimacing in anger or rage. Pretty nutty, eh?
Jerry Falwel on a CNN interview once declared that the only people who would be saved were those who personally accepted Jesus into their hearts. The Catholic interviewer disagreed and asked another Evangelical guest, Tony Companelo, if he also believed what Falwel had said. Companelo hesitated and started to explain that he disagreed. Falwel rudely cut in and demanded of him, “C’mon Tony. Do you believe Jesus alone is the only way of salvation? Yes or No?” Tony hesitated again. Falwell again harshly demanded, “Yes or No, Tony, Yes or No?” He did that several more times. Campanelo appeared to be sliding down the slippery slope.
Depending on people’s response to the above test questions, Evangelicals would approve or damn them. It is a very black and white approach to the complexities of life.
H S evaluated everyone through his simple truth test. Did they believe in the sovereignty of God or not? And it had to be his own strict view of sovereignty. Consequently, he came to believe that he and his tiny congregation of a half dozen people were the only true believers left in the whole world. He isolated himself from all the rest of the human race.
When he found out that I was reading Brinsmead, H said to me, “That material is darkness. It is from Satan”. But I was already too far out of Christianity to turn back.
H was a bundle of contradictions as most Evangelicals are. He professed to be a follower of Jesus and believed in the primacy of love but would have nothing to do with the African American people who lived right across the street from his house. His excuse, “They’re just too much trouble to bring into our church”.
Essentially, the idea of election (a chosen or special people) is just a religious version of tribalism. It is the same as ancient clan or band views of ‘us versus them’- the other, the outsider, or the enemy. It views God as a tribal God who fights for and blesses his select people over all others. In its religious version the band or clan is a church, the saved ones. But dragging God into such a pagan exclusivity only distorts God horribly.
The idea of election has even been raised to nation state level in countries like America- God bless America.
Walbert Buhlmann, in his book ‘God’s Chosen Peoples’, has shown the brutality that the belief in election leads to. Chosen peoples have always arrogantly dominated and abused others who they believed were not elect. Christianity, says Buhlmann, has consequently been a brutal institution, shedding more blood than any other religious movement in human history.
Unfortunately, all people, whether Europeans or African tribes, have believed themselves to be God’s chosen or elect people. Such a belief is common to all peoples.
Freedom From Law, Scripture And Religion
One of the most important insights that Brinsmead made was regarding the dehumanizing effects of devotion to law. In 1980 he published an essay, Sabbatarianism Re-Examined, in which he clearly pointed out the damaging consequences of the Christian orientation to law (the argument applied equally to loyalty to religion, scripture, ideology, institutions, or anything else nonhuman, including God). Brinsmead’s essay was an excellent piece of research and it blew away entirely the common idea that we must all submit to the rule of law.
Brinsmead based his anti-law arguments solidly on well-known Bible passages, mainly those of the anti-law apostle, Paul. Just by way of qualification let me say (and my friend Bob Brinsmead would say something similar) that I am not advocating that law should be entirely discarded at this point in history but that it should be used more humanely. I would argue that law should not be taken too seriously. We are not all to be under law. And we should never relate to other human beings through the medium of law but always primarily as human beings to other human beings.
Law while a useful tool for human organizing (it can embody past insights and experience so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel) but it can become a real curse when used to control and limit the complexity or the free flowing dynamism of human life and relating.
The Critical Insight- Devotion To Law
Brinsmead argued that law depersonalizes ethics so that “living by abstract rules takes precedence over real needs of human beings” (“A Festival Of Freedom” in Verdict, Essay 14, p.7). In a law-oriented existence, human loyalty is directed primarily to conforming to abstract codes, instead of freely and creatively responding out of natural human compassion to the diverse and unique needs of people.
Where there is a focus on law, tradition, and rules, there is a tendency to inhumanely mistreat people in order to uphold rules, argues Brinsmead. That was a central and oft repeated point made by Jesus in his teaching (see Matt. 15:1-9, Luke 10:25-37, 13:10-17, 14:1-6, 19:1-10, etc.). Note in particular Jesus response to the prohibition against healing people on the Sabbath. In such situations his response was basically, “To hell with law. I will respond as a compassionate human being even if it means breaking the law”.
In law-oriented situations law is too often viewed as something sacred that must be rigidly upheld at all costs, even if human beings suffer at the hands of people trying to be loyal to their systems of law. A law-orientation inevitably leads to an emphasis on law at the expense of people.
There must never be a devotion, Brinsmead said, to petty regulations, but rather compassion toward people and a realization that human needs are more important than regulations (p.7). We do not know of any religious institution or any other social institution for that matter which consistently practices such concern for people before institutional policy, traditions, or rules.
Over the previous decade I had discovered everywhere in Evangelical Christianity the destructive inhumanity that arises from loyalty to law and religion.
The religious Fundamentalist, Conservative or Evangelical (which they now prefer to be called), holds firmly to the idea that he has a holy book, a system of law or beliefs that have been given directly to him from God and therefore they demand his complete loyalty and obedience. They are the higher divine authority that he must submit unquestioningly to, no matter what the cost may be to other human beings.
The Evangelical Christian also fervently believes that his book and belief system are alone true among all the religious books and belief systems in the world. Further, Evangelicals claim that all other teachings, religions, and scriptures are from the Devil who uses such falsehoods to deceive people and lead them astray from the truth of Evangelicalism.
Loyalty to the Evangelical system has consequently led its adherents to zealously demand that all other human beings on earth must radically change (convert) to become Evangelicals or they will be destroyed in hell. It is a religious system that encourages harsh exclusion of all others who disagree. It fosters intolerance of diverse forms of spirituality and condemnation of those who differ in any way. The Evangelical God demands this exclusive stance from his followers and he demands that his followers isolate themselves from all those who refuse to convert to Evangelicalism (known as worldly or sinful people). The Fundamentalist God advocates such harsh intolerance and exclusivity because he himself is a nasty, punishing Patriarch, a tribal God who loves and favors his Evangelical band, while hating all others.
That excluding and isolating loyalty is an inhumane stance to take toward other human beings. It has led to insufferable brutality toward others in the name of God. But the Fundamentalist believes that he must be loyal to his system and his God no matter how harsh he may become toward others.
Fundamentalism in general is a frighteningly cold and harshly rigid loyalty to something nonhuman. It is a devotion that short-circuits normal human impulses or compassion. It is the worst of human pathologies that drive normally sane people to even kill others who disagree with them. But in the midst of his inhumanity the fundamentalist believes that he is defending the truth and acting in love toward others. He feels that he is doing a good and positive thing as he damns all around him who dare to differ.
I was beginning to see the inhumanity of such ideological rigidity. In my early years at Prairie I had never dared suspect that the harsh intolerance of our religion was inhuman. I was taught that Evangelicalism was God’s will and therefore it was the final truth for all people. The Evangelical God expected all his true believers to loyally and zealously fight for that truth. I never dared suspect that the harsher elements in the Evangelical belief system or its view of God were perhaps wrong. If it was from God, then it could not be wrong. It had to be truth. We started with that nonnegotiable point and tried to fit everything else into our worldview. We never questioned anything that appeared to be contradictory. The only proper response was to submit and accept it all. Only fools would dare question the truth and thereby expose themselves to public shame, expulsion from God’s people, and ultimately being given over to the Devil and hell.
Through myriad forms of threat we were constantly pressured to faithfully fulfill ‘God’s religion’ or law no matter what the cost was to other human beings. Our God always came before people and being decent to people. That was the natural and divine order of things. Devotion and faithfulness to God or commitment to God was the most important thing in life.
As I read Brinsmead and discovered that God was truly human, I was also starting to discover that being human was all right. As Albert Nolan said, God was fully human, more human than any person was. And we, as created in God’s image, existed to be human in any free, diverse, and unique way that we desired.
I was beginning to experience the freedom to rejoin the human race. I was rediscovering that it was all right to respond to normal human impulses and relate to others without the mediating influence of religion, law, or God.
In the Evangelicalism that I belonged to, normal humanity was always condemned as evil. Ideas of universal brotherhood, love for all people as equals, accepting all people as members of one family- Evangelicals reacted to such ideas with a disturbingly vengeful anger, even bitter hatred at times. They excused their anger as just reflecting the wrath of God toward falsehoods. And they argued that if God hated the children of Satan (all non-Evangelicals) then so must they display the same wrath toward the enemies of God. But I was now beginning to see that anger was just plain old ugly inhumanity. God, as love, had nothing to do with such harsh anti-human attitudes.
To try and validate such inhumanity in God’s name is the most perverse thing any person can ever do.
Residual anti-authority, anti-religion, anti-orthodoxy, and anti-law feelings that had always simmered just beneath the surface of my life were now boiling forth once again. It was a liberating process. I had never felt entirely comfortable becoming an organization or ideology-oriented person. I had never been gung ho about joining and becoming loyal to a group or institutionalized system of belief. I had always held a deep gut feeling that such institutional loyalty was too constricting to human freedom.
The freedom and humanity that I had only begun to experience in my teen years had been suffocated by Fundamentalism in the intervening years. That freedom and humanity was now resurfacing with a vengeance, but with a more reasoned validation. It was time to end the conflict of religion with my natural human impulses.
I had been caught up in Fundamentalism not by fully by free choice, but because I did not have the mental tools to properly think through or evaluate what I was being indoctrinated to. Consequently, I had been swamped by an emotional wave of threat, fear, and coercion. But I was now thinking my religious beliefs through properly and rejecting them as inhuman.
A radically new view of God, spirituality, and life was beginning to emerge in my consciousness, but in many ways I was not yet fully aware of what was happening. Regardless of my comprehension- freedom, genuine love and acceptance of all people, spontaneity, diversity, toleration, and equality were emerging in my mind as fundamental human values and features of truly human existence. These features were shaping my new perception of God as truly human.
But those new ideas and values were coming more and more into public conflict with the rigidly controlling and conforming Fundamentalist beliefs and practices that were still prominent in my environment.
Our basic sense of humanity will always conflict with anything inhuman. We need to respect and nurture that sense of humanity that we all have. When we repeatedly ignore it or try to bury it in favor of loyalty to a belief system or institution, we may dangerously blunt our sensitivity to human impulses. We then become cold, hard, and inhuman in the name of an institution, law, or even in the name of God.
Devotion To The Nonhuman
In a variety of ways Brinsmead continued to point out in his writing the inhumanity that results from loyalty to anything nonhuman, whether religious systems or even loyalty or devotion to nonhuman vertical gods up above humanity. In a number of essays he argued that Jesus claimed to be fully human- the son of man or the son of humans. He was the first to be truly human with a truly human worldview. Jesus’ worldview, says Brinsmead, showed that, “to be truly human is to love on a horizontal plane, to relate to others horizontally and not vertically and hierarchically” (“Reflections On The Question Of Authority” in Quest, No. 10, p.8).
That challenge cut to the very core of Christianity with its hierarchical structures of domination and control. The Christian God sits at the top of the entire religious bureaucracy, an absolute dictator of the entire universe, validating all the little dictators beneath him. Like a spoiled brat he demands subservient attention and unthinking devotion, often to the neglect of other people.
Jesus, stated Brinsmead, refused to acknowledge all forms of vertical authority thinking because they were inhuman. He then made the profound and radical statement that “Jesus regarded the exercise of authority as a pagan characteristic” (p.8). Jesus revealed a God who condemned all vertical relating, domination and control as animal-like and destructive to human life.
Brinsmead further argued that Jesus came and demolished the vertical dimension of both God and religion (“Dare To Blaspheme And Dare To Be Free” in Quest, Essay 1, p.5). He said that, “Jesus abolished the vertical and devotion to the vertical. He taught our duty to love on a horizontal level takes priority over everything” (p.7). Jesus was on all points opposed to vertically-oriented religious ideas, practices, and structures. Jesus placed humans on the same level as God and God on the same level as humans. That, said Brinsmead, was seen as blasphemy by the religious authorities and they put Jesus to death for it.
Jesus taught that God was horizontally-oriented in his relating to all others, he related horizontally to all life as an equal. That radical egalitarianism of Jesus and his God appealed to me as much as anything else that he advocated.
The core reason for rejecting the vertical dimension to God, according to Brinsmead, was that devotion to a higher good always results in the mistreating and dehumanizing of people (p.6). Devotion to a nonhuman reality such as a supreme dominating God always leads to nonhuman behavior toward others. Devotion to something nonhuman results in devotion becoming inhuman.
Brinsmead then noted perceptively that, “every religion professes to work for the good of humanity but each assumes a higher good than humanity and so humanity is always subordinated by religion. Humanity is therefore mistreated and dehumanized whenever there is devotion to some good higher than humanity” (p.6).
Far too often throughout human history people have let their loyalty to some idea, truth, lifestyle, movement, ideology, institution, religion, or even God to come before treating others humanely (note the account of Jesus being condemned for healing on the Sabbath). That devotion to something other than people or something above people has always led to abuse or neglect of other human beings.
Brinsmead pointed to the example of Paul in the New Testament who, because of his devotion to a nonhuman God, found himself committing “profoundly inhuman acts” (p.6). “His religious devotion drove him to subordinate human impulses of compassion in order to serve a higher good, a nonhuman God” (p.6). His very dedication and zeal for religion, said Brinsmead, turned him into a persecutor of innocent people. Loyalty to God and to the law of God came before compassion for people.
The damaging consequences of devotion to the nonhuman made me wonder about a comment Jesus had made about showing compassion to others. He said that when people did good to others, they had also done it to him (Matt. 25:40). If people had loved others then they had also loved God. In other words, just focus on people and treating people humanely. That is the sum of true devotion and worship of God.
To repeat once again, Brinsmead’s conclusion was that devotion to a God above humanity inevitably dehumanizes. Submission to any vertical religious authority causes people to act inhumanely toward themselves and toward others (p.6). The vertical relationship always dehumanizes (p.6). That is an inevitable consequence because any form of vertical relating is a restoration of primal animal relating which activates and reinforces residual animal impulses in humans to dominate and control. Such animal drives then effectively supplant egalitarian human impulses and emotions.
Nasty Gods Produce Nasty Followers
The above material exposes the dark underbelly of Conservative Christianity that few in the movement seem able or willing to admit directly. Where there is loyalty to a nasty view of God, there is inevitably harsh and nasty treatment of others.
Fundamentalist harshness or nastiness is not just a problem of remaining sin in imperfect followers. It is related directly to the basic view of God and the Bible held by Evangelicals. It raises the question- how did the Christian God become so brutally exclusive and dominating? Where did the harshness in the Christian God originate? Let me return once again to my evolutionary biology.
We now know that human ideas emerge slowly through processes of gradual evolution and change. Many contemporary religious ideas are simply updated versions of similar ideas held by ancient people long ago. God did not suddenly pop them into the minds of our more recent religious forefathers (e.g. the supposedly “inspired” writers of the Bible). We know that ancient people projected the nasty animal-like features of their existence onto their earliest ideas of gods. It was part of their effort to make sense of the mystery that they sensed throughout life. Those early views of gods, though continually revised and updated, have essentially changed little over subsequent millennia.
Things like exclusive territoriality and band loyalty, aggressive competition and domination of others, along with punishment, were all barbaric features of ancient life and worldviews that were projected onto early god ideas. Those harsh animal-like features were passed on into succeeding generations of god ideas and eventually became lodged in monotheistic versions of God.
But those harsh, nasty views of gods have inevitably produced harsh, nasty followers of such gods. A punishing God will validate punishing people. Anthropologists argue that all people mimic in their lives and societies what they believe to be the divine reality. It works in a feedback manner (feedback loops). People first project their own nasty features onto their version of God. They then use that self-created God to validate their own personal behavior.
And due to the powerful impact of God ideas on people’s behavior, Brinsmead correctly argues that you will never have truly human societies until you have more truly human views of God.
The harsh elements in ancient views of gods can also be seen all through the Old Testament and in many New Testament passages as well. That angry, dominating, and punishing God demands utter loyalty, obedience and zeal to be like him. A nasty God encourages nasty treatment of others.
Look at the most respected Christian leaders over the centuries. They confirm the argument that nasty views of God do indeed validate nasty behavior in the followers of such a God. Calvin puts the heretics to death at the burning stake because of minor disagreement over doctrine. He was protecting the faith as his God demanded. Luther turned the Anabaptists away in the midst of a cold winter because they held slightly different views from his. His God told him not to tolerate error or false teachers. Thomas More played lovingly with his children but then went forth to relentlessly pursue heretics to the burning stake. His God commanded him to weed out the tares (unbelievers) from among the wheat (true believers). The list of Christian brutality in God’s name goes on endlessly. Modern Christian Fundamentalists continued to slaughter each other in Ireland and other places. Walbert Buhlman (God’s Chosen Peoples) was right in stating that Christianity has shed more blood than any other religious movement in human history.
Christians have tortured, burned and killed each other endlessly over their loyalty to the Bible, it’s God, and the systems of belief that they derived from the Bible. The secular police are regularly called in to keep them from slaughtering each other even today.
Many Christians, due to the force of secular laws, will now restrain themselves from physically harming others. Instead, they try to get their God to exact revenge on their enemies through other means such as prayer. Their God hates all non-Evangelicals anyway so he would be glad to deal with them.
One of our Prairie instructors, Mr. S, told us of a church he once pastored. There was one woman in the congregation who disagreed with what he taught and challenged him publicly on various points- a healthy democratic thing in any normal situation. But Mr. S felt she was blasphemously challenging God’s truth. It is a common practice of Evangelicals to mistake their personal views with what they call God’s truth.
Mr. S, out of a sense of loyalty and zeal for God’s truth, began to pray that God would punish and silence the woman who refused to submit unquestioningly to him. Soon after he prayed that request, the woman broke her leg in an accident. S took that as a clear sign that God had punished her. He told us that sometimes in answer to our prayers God would even take people’s lives (kill them).
Mr. S said that it was part of a Christian’s duty, clearly taught in Bible books like the Psalms, to pray and hope for such severe punishment of those who disagreed with God’s truth.
Ultimately, Christians hope their God will cast all their enemies into hell. It is a wish that is often expressed publicly by Christians. It reveals the ultimate in human hatred of people who disagree or are different.
Other instructors regularly told us frightening stories of people who swore or refused Christian calls to repent and join Evangelical churches. Those people were then struck with illness and sometimes even lightning, which is a particularly clear sign to Evangelicals that God is punishing someone.
If it appears that I am being a bit tough on Christianity and it’s God then let me be fair and point out that such harsh Fundamentalism is an attitude found everywhere in life. It can be found in all religions (usually in Conservative factions, but also in liberal branches) and in economic and political ideologies. It was rampant in former Communist states, and is even found in dogmatic atheism.
Fundamentalism is the harsh, rigid attitude that claims to have the only truth in the universe and refuses to tolerate other ideas as possibly credible alternatives to explaining reality. It consequently seeks to coerce all others to agree with its view of reality and submit to the truth that it holds to be final. It is absolutely intolerant of diversity of thought and it condemns harshly those who would bravely disagree. Those who refuse to submit to Fundamentalism, in favor of remaining human, are condemned to the worst punishment the human mind has ever imagined- endless torture in the fires of hell.
Fundamentalism is barbaric and inhuman to the utmost. It is the basest of animal reality. Its demand for absolute loyalty to a harsh view of God, law and religion has led to unimaginable harm toward others in the name of God.
A while back (1999), the television news show 20/20 did a report on Islam in Jordan where men brutally kill their sisters and daughters out of a sense of loyalty to their religion and law. Some of the women have only been suspected of having sex (forensic studies on the bodies have found many were still virgins), some were even raped, but no matter, they had to be killed. They had shamed their families and communities.
The men, after killing their daughters and sisters, then danced and rejoiced in village celebrations that the honor of the community had been upheld. One man smiled, zombie-like, as Diane Sawyer asked him how he felt about killing his sister. He replied that he had to be faithful to God and his word. The honor of God and their religion had to be maintained at any cost. Human life was sacrificed out of zeal to honor God first.
That was a graphic example of the inhumanity that Fundamentalist devotion to religion, law, scripture, and God produces. It illustrated well the fact that loyalty to nasty views of God will produce nasty followers of such a God.
The Taliban in Afghanistan are committing the same brutality toward women out of devotion to God and scripture. We in the West may arrogantly cluck our tongues at such harsh treatment of other people, thanking God that we are not so bad. But Fundamentalist Christianity is exactly the same, different only in degree. Conservative Christians are simply a paler shade of the same intolerant Fundamentalist spirit.
Christianity has always been equally anti-women, anti-freedom, anti-sex, and anti-humanity as Fundamentalist Islam.
We are fortunate in the West to now have secular states that forbid such cruel treatment of others. It’s not that some aren’t trying. Some extreme Christian Fundamentalists in the US have argued that America must return to obeying Old Testament laws such as stoning to death adulterers and disobedient children.
One leading American Evangelical teacher, Bill Gothard (a single man) taught in the 1970s that you must break and conquer the will of children. One of his followers in Seattle took him seriously and beat his son to death. Gothard, of course, distanced himself from that, “unfortunate application of his godly principles”.
Most Christian groups employ less physically severe punishment than the Taliban, using instead more psychologically and emotionally-oriented forms of threat and control. Public shaming or rejection by the group (shunning or banning), or denial of rights and privileges are very common. The most potent threat of all, the threat of eternal damnation, is always hovering in the background.
There is perhaps no greater threat to love, unity, and peace among human beings than the Fundamentalist attitude of total devotion to God before compassion to human beings. It is a disturbing state of mind to try to understand. It holds immense threat to peaceful human existence. Note for instance the growing tension between the Christian West and the Islamic Mid East. That tension is now far more explosive since modern nuclear weaponry figures in the conflict. The chief threat from both sides comes mainly from committed or devoted people. The civil people aren’t so committed and the committed people just can’t be civil.
I am not ignoring the fact that love and mercy are also taught in Fundamentalist Christian communities. Too often, however, those more human elements are overwhelmed and buried by the nastier elements of exclusivity, intolerance, and condemnation.
If the gentler, more human values come into conflict with loyalty to the Fundamentalist God and their excluding culture, then the more human elements are inevitably re-interpreted to suit the primary values of exclusivity, intolerance, and punishment. In any conflict between the harsher values and the more human values, harshness crushes humanity. Submission to the will of God and the Evangelical teaching or authority always wins over true human freedom. Punishing justice always wins over love or mercy. Love is interpreted as holy love and is therefore defined first and foremost by punishment.
Also, Christian love is focused on saving or converting the lost- all those who disagree. Love then means converting people to your view of life, your ideology and lifestyle. That inevitably makes love coercive, intolerant, offensive and condemning, if people do not agree and convert. That religious love is no longer love by any common sense definition.
And consistent with their ideology, the Fundamentalist or Conservative faction of Christianity has historically tended to support such harsh policies as punishment, war, and domination of others for economic advantage (note the US House of Representatives vote to take over the Philippines at the turn of the century. As President Taft claimed, “The Lord has given us the Philippines”).
Recently (1999) on a CNN interview Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz pointed out that the Christian conservatives Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell had publicly supported American citizens arming themselves with guns. Dershowitz then asked, “Have they never read the teaching of Jesus? Was Jesus for violence? What hypocrisy!”
Have I made this critical insight clear enough? OK. Time to move on again.
I also met K F on that first furlough. He was a tall, blond and very blunt Dutchman. We traveled together visiting churches and speaking at Bible colleges across Western Canada.
K was a missionary to Thailand. He used to say that he was the worst Thai speaker on the team of OMF missionaries there, but that did not prevent him from using the language because he just wanted to tell people about Jesus. He inspired me with his disregard for personal embarrassment in using language.
But he could be one blunt Dutchman. Once while we were visiting another missionary’s home, we turned to discussing that man’s work on his doctorate. K very sarcastically said to the man, “So, you’re joining OMF’s elite ranks” (emphasis on elite). The man, soft spoken and polite, simply blushed. He knew better than to verbally spar with K.
In public Bible college meetings K would tell students that they were merely playing around with God, creating an idol for themselves much like the Thai men who shape statutes. They were creating gods that would make no serious demands of them. Sometimes after meetings, students would remain in tears.
K told me one day that he had once met some men on a road in Thailand and had told them quite bluntly that their gods were of no value because they did not change their lives for the better. The men became quite angry but did not argue with K.
However, K had committed a fatal social mistake in Asia. You simply do not humiliate or cause people to lose face publicly. An insulted man has the obligation to retaliate and defend his honor.
Evangelicalism has a long tradition of encouraging what they call spiritual boldness, speaking boldly out against sin and for Christ no matter what the personal cost may be. Christianity in general also has a long history of people martyred for their ‘bold testimony’. Those brave martyrs are the heroes set forth as examples for young zealots to follow.
But in their zeal to be bold, Christians often confuse things that should be distinguished. Personal offensiveness, personal quirks, or one’s own cultural bluntness can too easily be confused with boldness for Jesus.
We had often witnessed to people and sometimes we were very blunt in condemning them to hell. Some people would quite naturally react to such harsh damnation. We would then pat ourselves on the back that we were suffering their anger because of our presentation of God’s truth. Surely our boldness for Jesus would gain us extra reward. It was easier for us to hide behind God, rather than face the fact that perhaps people were reacting to our own personal nastiness.
Most religious people at some time in their lives will make the mistake of confusing their personal ideas or behaviors with God and the spiritual. That can be especially damaging when we confuse our harsher or more inhuman characteristics with our version of God. We hide our nasty selves behind God and seek validation for our nastiness in our version of God. Then we do not have to take responsibility for our inhumanity. We do not have to face difficult change. We have, in effect, created an inhuman God who allows us to live inhumanely.
In the struggle to be human, we need to continually face the God of Jesus with his radical demands for unconditional love for all people, endless forgiveness, acceptance of all others as equal members of one intimate family, sharing freely with all others and never punishing or dominating anyone. That radical humanity inspires and pushes us to become more human ourselves.
Soon after he returned to Thailand, K was conducting an evening meeting in a village. Someone poked a shotgun through a surrounding fence and blew part of his head off. Perhaps an offended villager. K died instantly.
As foreigners in other cultures, we often had very little awareness of the social and cultural forces swirling around us, which we often interacted with in ways that could prove fatal. It was especially dangerous for us to interact with another culture because of the Fundamentalist religious positions we held; positions which encouraged harsh intolerance and condemnation of others who disagreed.
For the bulk of our furloughs we had to visit churches to give little reports on what we felt “God had been doing through us”. We would show slides and tell stories to encourage people to give in support of our work. OMF prided itself on being a mission that did not directly ask people for money. They said that they trusted the Lord alone to supply their needs. But they made sure that their missionaries showed up in as many churches as they could to let people know they were alive and in the game. One OMF representative, N G, told us that the income of OMF was directly related to how many churches they visited. People knew why we were there even if we did not mention our specific needs. Many supporters expressed the wish that we would get over our silly position of not specifically mentioning needs and just honestly tell people how much we needed and for what projects.
I found the whole giving/receiving thing quite humiliating. It was especially embarrassing when after a service, as people were filing out and shaking my hand, someone would press a bill into my palm as they shook it. What was I to do then? I had to quickly close my palm as their hand pulled away so the bill would not fall to the floor and then think of something grateful to say to the waiting person. I existed at the mercy of such givers and had to present myself and my experience to try and interest them in supporting me. It was an unhealthy and demeaning dependence on others.
I had always admired the apostle Paul who claimed that he never took money or anything else from other people. He worked to support himself and to be a good example of hard work to others. He was the polar opposite of the money-grubbing Evangelical pastors and missionaries we knew who felt they deserved all they could get from hardworking people.
During the summer of my furlough I was invited to speak at a teen camp in northern Alberta. I prepared a daily sermon for the chapel held every morning. The sermons were on the Christ presented in Colossians- creator, sustainor, and Lord. I purposefully did not mention anything about sin or repentance, but the strangest things started happening among the campers. After meetings, teens would come up to me and say things like, “How can I get saved?” or “When you were speaking, I felt like God was talking directly to me and I need to get right with God”. One night a young man came to me weeping and crying like his heart would rupture. He sobbed that he wanted to get right with God. He said he had been doing bad things like taking drugs. It was an interesting time. Kind of like the revival meetings we had at Prairie years before.
After my 8 month break, I returned to the Philippines and moved to a new area. I was getting over my previous sense of disorientation and feeling more at home in lowland and tribal culture. And, like K, I quit worrying about my poor grasp of Manobo and just talked. With increased use, my language ability improved noticeably.
But over the following years, any pride I would take in my improved language ability could quickly and easily be brought back to earth. When you are directly engaged in one on one conversation and control the conversation, it is not too hard to follow the verbal flow.
However, every once in a while in a group of people, someone would turn to another person and converse in real Manobo. Using shortened and run together words and phrases, they would leave me in the dust, dazed, and confused. Their conversation sounded to me just like a mumbled flow of incomprehensible sounds. I would suddenly forget the praise that I had received about being a true Manobo and feel very foreign and outside. It left me wondering if I would ever fit in.
I found out years later, while reading research on brain development, that if you don’t learn another language by about 9 or 10 years of age, then you would have a difficult time mastering it. That is because the brain becomes hard-wired for different abilities at certain ages and while it is possible to learn still, you will never become as proficient as a native speaker will.
I was way past hard-wired.