Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Honest to God

Parable of the Mote and the Beam, print by Jan Collaert after Ambrosius Francken, 1585,  British Museum.

Here's National Review writer and conservative Catholic Ramesh Ponnuru criticizing Pete Buttigieg (not that I'm that crazy about Buttigieg, as yet) for bringing religion into his presidential campaign:

It struck me as kind of upside down. After all, most people get their religious indoctrination starting pretty early in life, and start thinking about politics later; wouldn't the former inform the latter rather than the other way around? If Buttigieg was brought up a liberal Episcopalian, wouldn't that idea of Christianity lead him to think Christianity favors liberal political principles? Indeed, Ponnuru writes,
A few conservatives have contested the mayor’s version of religious politics by denying that he is truly Christian, citing his support for same-sex marriage (he is in one) and legal third-trimester abortion. Some of those critics have gone so far as to dismiss the Episcopal church, of which the mayor is a member, as no longer Christian.... For Buttigieg, the basic mistake of conservative Christians is “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.” His interviewer, journalist Kirsten Powers, calls it an “insightful formulation” and specifies that abortion is one of those topics Jesus ignored.
What He did talk about, Buttigieg says, includes “defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works.” Hence his claim about how Christianity dovetails with progressivism.
Exactly. The Takfiri conservatives who deny that Buttigieg and Episcopalians in general are Christians are wrong, and Buttigieg suggesting that conservatives are bad Christians since they ignore the words of Jesus is sort of wrong too—who said the words of Jesus are the only important part of what Christianity is made of?

Well, I guess Rev. Jim Wallis said it, and Tony Campolo, and Shane Claiborne, and the other Red-Letter Christians, for whom the words of Jesus, which used to be in red ink in the old family Bible, present not just a "liberal" but a fairly radical unified message:
During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, the DJ happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians–you know–who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!” Jim answered, “That’s right!” And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. … In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said. Of course, the message in those red-lettered verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Whereas evangelical Christians focus on the mythographic figure of God's dead son, the story and its mystical significance, like the author of this Wikipedia article, from which they derive an authoritarian message:
In ChristianityJesus is believed to be the Son of God and the second Person of the Holy TrinityChristians believe that through his crucifixion and subsequent resurrectionGod offered humans salvation and eternal life.[2]
These teachings emphasize that as the Lamb of God, Jesus chose to suffer on the cross at Calvary as a sign of his obedience to the will of God, as an "agent and servant of God".[3][4] Jesus died to atone for sin to make us right with God.[5] Jesus' choice positions him as a man of obedience, in contrast to Adam's disobedience.[6]
Jesus never asserts directly that he's the son of God, either. It's a debate that goes back to right after his death, between Jesus's brother James, who asserts that the religion is about doing stuff (works) on the basis of words, and the 13th apostle Saul called Paul, for whom it's about saying stuff (faith) on the basis of stories. "Christianity" seems to mean both of these things, and various accommodations between them, not to mention the Roman Catholic church with its own ancient intellectual tradition in which both sides of the Bible play a necessarily quieter role.

That's what Ponnuru is appealing to when he writes,
To see what’s wrong with [Buttigieg's argument that the New Testament doesn't condemn abortion], consider that the argument could just as easily be, and was, deployed against William Wilberforce and other Christian abolitionists. Notoriously, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns slavery.
It does, however, teach that God has made human beings in His image. Christian thinkers, using the power of reason they believed God gave them, reflected on that teaching over the centuries and concluded that the Christian conscience could have no truck with the institution.
But those "power of reason" arguments don't in fact have any specifically religious content; they derive from not from the idea of being created in God's image but from Aristotelian concepts of natural law, and generally stopped with the thought that people shouldn't be enslaved unless they deserved it, because Aristotle thought it possible that some people did deserve it, whether because they were "natural" slaves or because they were to be punished for something.

While as most Jews (especially now in the Passover season) and all members of African American churches know (and Wilberforce too, surely), the primary religious argument against race-based slavery isn't reasonable at all but founded on the mythography of the Pentateuch: Because we were slaves in Egypt.

Which is the law of empathy, right, and the profoundest part of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition. Not deicide myths cribbed from Osiris and Dionysus. Unlike abortion, it's very much in the Bible (and not just the Hebrew Bible, because the words of Jesus in the Greek Testament make constant reference to these specific elements of Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, on the responsibility of society to care for the weak and the discriminated-against and the stranger).

Ponnuru is playing a very annoying game here, criticizing Buttigieg and by implication fundamentalist Christianists ("both sides do it" and of course he's theoretically not on a side) for commandeering scripture to their ends while he pulls out the Doctors of the Church to beat them up (because, obviously, he is on a side and very much so). With the effect that he seems to mainly saying he hates liberal Christians and is something of a Takfiri in his own right.

On the other hand he's a convert himself (Hindu father, Lutheran mother, self-raised as agnostic, turned Catholic out of Princeton "on his own volition"). It occurs to me that if he's accusing other people of giving in to the temptation "to read their politics into their faith" it's perhaps because that's how it happened with him, as a Princeton conservative kid, creating a Catholicism that fit his political views (Dreher's like that too). But honest to God, watch out for that log in your eye.

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