Fight, Flight or Engage – 2

But not everyone has been adequately tutored by Mr. Locke, not even all Christians – not even all American Christians. Some dare to question Locke when he speaks of toleration as “the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” Others dare to question him when he hands over the material world to the Magistrate, sure that the true church has no interest in anything other than ferrying souls into eternity.

With the English Civil War in his childhood, and the Glorious Revolution just past when he wrote his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke had reason to speak highly of toleration. The toleration of which he spoke was not the absolute toleration we pursue today, a toleration of almost everything. When he identifies toleration as “the chief characteristic mark of the true Church,” he is speaking specifically of Christians tolerating other Christians. Well, at least Protestants tolerating other Protestants. We take toleration much farther. Though some of us may know Locke’s role in the history of tolerance in America, we might be more inclined to look to Jesus as our authority, specifically the Jesus who said, “Judge not, lest you yourself be judged.” Jesus said it; I believe it; that settles it. What could be plainer?

Unfortunately, scripture isn’t quite that plain. When we consider the whole of Jesus’ ministry, he seems to be engaging in quite a bit of what looks to us like judgment, usually directed toward the Pharisees and their buddies. Check out Matthew 23 and see Jesus at work there. What Jesus has to say there would fit the definition of what most of us today would call “judging.” Is this a case of Jesus being a hypocrite, of Jesus saying, “Do as I say, not as I do?” I see at least two ways to avoid attributing hypocrisy to Jesus.

The first way to read deliver Jesus from charges of hypocrisy with regard to the apparent inconsistency between “Do not judge” and “You white washed tombs, etc.” would be by saying he’s an exception to the rule. We’re not usually big fans of exceptions to our general principles (unless we need one for ourselves). If we have a general rule, it needs to apply equally to everyone.

I was talking to a group about this once. I said, “Suppose I walk out into the parking lot and find a car I really like. I look this way and that, and seeing no one, I get in and drive off. Have I done a good thing or a bad thing?” The immediate judgment was that I’d done a bad thing. “You’re not supposed to steal” was the general rule they mentioned. I agreed that that was a pretty useful principle. Then I added, “What if it was my car? Would that make any difference?” They all agreed it was ok to drive off in my own car.

What if we understand Jesus’ relationship to people to be fundamentally different than our relationship to people? Sure, there are commonalities. We’re fellow humans, we’re called by good to love each other and seek each other’s good. But Jesus, while human, is more than merely human. Jesus is also God in the flesh. Jesus is also the Messiah. Jesus is also the Judge. In these roles Jesus is in a position to judge when I am not, just as I am in a position to drive away in that beautiful car when you are not (since I own it).

This defense of Jesus would likely appeal to those who quickly and easily ascribe great things to Jesus. Jesus is the exception to all rules. He says not to judge, but being divine, it’s ok for him. So he judges. He says that when some one treats us violently (say, slaps us on the cheek), we should not respond in kind. But again, being divine, Jesus does respond in kind – when they come at him with whips to beat him, or hammers and nails to fasten him to the cross, he defends himself, beating them to a pulp. Oh, wait. He doesn’t do that. Jesus submits to the violence of the violent. He doesn’t defend himself. I guess the “he’s divine” exception doesn’t apply there. More on that in a moment.

Some folks, however, aren’t so excited about the “Jesus is divine and can do whatever he wants – and be right in doing it” defense. The idea of double standards just doesn’t seem appropriate, or truly moral. Surely, they think, rules ought to apply alike to everyone. We have a profound sense of the equality of all. We have equal rights. We have equal responsibilities. As moderns raised with the notions of morality as distinctly universalizable, we strongly feel things that all authentic moral rules, insofar as they are authentic and moral, ought to be of universal application to everyone. From this point of view we look at Jesus. We see a man. While we might (maybe) admit that that he is divine, holding on to his humanity we want to insist that even as a man he is subject to the same law and the same rules and the same morality as the rest of us.

After all, we believe our leaders who make our laws – our congress people, our judges, our presidents – none of them are above the law. All are accountable to the law, even the laws they themselves write and enact. Surely Jesus, being a moral person, ought to know that and act accordingly.

Is there a way out of this problem other than the “He’s divine” approach? I think there is.

[to be continued]

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