Progressives, regardless of whether they are liberal Christians or non-believers, like to accuse fundamentalist Christians of ignoring Jesus’s supposed message of love and tolerance, which is supposedly epitomized by his remarks in the Sermon on the Mount. Actually reading the Bible, Jesus does not actually always live up to the billing progressives give him as a morally liberal thinker any more than he lives up to the historical Christian overestimation of him as a sinless, perfect man and role model.
In this post, I am going to focus on the illiberal biblical values which inspire fundamentalists that can be found even in the vaunted Sermon on the Mount itself, which is so blithely assumed to be the apex of Jesus’s message of tolerance. Admittedly, there are a few beautiful and morally valuable sections to the Sermon on the Mount and I do not mean to imply I do not appreciate those—maybe someday I will have occasion to blog about them too. But below my focus will be on the bad parts, starting, for those reading along at home, with Matthew 5:1-32:
Fundamentalist Christians have a terrible persecution complex that stems in no small part from Jesus warning his disciples that they will be insulted, persecuted, and have evil things said against them because of him in Matthew 5:11-12. Fundamentalists expect to be unjustly persecuted and dismiss seemingly all criticism as just a function of their loyalty to Jesus and the world’s supposed unjust hatred of him. Just subjecting him and his ideas to the normal, rigorous analysis that any influential person’s ideas and life should be subject to is tantamount to persecuting him and them in fundamentalists’ minds.
Christian fundamentalists learn from Jesus’s remarks about being “Salt and Light” not the good truth that they should be simply moral exemplars who lead by example, but more specifically that they should be religious exemplars who inspire others to “see [their] good deeds and glorify [their] Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14) Jesus inculcates the idea that their goodness comes from their god and that their religiously motivated good deeds should be highly visible and serve as propaganda for their god.
They explicitly learn from this the idea that they should see good deeds as a means to converting people. They also take the idea that just being Christians makes them exceptional and superior guides for all others to marvel at. And notoriously this passage inspires fundamentalists in America to conceive of America as ideally what Jesus said Jerusalem had been, a shining city on the hill which does not merely inspire other countries to emulate what is moral and just about our politics but, again, to glorify the Christian God.
Old Testament Law Completely Reaffirmed
In the Sermon on the Mount itself, Jesus not only refuses to say that all that awful Old Testament stuff about stoning people and hating the gays was invalidated but he doubles down in the worst way. In Matthew 5:17-20, he argues that getting into heaven requires being even more faithful to the Old Testament law than the infamously legalistic Pharisees were:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The fundamentalists understand this to clearly indicate that whatever else Jesus says can only be seen to be a way to learn to properly apply the Old Testament’s moral codes, not to invalidate them.
As Christopher Hitchens often points out the sections on murder (5:21-16) and adultery are extreme because they treat mere feelings with actual actions and threaten to punish them equally. How could you possibly judge someone the same for hatred as for murder or lust as for adultery? This is extreme and absolutist. Regardless of whether some forms of strong anger or strong lust can be morally questionable, they are not equal to actual attacks on other people or violations of them or unfaithfulness to vows you have made.
Fire and Brimstone
And the idea that a perfectly good God would punish people with hell fire is one of the cruelest, most insane, bullying, immoral ideas in the history of humanity. This totalitarian, morally disproportionate idea of punishment which has psychologically tortured people for ages and which has always been a tool for authoritarian manipulation and abuse by the Church, is Jesus’s own innovation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and he introduces it in the allegedly morally progressive Sermon on the Mount itself.
Lusting is not natural and good according to Jesus but equivalent to adultery. Rather than giving a balanced, affirmative account of how to maximally achieve pleasure, love, mutual understanding, autonomy, self-expression, and self-realization through sex and how to treat others responsibly and ground sex in consent—Jesus goes and makes the true believer mistrust sexual desire itself.
Extremist Restrictive Prescriptions for Dealing with Sexual Desire
His solution of plucking out one’s eyes rather than ever looking with lust represents a hatred of the body and a call to extremist asceticism. Fundamentalists’ obsession with the unrealistic and unhealthy goal of abstinence before marriage, which sometimes extends into attacking kissing before marriage or even dating and loving before marriage, are all perfectly in the spirit of Jesus’s crazy absolutist, ascetic prescriptions for dealing with lust in Matthew 5:27-30.
Spiritual Health Completely Trumps Health of Body and Emotions
The concern with purity that says, whether literally or even just figuratively, that giving up entire healthy body parts rather than let them ever risk the slightest moral transgression, is scary absolutism. This is not a balanced view of human nature that says, “this part of you is good and even though sometimes you might screw up with it, on net it is valuable” but rather one that says, “any part of you that could ever lead you to even a little bit of moral failure is all bad”. So, if non-marital sex or kissing or, even, dating is not an absolutely perfect arrangement but has some trade offs for its benefits, then it all must go!
The idea that “it is better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30) is in short a teaching that says this life and the means to living healthily in it are entirely irrelevant compared to “spiritual” goods in the “next” world.
A Reason To Blame Women For Inspiring Lust In Men
This also leads to injunctions to women “not to dress in ways that cause men to lust” lest they be responsible for leading those men to do evil things. Jesus has warned these men that they could go to hell simply for lusting. The men cannot say, “we saw the hot woman dressed excitingly but restrained ourselves from acting lewdly towards her and so are morally decent people.” No! They saw her, they lusted, they’re going to hell! How dare she!! This is a recipe for the “blame the woman who inspires lust in men” attitudes in fundamentalist Christian men, which mirror those of fundamentalist Islamists who force Muslim women into public invisibility.
No Right of Divorce, No Exception for Abusive Relationships
And then morally progressive Jesus in his morally enlightening Sermon on the Mount prohibits divorce in nearly absolute terms. First his discussion of divorce assumes it is only the male’s prerogative to divorce. And he only allows for divorcing her if she has committed “sexual immorality”. So morally progressive Jesus forgot to mention spousal abuse; those women are implicitly forbidden the right to divorce by Jesus.
One might think well this is Jesus protecting economically vulnerable women in an ancient, sexist culture from being dumped with little means of fending for themselves. But, no, if a woman is divorced, Jesus is not concerned she get a new husband to make sure she is provided for. No, instead, if you marry a divorced woman, you are an adulterer.
Given the Sermon on the Mount is it really so puzzling that fundamentalists are patriarchal about marriage and family? Is their problem really that they are not paying attention to Jesus? Or is it, rather, that they pay too much attention to him. Is the solution really more celebration of the true Jesus as a moral and religious guide, or should we rather be encouraging less attention to his utterly extremist views on things?
There is more to cover in at least one more post. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?