Here is an excerpt from WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
Sam likes to call me out of the blue and casually mention the latest dumb stunt perpetrated by the Religious Right, the Roman Catholic bishops or the Republican Party, as if I have anything to do with it. He pretends I’m still one of “them” whenever “they” do something insane. A televangelist says gay people are going to hell… A bunch of bishops try to ban women from getting insurance coverage for contraceptives… Sam is on the phone!
I like those nutty right-wing stunts. They’re why people like Rachel Maddow invite me onto cable news programs. My commentary goes something like this:
Rachel: “Frank, you used to be one of them so tell us, how dumb are these people?”
Me: “Very dumb, Rachel.”
Rachel: “How dangerous are they?”
Me: “Very dangerous. Buy my new book and you’ll know why!”
It’s a living… of sorts.
Kidding with Sam takes a liturgical, ritualistic form, just like my “How-dumb-are-they” routine on cable news shows. Sam stands in for all the “typical, liberal secular Jews,” and I tease him about being overly politically correct or ask him what the word Jew means when it’s combined with the word secular.
“Doesn’t that confirm that Zionism really is just racism?” I say. “If being a Jew is just a cultural or racial matter, then what right did you all have to steal Palestine from the Palestinians?” Sam retorts by calling evangelical right-wingers “you people.”
Sam didn’t get a rise out of me when he said that Ricky Jay could have been proclaimed as the Messiah because I happened to agree with him. “Another day,” I said, “another prophet doing tricks in a part of the world hooked on magical thinking. Besides, Sam, you know I’m not sure if God exists. So don’t bust my chops about Jesus’ miracles! The only reason I still think Jesus means anything is that even the people writing the gospels disapproved of his actions.”
Sam went off to his next meeting and I ran a bath for the children. I was still preoccupied with the things I should have said, like every time Jesus mentioned the Torah, he qualified it with something like this: “The scriptures say thus and so, but I say…”
I should have said, “Jesus undermined the inerrancy of the scriptures in favor of his version of pragmatic empathy!” or “Every time Jesus undermined the scriptures it was to err on the side of non-judgmental co-suffering love. So up yours, Sam!”
A leper came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” If Jesus had been a good religious Jew, he would have said, “Be healed,” and just walked away. Instead, he stretched out his hand and touched the leper, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean,” even though he was breaking the specific rules of Leviticus. Two chapters teach that anyone touching a person with leprosy is contaminated.
Jesus certainly was not a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity that’s used as a trade-marked product to sell religion. Jesus didn’t take the Jewish scriptures at face value. In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn’t even “saved,” according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn’t. He undercut the scriptures.
The stories about Jesus that survived the bigots, opportunists and delusional fanatics who wrote the New Testament contain powerful and enlightened truths that would someday prove the undoing of the Church built in his name. Like a futurist vindicated by events as yet undreamed, Jesus’ message of love was far more powerful than the magical thinking of the writers of the book he’s trapped in. In Jesus’ day the institutions of religion, state, misogyny and myth were so deeply ingrained that the ultimate dangerousness of his life example could not be imagined. For example his feminism, probably viewed as an eccentricity in his day, would prove transformational.
Jesus believed in God rather than in a book about God. The message of Jesus’ life is an intervention in and an acceleration of the evolution of empathy. Consider this story from the book of Matthew: “A woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’ Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.”
Jesus recognized a bleeding woman touching him as a sign of her faith. By complimenting rather than rebuking her, Jesus ignored another of his scripture’s rules: “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time her [period], or if she has a discharge beyond the time, all the days of her discharge she shall continue in uncleanness… Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as [unclean]… Everything on which she sits shall be unclean … Whoever touches these things shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15:25).
Jesus’ un-first-century antics went beyond coddling lepers and welcoming the touch of a bleeding woman. He held a dead girl’s hand, violating explicit commands: “He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother” (Leviticus 21:11) and “Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him” (Numbers 19:13).As an ultimate fuck you to rule-keeping scripture zealots everywhere, Jesus hung out with whores. Embracing whores was a double rebuke to the Jewish scripture-thumpers because it put Jesus on the side of the pagan, prostitute-condoning Roman occupiers and made him a traitor in the culture wars of the day. Yet, the anointing of Jesus by a prostitute is one of the few events reported in all four gospels. As Jesus blessed and defended her, Matthew’s gospel says the disciples “were indignant” while Luke describes the woman who did the anointing as “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life,” which is a coded phrase for a filthy hooker who is certainly not one of us.
Jesus’ embrace of a woman from an enemy tribe in a culture where tribal belonging was paramount distressed both his followers and enemies. His attitude to the “other” was as incomprehensible as if he’d blurted “E=mc2 is the equation of mass–energy equivalence.” The Samaritan woman at the well knew that his actions were shocking. When Jesus stopped to talk to her, she said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
Jesus responded by attacking the preeminence of religion and group identity, offering an entirely new way of looking at spirituality by emphasizing basic human dignity above nation, state, gender or religion:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:19–24).
Jesus rejects tribalism, literalism, group identity, specific religions, and gatekeepers as well as his Jewish identity. The phrase “Salvation is from the Jews” is paradoxically a reference to his liberating departure from tribal identity in favor of common humanity.
What is the implication of Jesus-centric non-theological, non-dogmatic salvation? It’s the abolishing of exclusion of the other as “unsaved.”
What about God? Jesus says that God doesn’t want (or maybe no longer wants) worship via exclusionary religion, sacrifice or membership in the correct tribe, sect or nation. No, Jesus says, the Father wants “true worshipers [who] will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”
In other words Jesus decouples the credulous attachment to a tribal geography and religion-based identity. Jesus declares we’re all one family. Goodbye, Abrahamic covenant, Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome and Constantinople. Au revoir, holy places, River Ganges, passports, borders, empires, Lourdes, clan, tribe, Hellenism, Russian imperial ambition and American exceptionalism. No more chants of “USA! USA!” for, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” According to Jesus, there never was and never will be a “greatest country on earth,” or a “city set on a hill” or a “chosen people.”
- Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
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