I reviewed the heartfelt struggle by a small group of Christians to find an attitude toward war taxes that meets the challenges of their faith. , I will highlight the 250th anniversary of a document that launched the American war tax resistance movement — the result of a small group of Quakers having the same sort of wrestling match with their own consciences and faith.
, I’ll fill this sandwich with my considerably more ambivalent (some would say hostile) feelings about the Christian faith.
People have a long-standing tradition, starting well before Christianity and continuing up to the present day, of collecting together and tenaciously holding to agglomerations of balderdash under the heading of “religion.” This much is hard to dispute, and any of us can list dozens of mutually-incompatible examples at the drop of a hat.
So my first inclination is to say “to heck with all you nuwaubians, mormons, harmonica virgins and the like — y’all’s talking smack.” But if I’m wise, I’ll prudently leave myself some wiggle room either if I can find an angle — some reason why professing or ritualizing or what-have-you might be beneficial to me or my hopes for the world — or better yet if it turns out that one of these seeming balderdash-conglomerations is actually the One True Story Of How Things Are.
Is Christianity true, in which case I ought to believe it, or if not true, is it beneficial, in which case I ought to practice or profess it anyway?
How might I distinguish the One True Story from all the others? I have to have tests of some sort, nets that catch the plausible and let the nonsense slip away. As far as I can see, though, Christianity doesn’t even survive the laugh test.
The Christian story — start to finish — doesn’t hold together, it doesn’t correspond to reality except in its trivia, while in its most important and profound lessons for evidence it relies on unverifiable absurdities and unreliable revelations, and it shows every resemblance to a hundred other crackpot tales that have been cooked up from the first anthropomorphic explanation for thunder in five-digits B.C. up through the fantasies of Malachi Zodoq-El.
So this knocks out one path, but also makes the other path, the “is there an angle” path, more difficult. Even if it were worthwhile, how does one go about believing such an absolutely uncorroborable, completely implausible fairy tale? I wouldn’t know where to start. (Though maybe also there are benefits to being a Christian even if you don’t really believe in it, there are also disadvantages to professing one thing and believing another.)
Attempts have been made to salvage the story behind Christianity by jettisoning or ignoring or explaining away the parts of it that most clearly contradict reality or each other. Say, for instance, the incompatible genealogies of Jesus given in Luke and Matthew. Not important; easily ignored or explained-away.
But what good is it to throw out bits and pieces of the alleged historical record contained in the Bible when their absurdity becomes too rank to suffer with a straight face, and yet the core of the faith has no more evidence to back it up than that same document and a telephone game of disciples and clergy over two thousand years?
Furthermore, how different is this from jettisoning inconvenient directives or commandments? How ambiguous does this sound to you:
…When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
How can you be a Christian, particularly a fundamentalist Christian, and just adulter away with wild abandon, knowing what Jesus said? It doesn’t seem to be at all difficult, as it turns out.
That’s just one example — the gospels are full of inconvenient instructions that Jesus considered crucial and that most Christians ignore.
Christianity, as far as I can see, seems to be whatever Christians want to believe with an “amen” tacked on to the end for emphasis. There’s almost no part of one Christian creed that doesn’t have a completely contradictory counterpart held as an essential tenet of another.
If you’re a Christian, you’re probably at this very moment outlining in your head the scriptural and logical reasons why the real Christianity stands for Good Thing X and never Bad Thing Y. If you are a pacifist, for instance, you will not be surprised at the news that “There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people.”
There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. ¶ The morality of the balance of terrorism is a morality that Christ never taught. The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.
That’s the considered opinion of George Zabelka, who believed that “What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.”
But he writes all of that in the course of apologizing for having been the man who gave the official blessing of Christianity to the bomber groups that flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.”
[I]f a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians — and I said nothing.
I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary — told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. (To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.)
“I was brainwashed” he says. “I was had by the father of lies.” But if the very core of your belief system is based on taking a bunch of implausible and unverifiable absurdities on faith, where do you expect that to lead? That’s the very garden the Father of Lies tends — are you surprised at the quality of the produce?
George Zabelka changed his mind about what Jesus wanted from us, but never changed his mind about believing that his latest guess about what Jesus wants from us ought to guide his behavior, and that “[w]hat the world needs is Christians who…” will do the opposite of what he did as a Christian priest on Tinian Island.
Maybe what the world needs is not more Christians, but more people who are able to understand that it’s rotten to participate in mass-slaughter without having to somehow tease that lesson out of the confused tangle of Christianities or hear the news from “cardinals or bishops” first.
Historic Russian admiral Fyodor Ushakov — a hero of Russia’s wars against Turkey and Napoleon Bonaparte — was designated the patron saint of nuclear-armed, long-distance Russian bombers by the Orthodox Church.
Russian Patriarch Alexei Ⅱ, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, carried a reliquary and an icon of the admiral, who was canonised in , into the Moscow chapel of the Russian Air Force’s 37th Air Army in Moscow…
“His strong faith helped Saint Fyodor Ushakov in all his battles,” the religious leader said, reminding his audience that the famous admiral of never lost a battle.”
Ushakov’s canonisation as a saint in follows a strong tradition in Russia of close relations between the Orthodox Church and the state, which was revived after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Maybe I’m holding Christianity to an inappropriately high standard. After all, there are plenty of awful secular excuses for terrible behavior, and at the other end of the spectrum, how many secular peaceniks have the courage of people like the members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who are intervening in places like Iraq?
Christians may use an unstable and unlikely base when they wrestle with their consciences, but at least they do wrestle and debate. And sometimes these debates can be quite challenging.
The following excerpts are from the speech that is said to have led to the formation of the Christian Peacemaker Teams:
If we want wars to be fought, then we ought to have the moral integrity to fight them ourselves. To vote for other people’s sons and daughters to march off to death while ours safely register as conscientious objectors is the worst form of confused hypocrisy.
We must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. We must be prepared to die by the thousands. ¶ Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions. ¶ Why do we pacifists think that our way — Jesus’ way — to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said.
What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 persons ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties in Central America, Northern Ireland, Poland, Southern Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan? Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?
Compare this to the bleatings of comfortable bloggers like myself or the satisfied platitudes of superior secular pacifists who have been living inside the castle walls all their lives and have never really had to make the hard choice of whether or not to pick up arms. The Christian Peacemaker Teams shame us with their courage and dedication and clearly their faith guides them.
There are many more people, both religious and secular, actually working for war than there are people, either religious or secular, actually working against it. And for every Ronald J. Sider calling on Quakers to lay down their lives to stop the dogs of war, there are Quakers who want to oppose war but get surprised and indignant if the dogs actually feel like they’re being threatened and start to bite back:
“This peaceful, educationally oriented group being a threat is incredible,” says Evy Grachow, a member of the Florida group called The Truth Project.”
…“I mean, we’re based here at the Quaker Meeting House,” says Truth Project member Marie Zwicker, “and several of us are Quakers.”
(Yes, indeed, how could the military have gotten the idea that a bunch of innocent, inoffensive Quakers were a threat to them? How sad.)
But as hard as it is for me to understand what makes someone a Christian, if I’m picking a partner to fight the good fight, give me a righteous and stubborn Quaker over a peacenik with a Darwin fish on her car any day. Is there some way to bring the passion and self-examination and willingness to change and sacrifice that can be found in some varieties of Christianity into a secular peace movement without also importing the balderdash?