Tag Archives: legalism

The “Lawlessness” in “The Letter of the Law” Mindset

Lawlessness was a common pulpit battle-cry in my conservative youth.  The word was often spit out, with great emphasis and passion, conveying just how contemptuous lawlessness was and that it was an indicator of how God-forsaken our country was becoming.  The New Testament word for lawlessness was, “anomia” with the root word “nomos” meaning a standard and the alpha privative (“a) conveying the absence of that quality.  And “lawlessness” is a problem in any culture as it reflects a break down of basic structures in the social body, leaving such qualities as decorum, civility, propriety, and the legal code being unattended.  But “lawlessness,” when focused merely on outward compliance with social and moral norms misses the point, as it is possible to adhere closely to a social and spiritual code even though deep in the heart there are unacknowledged character flaws which produced the people in the time of Jesus that he called, “hypocrites” or simply “actors.”

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (late 19th century) was one of the first to address the subject of “anomia” and he offered socio-cultural suggestions about the break down of “law-and-order” that often afflicts a culture.  But he noted two different, apparently antithetical dimensions to anomia, one being the overt disregard for social norms and the other being an obsessive focus on the social norms, the latter being a legalistic, “letter-of-the-law” approach to commonplace rules of social decorum and civility.  In other words, too little “law” could produce social unrest but also heavy-handed emphasis of social, civil, and moral codes could lead to the same.  To summarize Durkheim’s observation, social chaos could be brought about by laxity or disregard for the law but likewise hyper-emphasis on “the law” could lead to similar problems.

A relevant word here is “judgement” in the since of interpreting and enforcing the laws, a key feature of “judgement” being discretion.  For example, I often think of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well who was accused of adultery.  The “letter-of-the-law” required that Jesus should lead the charge in stoning the woman to death which would have had the added benefit of improving his standing with the religious establishment of the day (i.e., the Pharisees) who so famously emphasized the importance of literal compliance with the rules, especially regarding morality.  But Jesus defied the “law” and forgave the woman and told her to, “go and sin no more.”  Jesus recognized that the law always demands “interpretation,” that is discretion, and that strict and obsessive compliance with the law would eventually lead to the complication that Durkheim would note.

It is interesting…and very revealing…that in contemporary times the fiercest defenders of “law-and-order” and   of “human decency, decorum, and social civility” have found as their spokesman Trump who is the embodiment of indecency, social impropriety, and egregious dishonesty.  They have found the perfect embodiment of the hidden dimensions of their heart, a man who is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus stood for.  They proclaim that they are champions of moral, ethical, and legal propriety, yet they have empowered a man who demonstrates in his daily life the lack of all human decency and basic kindness.  They have given power and continued support to a man who demonstrates that he feels he is above the law.  Two relevant anecdotes from his past are his repeated public statements revealing his sexual interest in his own daughter and his brazen decision to walk in to the dressing room of a teen-age beauty contest and “size up” young girls in various stages of undress.  And more recently he has exceeded the power of his office and is blatantly attempting to influence other branches of the government because of his attitude, “Who is gonna stop me?”  He is fulfilling his dark prophecy that he could stand in the streets of Manhattan and shoot someonethe and he would not lose support.

Recently the Trump administration deported a man who had lived her for 32 years, was a respected and productive citizen, and the father of several young children.  Yes, he had “broken” the law in that he had not legally immigrated.  And, therefore in the mindset of Trump and his minions, “the law is the law” and must be obeyed.  “Ship him back to Mexico!”  Case closed, and those involved in the decision can sleep easily that night knowing that they, “obeyed the law.”  But the teachings of Jesus suggest there is a higher law in which one can, relying on the depths of his heart and its judgement, “forgive” this person and, metaphorically at least tell him, “Go and sin no more.”  But the moral and ethical ambiguity of life is not permitted by these spiritually immature people who assiduously rely on, “the letter-of-law” and are spared any anguish in their heart about what was the “right” thing to do.  It is much easier if you can determine what is “right” and “wrong” by relying on a rule book.  Just ask the rank-and-file Isis warrior who is never troubled by any lame-ass, wimpy thingy like, “moral ambiguity.”  Spiritual discernment, i.e. “discretion,” involves soul-searching and this existential process is related to what the Apostle Paul described as the Holy Spirit searching, “the thots and intents of the heart”

Christianity is being, “weighed in the balances and found wanting,” which is a necessary development in mature religions that see the value of self-criticism.  But like Trump, some Christians cannot handle any feedback which does not fit their carefully crafted, self-serving image and cling even more desperately to their dogma. The criticism actually encourages them as it strikes a naïve belief in their heart that they are being, “persecuted for His sake.”

Advertisements

Christianity as its Own Worst Enemy

Evangelical Christianity is its own worst enemy.  Feeling their faith is being threatened, they have hitched their wagon to a man who can even be thought of as an “anti-christ” of sorts as he is the opposite of anything that Jesus taught.  These Christians feeling of socio-economic powerlessness has pushed them into seeking political power and they found a spokesman in Donald J. Trump.  But faith, certainly including the Christian faith, is not something that can be threatened if its focal point is the personal dimension of spirituality, not the ideological.  This phenomenon of the Christian teachings is termed the “Personhood” of Christ which, if kept from being itself merely another cold, sterile idea, can lead to an internal, “personal” experience not dependent upon ideology and dogma.  Obsession with ideology and dogma keeps any experience of anything from taking place.

But the ego, termed “the flesh” by the Apostle Paul, is always ready to co-opt our spiritual impulses and accomplishes this purpose by turning the teachings of any spiritual teacher into dogma. The ego’s inroad into many people’s spirituality is through the intellect, particularly in the West where the rational is overly emphasized to the neglect of the affective domain.  The ego is delighted with a cognitive-based faith system as it finds the human mind easy prey upon which to work its dark, self-serving magic. When the dogmatic emphasis predominates, everything about the spirituality is kept in the mind and “worship” consists of some version of a repetition compulsion with words and ritual, usually including guilt-ridden do-goodism.  When this spiritual edifice is threatened the ego instructs the individual, and the group, to merely rely more feverishly on this repetition compulsion.  This addictive behavior is desperate as with all addictions the point is to keep one away from recognizing one’s inner emptiness which, according to the teachings of Jesus, is where “fullness” is found.

God does not reside in ideas or “Christian” behavior though both are necessary components of spirituality if they are seen merely as a means to an end and not an end in themselves.  The ego’s domain of ritual and ideas is the Pauline “letter of the law” and the Apostle emphatically declared that the “letter of the law killeth.”  And when this situation predominates in a culture, it is the seed-bed of atheism as many times, quite ironically, it is only the atheists that see through the Christian charade.

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Pope Francis Speaks Truth to Power

Pope Francis is the embodiment of “speaking truth to power” in contemporary religion.  Just days ago he dared to vow that atheist had a better chance of getting into heaven than Christians who openly disavow basic principles of Christian behavior and attitude.  (See link to story at bottom of post.) I know, from my background, how this notion went over with many Christians of all stripe; for with them any “atheist” has no chance of getting into heaven for he does not “believe in God.”  Pope Francis recognizes as I do that “belief in God” is not a simple academic or intellectual assent to a set of beliefs but is a heart-felt, soul-level, commitment to an interior spiritual dynamic that effects a different orientation to the whole of life.  This commitment allows one to have a “discerning spirit” so that he can readily spot, for example, hypocrisy and point it out just as Jesus did to the Pharisees.  And, I dare to say, this is because one has deigned to identify the “performance actor” dimension to one’s own life, including in the arena of faith.  There is nothing wrong with being an “actor”.  The problem lies in merely failing to recognize that one is an “actor,” which is what the word “hypocrite” meant in the time of Jesus.

In this article note also how one of the officials in the Vatican offered a follow-up explanation of the Pope’s observation, stating that it is possible that one can disavow “Christianity” and still be committed to a spiritual voice that will ultimately lead one to God.  This resonated with reports I’ve had from friends who no longer confess to being a “Christian” but firmly and passionately believe in Jesus and in “the teachings of Jesus.  From dialogue with these people I have learned that they have faith in the “person” of Jesus and not so much in the historical tradition of Christianity.  One recently explained how that she realized that her Christian faith had been given to her as a form of indoctrination but that now in mid-life she had found the courage and grace to employ spiritual discernment and realize that the value of words, especially spiritual “words” lie beneath the surface and can be meaningful only when one is willing to delve into the interior dimension of one’s own life.  This is learning to access the “spirit of the law” and no longer rely on the “letter of the law.”

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pope-francis-atheists-better-than-hypocrites_us_58afb6ace4b0a8a9b780e4e1

Spiritual Discernment vs. Judgment

The Apostle Paul described a “discerning spirit” that could penetrate into the depths our being and there reveal the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  In recent years I’ve learned to apply this in very human terms as I’ve become more attuned to the whims and fancies that pass through my mind/heart.  For example, about a year ago I was listening to an early campaign rally of Donald Trump and felt an urge to yell out, “Atta boy, Donald!  You tell’em!”  His rhetoric, the cadence of his speech , and evangelical fervor appealed to faint emotional imagery from my early youth and I immediately told my wife, “I know why so many people find him appealing.”  Here I exercised “discernment,” paying attention to a subtle impulse of my heart to which I gave no energy as I recognized it for what it was, opting instead for more mature, rational discretion.  Earlier in my life I would have taken what he was saying, “hook, line, and sinker” and would have been an enthusiastic supporter.

And I find myself exercising this discernment often in my life in areas of race, gender orientation, and even physical appearance.  Part of me still has the very human impulse to respond with great intensity to my first impression but now I have that discernment, related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason,” and realize that the distinctions that my ego wishes to carve the world into are not as clear and distinct as they first appear.

My mind brings to my attention one of my favorite anecdotes from the life of Jesus, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  This woman was a well known local prostitute and a contingent of local Republicans…so to speak…(wink, wink) were demanding that she be stoned to death, according to the law.  Jesus responded, “Let thee who is without guilt cast the first stone” after which he told her to “Go and sin no more.”  Now, Jesus knew well what the law was and that it did indeed call for him to pick up one of the rocks from one of the local rock-vending kiosks nearby and start pelting her himself.  But he exercised internal discretion, i.e. discernment, and knew that often grace and forgiveness was in order rather than strict enforcement of the letter of the law.