Sunday, October 26, 2008



There are so many appealing ideas in Christianity. By reading only Christ's words in the New Testament, we receive an overwhelmingly compassionate, positive message. Indeed, it is hard to see how much intolerance grew from Christ's words. By reading only Christ's words, we receive counsel to "turn the other cheek" to our antagonists, to "love our enemies," to "love our neighbors as we love ourselves," to "judge not lest we be judged" and "to knock," so that "the door may be opened to us." Christ says: "Ask, and you shall receive." He says: "No one can be slave to two cannot be slaves to God and to money." And he says: "Whoever believes in me shall have eternal life in heaven." See generally, Matthew Chs. 5-7; John Ch. 3.

There is not a trace of rancor in these teachings. They say nothing about intolerance, hatred or violence. Indeed, they teach precisely the opposite. They admonish us to be kind, forbearing, patient, calm and tranquil, even in the face of provocation, injury and danger. Taken alone, Christ's words fill us with positive emotions. They encourage us to aspire to noble virtues even when the world tramples upon us. In the abstract, it is hard to express disapproval for Christ's teachings. After all, if everyone acted as Christ taught, there would be no discord or conflict in the world.

Martin Luther understood that. But in his treatise On Governmental Authority (1523), Luther demonstrates how worldly theologians can warp Christian teachings to suit intolerant political aims. Like so many second-hand Christian scholars--beginning with the apostles through St. Augustine and Aquinas--Luther inscribes worldly imperfection into pure Christian belief. After all, reading Christ's words alone, it is hard to imagine how Christianity could be transformed into an intolerant dogma that can justify genocide and hatred. How can this be done? Quite simply: By disingenuous logical gymnastics.

How can Christianity certify violent revenge when Jesus told us "to turn the other cheek" from an evildoer? Matthew 5:39. Taken in the abstract, this teaching categorically bans violence against others, even when they wrong us. Luther sought to evade this command and to certify violent justice against "criminals." To do this, he creates "dualities." He has no textual support for these distinctions; he simply "makes" them in order to fabricate a workable argument. First and foremost, he tells us that the gospel only applies to "true Christians," namely those who truly have faith and practice pure Christianity. But the law--not the gospel--applies to "non-Christians," namely all the rest. Luther makes his job easy by claiming: "Among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian," and "If all the world were composed of true Christians, there would be no need for...prince, King, sword or law." Further, all "non-Christians" are "wicked and subject to the law."

There is nothing in Jesus' words that qualifies the people to whom his teachings apply. As long as a person believes in Christ, he is a Christian. See John 3:16. Luther simply invents an artificial distinction to justify State-sanctioned violence while retaining a "Christian" veneer.

Luther engages in even more logical gymnastics. After neatly separating humanity into "true Christian" and "non-Christian" categories, he uses another Christian teaching to generate a justification for violence against criminals. Specifically, he reminds us that Jesus told us to "love our neighbors as we love ourselves." From that teaching, Luther reasons that a "true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor." Applying that principle, Luther observes that true Christians need protection from "wicked non-Christians," and legal violence against "wicked non-Christians" helps "restrain them outwardly from evil deeds." Thus, while a "true Christian" does not need the law--he will "turn the other cheek"--it is essential to restrain the wicked from evil deeds, thereby protecting defenseless "true Christians."

Luther does not stop here. He encourages "true Christians" to become "hangmen, judges, constables and prosecutors" because they can "help their neighbors" by killing wicked non-Christians. Luther tells us that a "true Christian" does not punish a criminal out of hatred for the criminal, but rather out of love and service to his neighbor, whom the law protects. In essence, Luther's teaching leads an absurd scene: The executioner whispers to the condemned on the scaffold: "I execute you not because I hate you, but because I love my neighbor." This is what happens when thinkers engage in logical gymnastics.

Luther is certainly not the only theologian, judge or philosopher who engages in logical gymnastics. Whenever transcendent, positive principles are at stake, writers will use logic to reconcile them with crass everyday human practice. Supreme Court justices engage in logical gymnastics all the time as they attempt to circumvent grand constitutional principles such as "freedom of speech," "Equal Protection" and "Due Process of law." No matter who performs the gymnastic feats, the result is always disheartening. After all, by reconciling principle with the imperfect exigencies of everyday human existence, the principles become hollow. They take on perverted meanings. For example, how can one say: "Turn the other cheek," with one breath, then say: "But send him to the gallows if he is a non-Christian so I can help my neighbor." This is disingenuousness. It cheapens the principle. One either turns the other cheek or one does not. There is no "qualified cheek-turning."

Luther would have stood on a better footing if he had simply admitted that Christianity has no place in criminal justice. Criminal justice is a human administrative institution created to address human concerns. In that sphere, it at least has plausible justifications. But pure Christian teachings do not concern everyday human administration; they concern ungovernable individual belief. It makes no sense to reconcile them with a human institution that serves completely different purposes. In fact, there is intractable conceptual conflict between criminal justice and Christ's words. How, indeed, do we "turn the other cheek" when we ruthlessly put a criminal to death? That is not turning the other cheek. That is taking revenge in its purest, most violent form. And that is exactly what Christ did not want to see.

Luther may have been right that there are very few "true Christians" in the world. But that should not discourage people from aspiring to treat their fellow man with respect and dignity. Sadly, the world provides few opportunities to act in a truly Christian manner. To succeed in the world, it is essential to compete for limited resources. Competition does not lend itself to "loving one's neighbor;" in fact, the great temptation is to ignore one's neighbor and focus exclusively on oneself. Different rules apply to the "life game." It makes no sense to force Christian ideals into a quintessentially non-Christian competition. It would be smarter simply to admit that, rather than use logical gymnastics in an effort to reconcile these two fundamentally divergent forces. I have no respect for disingenuous arguments, especially when they mock pure principle. It is simply not possible to turn the other cheek and slap it at the same time, just as it is not possible to promise free speech and prohibit speech at the same time.

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