January 27, 2009

Whatever Happened to "Love Thy Neighbor?"

One thing that is mostly missing from Union Gospel sermons, and is intermittent in what a homeless person experiences staying in the mission dorm, is the ideal of brotherly love or ‘love thy neighbor.’ And, indeed, in the sermons, there is far, far more hate talk about earthly society than mention of anything in the vicinity of lovingkindness.

This bugs me. Most of the homeless guys I know have a lot of problems, including addictions, unemployment and a hardscrabble life getting anything done, due to the time-devouring way all the homeless-service providers in our world are organized. Getting kindness and endeavoring, ourselves, to be kind is a rather obvious need.

Christianity didn't used to be stinting with kindness and talk about kindness. Writes Elaine Pagels early on in her book Beyond Belief:
Jesus … said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What God requires is that human beings love one another and offer help – even, or especially, to the neediest.” [Mark 12:29-31]

Such convictions became the practical basis of a radical new social structure, Rodney Stark suggests [in his book The Rise of Christianity, pg 86-87] that we read the following passage from Matthew’s gospel “as if for the very first time,” in order to feel the power of this new morality as Jesus’ early followers and their pagan neighbors must have felt it:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. [Matthew 25:35-49]
These precepts could hardly have been universally practiced, yet Tertullian [in his book The Apology] says that members of what he calls the “peculiar Christian society” practiced them often enough to attract public notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness: ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”
Recently, on consecutive nights, Brett Ingalls of Vacaville Bible Church and Jimmy Roughton of Capitol Free Will Baptist Church gave tremendous, inspiring sermons that had a lot to say about goodness, the near cousin of "love thy neighbor." Hooray, them.

Brett Ingalls used the whole of his time to talk on the topic of "forgiveness." He had a lot to say that was fascinating and he anchored what he said to Scripture. Christians should endeavor not to be angry with each other, but when one is aggrieved, he should discuss what is wrong in a kindly way with the other who has hurt or harmed him. A Christian who transgresses against another should prepare himself to apologize, humbly and genuinely. And, how ever much someone has hurt or harmed us, we must forgive, fully.

There was a second part to this -- a "vertical" aspect -- where Christians humbly and genuinely seek forgiveness from God, when appropriate.

I wish I had an audio or transcript of what all Pastor Brett said, or had taken notes. From the gist of what I remember and will retain, I see the elements of outstanding guidelines for best behavior.

Jimmy Roughton, the next night, was in top form, speaking passionately and pacing back and forth in front of the altar like a caged jungle cat. His sermon was on the idea that Christians needed to be wonderful examples to others both for themselves, to live as manifestations of their dear faith, and so that nonbelievers will see them as beacons of the transforming power of belief in Jesus.

While many of the Union Gospel preachers make becoming a Christian sound like a burdensome, horrible chore, Reverend Roughton spoke of it as something that is in all ways wonderful and joyous and burden lifting. Roughton ended his surmon with one of his varietions on Pascal's Wager, saying that he would rather be wrong with all he believed about God and Jesus, and suffer no penalty, than be a nonbeliever and be wrong -- and, thus, be hellbound. Roughton is the only mission preacher who uses Pascal's Wager (though never identifying his argument as such). By the reaction of the guys in the seats, "the wager" seems motivating to many. It doesn't work on me; I feel I'm stuck believing whatever seems to be true.

While I think Ingalls's and Roughton's sermons were excellent and effective, I await a sermon that is very directly about lovingkindness, addressed to the tough rescue-mission crowd. Such a sermon might talk about how the guys should think about their behavior being too selfish or me-centered.

Today, getting a bed at the mission requires aggressiveness with some pushing and shoving at the sign-up window, outside. Lining up for dinner is competative, with many guys using sneaky means to move up in the serving line. A lot of guys have a need to maximize the space they have at the dining table; they put their arms on the table at either side of their tray.

A lot of the selfish nonesence is understandable. There are benefits that accrue from being selfish in Homeless World Sacramento. For people who don't have much, having a little extra by way of being aggressive is meaningful.

At Loaves & Fishes, there are tussles to get better or earlier services than others: There's a 7am race to get early men's showers and low lunch-ticket numbers. We live in a race to the bottom; because so many are extremely self interested, others of us have to act in self interested ways to get something close to 'our share.'

Homeless World Sacramento is full of mostly-wonderful people [truly, truly], but the tough time-devouring circumstances in which we live makes ungenerous and suspicious people out of us. Teach us to be kind, O Preachers.


Nagarjuna said...

I used to spend far more time than I should have arguing with Christians in Internet forums about their faith. One of my arguments was that most Christians do such a terrible job of living up to their faith that they bring far more discredit upon that faith than non-Christian so-called "detractors" or "bashers" such as myself could ever hope to.

They repied that I was being unfair. They said that I shouldn't judge the truth of Christian teachings by how well or how poorly imperfect human beings follow them. I countered that if Christian teachings are true, Christians should be filled with a "Holy Spirit" that inspires and empowers them to rise above their human frailties to do "God's work" far better than most of them are actually doing it, and that this casts severe doubt on the very existence of the Christian God, its Holy Spirit manifestation, and on the very religion that worships this God and manifestation.

My argument didn't go over too well, :-) but I think it makes pretty good sense. And I think that the fact that few Christian pastors emphasize the core of Christian teachings as found in the biblical Beatitudes, much less live up to them, is further reason to look askance at the entire Christian faith.

Yes, it's refreshing to hear pastors such as those you mention preach about more than just the "wages of sin," and there are Christians out there who live wonderful lives loving and helping. But we find such people in every faith, and I suspect that their goodness is more the result of their innate nature than it is of their religion per se. That is, I suspect that saints are born more than they are made, and they are born into every culture and under the auspices of every religion.

So, what makes Christianity special? And if it isn't special, how much if it is true and worthy of embrace?

As for Pascal's Wager, how many people have sacrificed the chance to grow in their wisdom and happiness in this life by clinging to Christian myths and falsehoods and focusing on the illusory pie-in-the-sky when they die? It seems to me that there's potentially a lot to lose by embracing Christianity and a lot to gain by rejecting it.

Tom said...

I hear you, Nagarjuna.

In the early days of the church, in many books of the New Testament and in gnostic books that didn't make it into the Bible because Irenaeus won't let them in, Christianity wasn't overwhelmingly faith focussed. Indeed, quite the contrary.

Christians should study the early, chaotic days of their religion, the political-power moves, the intrigue.

The New Testament as it is says, plainly, that good works [James, Chap 2] and love [I Corintians, Chap 13] are vital components to Christian life and getting into heaven.

Perhaps, faith should come first, but does it have to have all the components of the Nicene Creed? Does one have to believe in the virgin birth, literally, when it is in Matthew only because of a mistranslation from Hebrew to Koine (Ancient) Greek?

Does one have to disbelieve well-established science, including evolution and the age of the universe?

I think we must believe that which is true. Christianity's case seems week, especially in those areas where the magisteria of science and religion overlap.