Archive for November, 2018

Thoughts on Voting Day 2018, and Beyond

November 6, 2018

Elaine Pagels

My quest to understand the full history of anti-Semitism has led me to The Origin of Satan,” a very fine book by Scripture scholar Elaine Pagels.  I would like to quote Dr. Pagels’ concluding remarks from that book below, at the end of this post. I think that they are worth remembering even today, as we Americans live through a time of distressing and deepening divisions in the political arena. We can and should do better. Yesterday’s lessons are applicable today.

But first, a brief recap. “Satan” was not always the prince of darkness, an outsider ruling an evil empire and tempting people to sell their souls.  If you recall the biblical story of Job, written about 550 B.C.E., he almost seemed like a buddy of God’s who challenged the Almighty to a wager – and lost. Other Old Testament writers talked about various evil spirits that arose among the chosen people and tempted them to do wrong. For them, “Satan” was an insider who led people astray.

Pagels explains how, later on, the Gospel writers introduced a we-they split within the Jewish community. The followers of Jesus, in the opinions of Mark (the first), then Matthew, Luke, and John, got it right. Those Jews – led by the traditionalist Pharisees – who did not follow him, got it wrong.  Eventually there came “demonizing.” Everybody who was against us was not only mistaken; they were doing the work of the devil.  “Satan” grew bigger, even more wicked, and became the ruler of an army of thousands of devils.

The Gospels re-wrote the story of the crucifixion, whitewashing Pontius Pilate to make him seem like a nice guy. Pilate was in fact a brutal bastard who sentenced Jesus to death for insurrection. But, intent on beating out the foe within their own community, early Christians made their Jewish political/doctrinal opponents the evil ones and the prime movers behind Jesus’ earthly demise.

Does that attitude, which leads to attacking and vilifying those who do not agree with your side on something, sound at least vaguely familiar in 2018? If not, it should.

The long story of discrimination against Jews took many tragic turns in the next two thousand years and culminated in Hitler’s Holocaust. It’s too long to chronicle here, but I submit that it all began with that we-they split, introduced 2000 years ago.

Mixing metaphors and dipping into pagan mythology here, I’ll suggest that early Christians opened a Pandora’s Box with their combative tactics; they unleashed a torrent of human miseries they even they could not have foreseen.

And their approach also ignored other messages of the man they followed.  That brings us to those concluding thoughts of Professor Pagels. She cites Matthew: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Another often-ignored message: “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.’”

Not all of those who were Christians persisted in that demonizing of others. And that gives me, brought up Catholic and still with it, hope.

I would like to suggest that now, in 2018, we take our cues from them and follow their example, whether it’s in the voting booth, in our everyday dealing with others, and – perhaps most especially – when we use the technologies of our social media. Again, Professor Pagels:

“Many Christians, then, from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century to Martin Luther King Jr. in the twentieth, have believed that they stood on God’s side without demonizing their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil, often risking their well-being and their lives, while praying for the reconciliation – not the damnation – of those who opposed them.

“For the most part, however, Christians have taught – and acted upon – the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption. Concluding this book, I hope that this research may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that ‘otherness’ is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.”

Amen to that.