Why am I So Hard on Christian Fundamentalists?

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No dancing

No dancing (Photo credit: chrisinplymouth)

I agree with most of what Christian Fundamentalism accepts–the virgin birth of Christ, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead, the resurrection and judgment of all people at Christ‘s second coming. I am pro-life on the abortion issue (even in cases of rape or incest the act is objectively morally wrong). I believe that premarital sex and any kind of homosexual activity is sinful. It would seem that Fundamentalists should be blood brothers. Yet some of my posts have been rather “outspoken” against Fundamentalism, to the point that I offended some old friends of mine. I owe them–and anyone who reads this blog–an explanation.

It is true that I largely agree with Fundamentalist positions. I think it is far better to be part of most Fundamentalist Christian Churches than to be part of a liberal Protestant body such as the Episcopal Church (ECUSA). However, Fundamentalism harms Christianity because the unfounded positions of many Fundamentalists, the rabid legalism and Puritanism of some Fundamentalist groups, and the extreme ignorance of some Fundamentalist Christians drive people away from the Gospel of Christ.

One example is the Fundamentalist belief in the strict inerrancy of Scripture, even in historical and scientific matters. All I would have to do to discount that view is to have students read two different Gospel accounts of the Limited Commission, one in which Christ exhorts His disciples to take a staff, and the other in which he exhorts them to take no staff. I could also point out that Genesis 1-11 is modified from earlier Babylonian accounts of the creation and flood and reflects the ancient world view of a flat earth, a solid firmanent in the sky with holes for the sun, moon, and stars, and an underworld wherein dwell the shades of the dead. The Bible is not absent of theological error–no Christian should emulate the attitude of the psalmist in Psalm 137, who says, “Happy is he who takes your little ones [i.e., babies and children] and dashes them against the rock.” Holy Scripture is inerrant in all matters necessary to our salvation–but there is no theological requirement for a stronger doctrine of inerrancy.

Young-earth creationism is a view held by some Fundamentalists–the view that the earth is several thousand years old and the Great Flood made most of the fossils and geological formations we see today. As I have noted before in this blog, this position does not fit the facts, such as the difference between flood-based deposits of sediment and sediment laid out over a long period of time. Although there are concerns with how some scientists interpret evolution, evolution as such is not contrary to Christian faith. A young person who is brought up on young earth creationism as the only proper way to interpret Genesis may lose his faith when confronted with the actual evidence.

Puritanism is a part of some Fundamentalist groups. Some forbid dancing, not realizing that there is a difference between the lewd, simulated sex in dance today and the traditional forms of dancing. The same groups allow kissing but not “necking” or “petting,” apparently oblivious to how much a kiss can turn on people. Where I went to school, dancing was banned, so many students engaged in horizontal “dancing” in the dorms. Such hypocrisy is inevitably the result of legalistic moralizing.

Forbidding consumption of alcohol ignores the fact that Jesus drank wine (no, dear Fundys, it was not grape juice–it was wine and one could get drunk on it) and that drinking in moderation is not unhealthy. Some people should not drink alcoholic beverages, not because it is wrong in itself, but because they have a propensity not to stop drinking once they start. For others, however, there is nothing wrong with moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages.

A more serious problem is the acceptance of Dispensational Premillenialism by many Fundamentalists. This had led Christian Fundamentalists to support Israel blindly and to be warmongers, especially if the war involves fighting nations they perceive to be a threat to Israel. Some of the most rabid voices hankering for war with Iran have been from Christian Fundamentalists. They ignore the symbolic nature of the 1000-year reign (10x10x10, a perfect number symbolizing the fullness of time) of Christ, and locate that reign in a literal Jerusalem. Such a view of God’s kingdom was rejected by Jesus Himself (“my kingdom is not of this world). It ignores the fact that the Book of Revelation was written to be understood by its original readers, who would have known that the opponent of God in that book is the Roman Empire that was persecuting Christians.

Fundamentalists are often consumed with fascination about Satan, demons, and hell, to the point that every teenager wearing a trench coat and listening to heavy metal music is a violent threat to others. Fundys fear difference of any kind instead of using practical reason to determine which differences are worthy of negative judgment and which ones are not. The Robin Hood Hills murder suspects who were wrongfully convicted (the “West Memphis Three“) of murdering young cub scouts were convicted by ignorant Fundamentalists who saw Satanism everywhere. Damien Echols had a name that reminded them of the movie, “The Omen,’ and Fundys were too stupid to realize that Echols was referring to Father Damien when he changed his name. His use of the name was to honor the great priest who labored among lepers and eventually died of the disease himself. I listen to heavy metal music (and to classical, jazz, bluegrass, anything but rap, hip-hop, and most contemporary country). I enjoy Iron Maiden, Pantera, Rob Zombie, Anthrax, Zao, and Yog Suggoth. Does that make me a Satanist? Some Fundys would think so–and they would be dead wrong. It is sad that Echols states in his autobiography that the behavior of Christian Fundamentalists in getting him wrongly convicted turned him against Christianity–even so, he has a rosary and engages in some Christian spiritual disciplines. How many people who otherwise would have become active, loving, and orthodox Christians have been driven off by the extremism of Fundamentalism? God only knows, but those guilty of driving others away from the faith will answer for it.

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The United States and “Evil Enemy States”

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Deutsch: Philip George Zimbardo in Warschau, P...

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There has always been a strand of Puritanism in American thought that survives in part as a Manichean division between good and evil. Rather than seeing the United States as a mixture of good and evil, many Americans see it as “the good guy” in the world with no major faults. Individuals who disagree are labeled as “unpatriotic,” told to “go to Russia,” or are called “America-haters.” Although I do not deny that there are individuals and groups of people who hate their country, not every critic of American practices hates the United States. Nor is someone who points out that there is much good in countries considered to be enemies of the United States, such as Iran. Many Americans want an overpowering, evil enemy state because many Americans are more Manichean, believing in sharp lines between good and evil, than they are Christian. Christianity recognizes that no being created by God is totally evil–traditionally, since evil is a lack of good, and thus a lack of being, a totally evil being could not exist. If Americans of all stripes are honest with themselves, they will see that they are capable of great evil. Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment, showed how “good” people can turn evil when they have great power (as prison guards) over others (in this case, students who played the “prisoner” role). He notes the power of situational factors that can lead to a good person torturing and even killing innocent human beings.

Reinhold Niebuhr recognized that groups are capable of great evil just as individuals are, and Zimbardo’s work showed this to be the case. Nation-states are groups of people, and in any group unethical practices can arise that lead to people doing things that are evil under group pressure. No nation is immune to this. Was the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” as President Reagan affirmed? I would say “Yes,” with the qualification that there was good even in the old Soviet Union, and evil in the United States of America. In the War between the States, Generals Sherman and Sheridan engaged in the first modern war (with Lincoln’s endorsement)–both these generals and President Lincoln believed that war should be engaged against the civilian population. The brutality with which federal troops put down the anti-draft riots in New York as well as Sherman’s March to the Sea are evidence of the results. The United States Army was brutal in the Philippines war in the early part of the twentieth century, mowing down men, women, and children. The United States Army Air Corps engaged in the saturation bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. President Roosevelt placed thousands of Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. In the Vietnam War, the United States dropped more tonnage of bombs than it did in the whole of World War II. The atrocities and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan (and in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) are well known–torture has not been totally eschewed as the official policy of the United States, and the U.S. still sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured. Civil liberties, from the genocide of the American Indians to the mistreatment of the Irish, the Chinese, and of African-Americans, have not been uniformly honored in the United States. Does this mean the United States is an evil country? I do not think it is as evil as a totalitarian society such as the old Soviet Union or China under Chairman Mao, but it does mean that the notion of the United States as the paragon of virtue and (during the Cold War) the Soviet Union as the epitome of evil is a Manichean view that does not reflect the good and evil mixture found in all nation-states.

President George W. Bush held a simplistic, Manichean view of the world that many Americans eagerly followed. Saddam’s Iraq was an evil state, and the good United States was obligated to attack the evil state (at first for the alleged but missing “weapons of mass destruction” and then to “save the Iraqi people from Saddam”). Americans’ hubris was expanded by its view that it was the hero country liberating the Iraqi people from a Satanic dictator. Now Iran is the enemy, and the Neoconservative war cries are loud–and Americans are buying into the new lie as well. Yes, Iran’s president holds an evil position in his denial of the Holocaust. Nothing can justify his views, nor his support of the radical religious groups that have held the country hostage since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, Iran also has a working democracy, unlike many other states in the region, including states the United States supports. Israel has a vital interest in what Iraq does, and if Israel wants to defend its vital interests militarily, that is Israel’s task, not that of the United States. However, the Neoconservatives are appealing to American Manicheanism and demonizing Iran as the new “evil empire.” Hopefully Americans will see that all people are “fallen,” as well as all nation-states, and any positing of “We good, they bad” is misleading and leads to unnecessary wars and bad foreign policy decisions.

Let Jerusalem be an International City

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Nearly the same place at the time of Herod I. ...

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101212/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_israel_palestinians). What else is new? There are holy places in east Jerusalem belonging to all three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I was not aware than one of these faiths, through a nation-state, has the right to control a city claimed by all. As a city which is so special to the great monotheistic religions, why not make Jerusalem an international city under permanent U. N. control. One does not have to an advocate of socialism or of world government to support such a plan. Wasn’t that the original idea in the 1947 partition agreement anyway? If an international force could work to ensure fair access to all holy sites, this would be the fairest solution for adherents of all three religions. Israelis and Palestinians would not have particular claims on the city, and there would be no need, other than from motives of religious fanaticism, for any group to make the city exclusively theirs. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims could visit their holy sites in peace.

Between Israel and the Palestinians, the latter have the stronger legal right to East Jerusalem. But either party controlling East Jerusalem would only continue the cycle of violence. For once, why can’t two groups of people both agree to give up their claims on the city, and have it as the shared property of all mankind, something as is the case with the continent of Anartica today? For once, can’t people swallow their pride and their claims to dominate others and allow the world to share the treasure which is the city of Jerusalem.

Premillennialism’s Poisonous Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy

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John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

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No rational person would deny Israel a right to exist. However, this does not imply that a rational person should support Israel blindly, ignoring historic atrocities against Palestinians, including destruction of Palestinian homes, denial of their basic human rights, and new Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories. In addition, rationality does not demand that the U.S. do Israel’s bidding and go to war with Iran. One of the largest groups backing blind support for Israel are Christian premillennialists. Premillennialism had its beginnings in the nineteenth century with the doctrines of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). His dispensationalism was the ancestor of premillennialism, the belief that Christ will establish an earthly kingdom and reign for a thousand years in Jerusalem. According to premillennialism, an essential part of this process was the reestablishment of the state of Israel. The problem with premillennialism is that it is based on a fundamentally flawed method of interpreting Biblical prophecy, especially the Book of Revelation.

The prophetic books of the Old Testament as well as the Book of Revelation in the New Testament were primarily directed to the people of the time period in which the author lived. No audience would preserve a book that had no meaning for them. One must examine the historical context of a book to determine its original message. The Book of Revelation is part of Apocalyptic Literature, which also includes the Book of Daniel and other parts of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This literature was written to people in crisis–either under attack by enemies militarily, or under attack via persecution by state power. The message of apocalyptic literature is that God will win out over the evil enemies of His people. This message was designed to comfort those being persecuted. The Book of Daniel, which was set in the period of the Babylonian Exile but was actually written in the second century B. C., was written to comfort the Jewish people who were being persecuted by the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes. The Jews rebelled and eventually won their independence, but before that time the saw their religion attacked and paganism introduced into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Daniel affirms that God is over all kings and will eventually destroy those who persecute God’s people.

The Book of Revelation was written in a similar situation. Christians were being persecuted by Roman authorities. The message of the Book of Revelation to its original readers is that God will overcome the Roman Empire–in the meantime Christians should wait patiently for God’s vengeance. Numbers in the book are symbolic; multiples of seven or ten or twelve refer to completion or perfection (thus “1000 years” is not meant to refer to a literal period of time). “Six,” which is seven minus one, meant lack, and therefore a symbol of evil–so “666” refers to evil times three–there is no fancy meaning hidden behind the obvious symbolism. To take the Book of Revelation as referring to events in the Middle East today is absurd, an example of an ignorant method of Biblical interpretation. What is frightening is that ignorant people who do not know any better (and some people who should know better) are influencing the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth. Such Christian premillennialists may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, pushing the United States into a needless war with Iran. Christianity is a powerful force in the United States, and when well-meaning Christians who are ignorant of the most basic principles of historical-critical Biblical interpretation influence the nation to blindness in its dealings with Israel, this becomesĀ  a dangerous situation.

The more rational course is to ignore those whose interpretation of the Bible is based on false premises and do not allow them to influence U. S. foreign policy. Like its dealings with any other nation, the United States should base its treatment of Israel on what is in the national interest of the United States. This does not mean that Israel cannot continue as a friend to the United States, but it does mean that the United States should seriously consider the legitimate concerns of Palestinians. This is not to claim that Palestinians have been saints, but merely that a group who was forced from their homes that they had lived in for hundreds, or in some cases over a thousand, years should have their legitimate concerns addressed. United States foreign policy should be focused on what is good for the United States, not on making the world safe for Israel. A first step in creating balance is to put the Christian dispensational premillennialists in their place and not allow their influence to twist U. S. policy in the wrong direction.