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Of Gnats and Camels

Lee CARLETON | 05.05.2005 12:51 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Social Struggles

Moral Priorities: WWJD?
Can we trust the morality of the myopic?
Commentary on the bogus morality of the religous right and Jesus' challenge to the Pharisees, the religous right of his day.

“Of Gnats and Camels”

Suppose you were invited to dinner by a neighbor who was rumored to be a good cook and who had told you so himself every chance he got. Let's say he's fixing a big pot of gumbo with his big chef's hat on and, even before you get to his house, you anticipate tasting its spicy mix. There's nothing like the right recipe to enhance the enjoyment of life. But imagine your surprise at finding your self-proclaimed super-chef leaning over the bubbling pot to strain out a gnat that fell in while a dung-encrusted camel bubbled up unrecognized and unaddressed.

What would this surreal experience tell you about your friend's culinary knowledge? You might surmise that, perhaps, there are some gaps in his understanding, that perhaps he was not as expert as he claimed in spite of his puffy hat. And, in the spicy moral gumbo of life, there are moral chefs who know what they're doing and moral chefs who don't. It's all about emphasis.

Jesus was one “moral chef” we can trust. One of his more passionate exclamations, often ignored, is his criticism of the self-righteous Pharisees in Matthew 23:24. Here, Jesus mocks the moral priorities of these ostentatious power mongers by noting that their chief moral concerns were like a “gnat” compared to the moral “camels” they ignored. These were the same guys who tried to trick the Master by dragging a married woman out of bed (excusing her male lover) to stone her to death for her relatively minor moral infraction. Jesus didn't seem too upset by her crime and he reminded the Pharisees of their own sins, elsewhere calling them “whited sepulchers” or whitewashed boxes full of rotting flesh. The New Testament is clear: Jesus condemned self-righteousness and greed far more than the sensuality that obsesses so many churches today.

Our need for a sensible morality is obvious, but few are those with the courage to take up Christ's prophetic message of genuine social and spiritual revolution - it's too risky. Well, maybe the Quakers come close - and those “liberation theology” folks we had killed during the Reagan regime seem to have understood the Sermon on the Mount. And thank God we can have hope in those bold Episcopalians who are rejecting institutionalized bigotry and breaking from the dogmatic church. At least some Christians follow Christ. I don't recall him ever railing against gay marriage, but he did question tradition.

In the midst of global warfare, torture, environmental degradation and obscenely skewed wealth distribution, it is ridiculous that our highest moral concern is what we do with our genitals. Those who hold that value may be straining at gnats. Perhaps they are not qualified to be our moral guides. The dung-encrusted camel of endless warfare is a far more serious issue - and threat.

Of course, even to suggest such a thing is to raise self-righteous indignation and to invite cries of persecution and suppression. The absurdity of these claims is obvious, yet still they circulate in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The recent “nuclear option” attempt to control debate should be a sobering tonic to Americans: these fundamentalists are serious about political power and the bullying will continue under the guise of faith until people of a more mature faith stand up and stop it.

Let us not allow ourselves to be fooled - we must check out the book for ourselves. See what Jesus says about homosexuality. See what he says (and does!) about greed. See his mild response to adultery. See his deep concern for social justice.
What you won't find in the Bible is a program for seizing government power, mandating Christian morality and erecting idols of a book all over the place. Ironically, one of the venerated commandments in Exodus 20:4-5 prohibits making a carved image and paying reverence to it, so we have to wonder: are these people even reading their own book?

Another example of their misreading is the fundamentalist obsession with persecuting homosexuality - this overlooks Ezekiel 16:49-50 that tells us Sodom was destroyed for arrogance and forgetting the poor, not for sex. Even if we connect the word “abomination” in this verse to the famous Levitical prohibition, this unnecessarily privileges only one “abomination” betraying a dogmatic bias. In the Old Testament, this word is also applied to the eating of shellfish, and dishonest greed is frequently called an “abomination” (got that corporate America?), so why the obsessive sexual focus? Was this the forefront of Jesus' message? Is this the best they can do?

I doubt that we can really trust those who so clearly misread and selectively interpret scripture. And besides, how can we honor and follow those who attempt to change the rules to exempt themselves from ethical accountability? We are weak and unwise to follow the moral guidance of those who support endless war but are all hot and bothered about our private sex lives - such moral blindness can hardly have credibility. And let us dismiss red herring claims of persecution and silencing when our leaders parrot piety, religious logos are on money, government meetings open with prayer, religious broadcasting thrives, and churches are supported by public subsidy. This is hardly suppression. Those who seriously believe Christians are persecuted in America should look into cultic psychology - the persecution complex is a big sign.

Better yet, check out the Bible, you might be surprised at what an unfettered reading brings. Divide the gnats from the camels and see Jesus in a new way. Go ahead, read it for yourself, and think for yourself - like a good American.

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