By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers)
For the letter of the Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.
—II Corinthians 3:6
The fundamentalists of the religious right declare that every letter of their respective holy texts is literally true, inerrant, and must be obeyed. But the texts themselves say that it’s the Spirit that should be obeyed, not the letter.
What’s the Spirit of the Law? Its essence is compassion and empathy, expressed by the “Golden Rule” in every major religion.
The Torah enjoins Jews to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus told his followers to do unto others as they would have done to them (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). Muhammad said, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them” (Kitab al-Kafi II, p. 146).
The Spirit gives life because, unlike a fixed law, it inspires innovation. In any moment, empathy and love can guide one in crafting the response that is uniquely appropriate to that moment.
Hillel the elder is considered by many to be the father of rabbinical Judaism. When asked to summarize the Torah, he did not cite the Law—the 613 commandments to Jews. He said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
The Spirit of the law applies to all humans, not just members of one’s sect. When a lawyer asked Jesus who the “neighbor” is that we should love, Jesus told the story of a traveler who was set upon by thieves, beaten, and left for dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed by without helping. But a Samaritan treated his wounds and paid for his lodging and care.
As groups, Jews and Samaritans were as hostile to each other as many Israelis and Palestinians are today. But Jesus saw them as neighbors. Similarly, Muhammad told his followers, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind” (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad).
Politics guided by fundamentalist religion make reconciliation with nonbelievers impossible. Compromise with those who do not subscribe to the inerrant Word is sin. Tolerance is sin.
Yet politicized fundamentalists seem selective as to which inerrant words inform their militancy. The Haredim in Israel justify building settlements on Palestinian lands by invoking Genesis 15:18-21: “I give to you this land between the Euphrates and the Nile.” But they seem to have misplaced Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
If the Christian right were to live by the literal words of the Bible, they would live as communists, allocating wealth according to one’s needs (Acts 2 and 5). The rich among them would sell all they own and give to the poor (Mark 10:21). They would respond to mistreatment with generosity (Matthew 5:38-42).
They would never judge others (Matthew 7:1-3). Yet judging and broadcasting judgments seems to be the primary occupation of the religious right.
They are not just selective in the “inerrant” texts that they choose to obey. They insist on obedience to divine commands that aren’t in those texts. Nothing in the Quran or the Ahadith justifies the slaughter of innocents as a means of propagating and defending the faith. Nothing in the Bible forbids the use of birth control. Nothing in the Torah or Talmud supports the separation of genders in all public areas.
Each such practice requires a perverse “interpretation” of the text, in which demagogues’ opinions become the word of God. This fictionalization becomes historical revisionism when the religious right declares the correct political doctrine.
In the U.S., its narrative is that we were founded as a Christian nation, but we have strayed from the true path, becoming worldly and wicked. Accordingly, God is reproving us.
In fact, the nation’s founding document refers nowhere to God. Instead, it derives its authority from “We the people of the United States.” The founders repudiated the blurring of secular and sacred authority. They began the Bill of Rights with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine were deists, rejecting divine revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge. Deists believed that God doesn’t get involved in human affairs, but works through the laws of nature, which can be learned through observation. That is, through science.
The Treaty of Tripoli, written during George Washington’s administration, approved by Congress, and executed by President John Adams explicitly states that, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….”
Some will say that comparing Christian and Jewish fundamentalists to violent jihadists is unfair. I believe that the difference among them is one of circumstance, not attitude or intent.
In most countries with Islamic populations, jihadists see themselves as politically powerless, and often are. But in Israel, the ultraorthodox are part of the government. And in the U.S., the Christian Coalition, Eagle Institute and Family Resource Council count almost 200 senators and congressmen as their own.
I believe that if the Christian right fully controlled the government, we would experience their version of the fascistic theocracy that we see in Iran and saw in Afghanistan. After all, once a fightin’ fundie usurps the right to define criteria for being one of God’s chosen, defining who is a loyal patriot is trivial.
My own secular loyalty is to the nation that was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. My spiritual loyalty is to the God who taught us to love and care for all people as well. And I can tell the difference between the two.