COME OUT FROM AMONG THEM

BERTRAND RUSSELL, CHRISTIANS, THE TEA PARTY, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF IDENTITY

In either my Senior year in high school, or my Freshman year in college, one of my teachers had the class read "Why I Am Not a Christian," a written version of a lecture Bertrand Russell gave in 1927. Through the years, I hadn't remembered anything about the essay except its name. At the time, however, I remember that it seemed like pretty dangerous reading. Not as taboo as "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was in the late 1950s, maybe, but it was certainly on a par with reading such subversive literature as "Das Kapital" or "Mein Kampf." Come to think of it, it was probably worse than all of those. Reading about Socialism, Communism, Fascism (and Sex) was un-American (or just naughty); reading about not being a Christian was, well -- NOT CHRISTIAN. And even though most of us in the class were probably not Christians [Capital "C"], we lived in mid-20th Century America, so we were mostly christians (lower case). Asking a student to read such an essay was as bad as subjecting today's Christian kids to "Harry Potter." 

 I found Bertrand Russell's essay on the Internet the other day (what is the world coming to?) and read it for the first time in 55 years or so. Guess what? It's not bad; in fact, he makes some points well worth considering today, and not just for their religious implications.

 To quote a little of Russell's introduction:

   "Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life... (but) I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions. Nowadays it is not quite that."

 Russell went on to define what he thought were the basic tenets of Christianity -- what he thought people had to subscribe to in order to legitimately call themselves Christians. I doubt any Christian (Capital "C" or not) would accept his definition wholly, but at least he made an attempt to explain what he thought Christians thought (something a lot of other writers and talkers -- Christian and non-Christian -- might emulate). Basically, it came down to two premises: to be a Christian one had to believe in God and immortality, and one had to believe "that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men."

 I won't dwell on whether or not there is "a God." Russell used all the arguments current then and now to rule against there being a supreme being, all of which boil down to: if God created everything, who created God? Good question, and no more answerable than this one: where did the tiny speck of matter come from that caused the Big Bang that created "everything?" Since there is nothing I as a believer in God can say to you to prove my belief or disprove yours, and as there is nothing you can say to me to disprove my belief or prove yours, let's call it a draw. Interestingly, Russell said the same thing (although he didn't seem to realize it was the answer to both his question and my rebuttal question):

  "It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, 'How about the tortoise?' the Indian said, 'Suppose we change the subject?'"

 "Changing the subject" to Jesus, we still have a basic communication problem because his "divinity" is not open to what one might call "scientific discussion." Belief in him as a personification of "God" is strictly a matter of faith, and can't be proven or disproven in this life. Russell didn't believe in him, not even as a historical figure, let alone "divine." But Christians do. Proof, one way or another? None, really. So, again, let's "change the subject."

 Why wasn't Bertrand Russell a Christian? That isn't really clear in the essay. Of course, not believing in a God makes it hard to take a second step toward any faith or religion, but it goes beyond that. I think most of Russell's complaints about Christianity were not about CHRISTianity (with CHRIST emphasized), but were criticisms of religion and about what has been done to the message of Christ over the years. In essence, he blamed God and Jesus (as did Sam Harris in his  book, "The End of Faith") for things like  pedophile priests, the Crusades, nuns who are mean to kids in school, pastors who don't shake hands with you after a church service, murderers of doctors who perform abortions, strictures against birth control, and homophobia. Many things have been done "in the name of" God or Jesus, but remember: if I do something "in your name" that you don't want me to do, and that you never gave any indication that you might want me to do, you're not to blame. I am.

 You'll find a lot of things in Christianity ("Christ" not emphasized) that you won't find in the Bible. There are thousands of rules, regulations, practices, interpretations, and "illuminations" that Christian groups have put upon themselves that have no basis in the Bible -- and regularly run contrary to its words. It seems that Mankind has never hesitated to start a new "religion" on the basis of a word, a phrase, a thought, a dream, or a self-serving idea. That's RELIGION, but it often has nothing to do with Jesus. What the Bible does contain are words that were allegedly spoken by Jesus (I say "alleged" because, again, nobody can prove a particular person said them), and that Russell felt should be the basis for Christian belief and action. He felt they should be, but saw little evidence that they were. He wrote:

 "I think that there are a good many points upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do. I do not know that I could go with Him all the way, but I could go with Him much further than most professing Christians can."

 Quite an indictment: a non-Christian being more "christian" than Christians? He gives examples:  "You will remember that He said, 'Resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' This is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept. I have no doubt that the present prime minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense."

 A little tongue in cheek, perhaps, but did Jesus really mean it, or was this "figurative?" Another example: "There is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, 'Judge not lest ye be judged.' That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries... Then Christ says, 'Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.' That is a very good principle... (but) I cannot help observing that the last general election was fought on the question of how desirable it was to turn away from him that would borrow of thee, so that one must assume that the Liberals and Conservatives of this country are composed of people who do not agree with the teachings of Christ, because they certainly did most emphatically turn away on that occasion."

 One more Russell example: "Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a good deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.' That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practiced. All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, IT IS NOT QUITE THE SAME THING AS FOR A CHRISTIAN (my emphasis added)."

*   *   *

    I agree with Bertrand Russell: although Jesus' principles are hard to live up to -  certainly not completely achievable in this life - shouldn't a person who claims to be a Christian - a disciple of Christ - show some "christian" attributes to the world? I've known people whose lives strongly follow the teachings of Jesus; curiously, almost none of them call themselves Christians, and many would be offended if you tried to label them as such in the world of today. To those who do not consider themselves Christians, today's Christians do not seem like a group one wants to emulate: they seem mean-spirited, bigoted, hypocritical, uninformed, disinterested in the environment and their fellow humans, actively trying to force their beliefs on the rest of us - in short, they seem about as un-Jesuslike as can be imagined. Ask about it, and Christians protest that they're "not like that," but the evidence is blatantly obvious. Some say "we're not ALL like that," which seems to be an acknowledgment that "some Christians" are "like that," and no matter how unCHRISTian they might seem, they are still recognized as Christians by other Christians.

   During the many years I attended church, taught Sunday school, sang gospel songs, and occasionally preached a sermon, I was aware that many of those in the congregation acted like uneducated yokels. Doctrine was occasionally strange: the denominations I was involved with didn't allow their sex lives and family planning to be dictated by some old man in Europe, but we did have traveling evangelists who claimed either (a) dinosaur bones did not exist, or (b) if they existed the Devil put them there to make Christians disbelieve their Bibles. We had a pastor who, when a young man got a speeding ticket while trying not to be late for church, opined that Satan was working through the police force to impede God's work. Despite that kind of nonsense, I stuck it out - and generally enjoyed it - because I felt that most of the people attending church were truly good-hearted and really wanted to live as CHRISTians. That has all changed in the last 30 years, and if there still are CHRISTians out there they are staying well hidden.

 And here - finally! - I come to the point I wanted to make. Bertrand Russell probably would never have "become" a Christian, because he didn't believe in religion in any form. But he had another problem: although he was interested; was well-read in the Bible; and was willing to rationally analyze all the information at hand, he failed to find a real IDENTITY for Christianity. He read the words attributed to Jesus, looked at the Christians around him, and could find no meeting ground. If Christianity had a point, he couldn't find it. In the current Christian climate, in which it seems you can be as unCHRISTian as you please as long as you say pious things, I fear there are more and more Bertrand Russells being created every day.

   Words matter. Actions matter. IDENTITY is important. If there are any "Jesus people" out there, I urge you to identify yourselves - to separate yourselves from those who claim an allegiance to Christ, but act in opposition to almost all his words. If your faith is to have any value in this world, you need to protect it and clearly proclaim it. Whatever influence your beliefs and values might have is being eroded through loss of identity, by the stealing of your claim to CHRISTness.

   And that gives me my segue to politics, because so many Christians are also identifying themselves with the so-called "tea party" movement in the United States. Some claim to be in these groups because they want to rescue our country, and turn it back in the proper direction. That may be, but the face presented to the world is not one of rational thought and planning for a better America. Do you really want us to be "saved" by mobs waving signs (all seen recently at "tea party" gatherings) that say of the President: "Speak for yourself, Obama! We are a Christian Nation!" and "Hitler gave good speeches, too!" Of gays: "Throw Barney Frank under the bus!" Of idealogy: "Communists are Democrats in a hurry" and "Obammunism: Slavery you can believe in." Of the way to change: "Clinging to my God, my guns, my money!" and "Rise up - reload - revolt." You have to clearly separate yourself from the hateful, irrational gangs, and clearly IDENTIFY yourselves. This is not a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." You will either help the crazies win, or they will cause you to lose all credibility.

 In the end, all we really have is our IDENTITY.


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