Let's Face it: Some of Jesus's Teachings are Harmful
Breaking the Taboo on Exposing the Dark Side of the Gospels
There’s a reason I once described the hymn “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love” as “eminently mockable.” Most of Christianity’s history and present reality is characterized not by love but by the brutal and oppressive wielding of power and the punishment of those who are othered. This fact is not negated by the existence of liberation theologies through which members of oppressed groups, identifying with the tortured and crucified Jesus, lay claim to a “purer” version of the faith as a response to oppression from the Christians in power.
Nevertheless, the trope of the innocent Jesus and the corrupted, or at least imperfect, church, runs through our literature and culture, from the grand inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to one of the typical evangelical responses to exvangelicals who no longer believe: “The church is full of imperfect people, and imperfect people hurt others, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Jesus is Jesus Because He’s Jesus, and You Will Like It
When Christians do harm through their religion, liberals and even many leftists, not to mention atheists, will vociferously insist that the Christians doing the harm are “fake Christians” or that, at least, they are not following “Jesus’s teachings.” In our society, Jesus is essentially unassailable.
Personally, I think it’s high time we smashed that taboo. After all, nothing good ever comes from an unquestionable “myth of innocence.”
If you read the gospels with a critical eye, you’ll see that Jesus does and says a lot of troubling things we would never give anyone else a pass for, not least in his insistence on absolute blind obedience and loyalty to the point of isolating people from their families—the same tactic every abuser and “cult leader” uses.
Because we tend to read these texts, when we bother to reread them at all, through the lens of the notion that Jesus is perfect and everything he said and did must be perfectly benign, we ignore the troubling parts of the gospels or explain them away. (Here, by the way, I speak of Jesus as a literary character and object of faith; we know very little about the historical Jesus.)
As a result, when we take the time to remember that Jesus said things other than the Sermon on the Mount, and the weird, apocalyptic, and other eyebrow-raising stuff threatens to disrupt our concept of a perfectly kind and loving leader, our reasoning slips into circularity.
Jesus was a great moral teacher and/or incarnation of the divine worthy only of praise.
Therefore, it’s perfectly fine for Jesus to say people should gouge their eyes out to avoid “lust”; to treat thought crime as just as wrong as harmful actions; to take a donkey without asking permission; to predict eternal torment for the people who refuse to follow him; to break up families, etc. [insert mental gymnastics here]
Since those things are somehow perfectly okay, Jesus was a great moral teacher and/or incarnation of the divine worthy only of praise.
The pressure to come to this conclusion is very real, and it always feels like there’s a bit of a threat behind it. Whether we’ve internalized the fear that if we disagree with something Jesus says or does in the gospels we’ll go to hell; or we fear social ostracization for having “heretical” opinions; or we fear possible professional repercussions (a reality in academic religious studies, where Christian theologians have far more sway than you might think); we know we’re not “supposed to” be critical of Jesus.
As I tweeted over a year ago, “The level of American discourse about Jesus is basically “Jesus is Jesus, because he’s Jesus, that’s why, and you will like it.’”
In what follows below, paid subscribers will get a more concrete argument for why Jesus and his teachings should be subject to criticism by looking at the application of one of his abusive teachings in evangelical theology and rhetoric. I will also look a little more at the Jesus taboo in professional religious studies and recommend an author and book that have helped me to sharpen my own approach here.
I’m going to make my case with a little help from the evangelical pseudo-intellectuals at The Gospel Coalition, where just last week an anonymous coward published an article with the title “I Love My Transgender Child. I Love Jesus More.” As you might imagine, the article is a father’s defense of refusing to accept his adult child as an act of the kind of Christian “love,” that, well, isn’t.
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