Wednesday, April 29, 2015

In His Steps

I'm still working on a post about liberal reactions to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and decided that this part of it could stand by itself.

One complaint I saw frequently from gay and straight liberals alike was that Jesus taught an "inclusive" message, and these "so-called Christians" are teaching one that excludes.  As with so many popular statements about Jesus, this baffled me.

I suppose it depends partly on what you mean by "inclusive."  The people who used the word mainly seemed to be thinking that it meant "pro-gay," but I don't know of any reason to suppose that Jesus was pro-gay.  (The "Would Jesus Discriminate?" memes have been circulating again lately, but they don't persuade me.)  The other meaning they seem to have in mind is that Jesus didn't exclude anybody, though I suspect they rarely say so outright because it's so obviously false.

It would be reasonable to suppose that Jesus wanted to have a lot of followers, but since he wasn't all that successful, the gospels and the New Testament try to make a virtue out of his failure, with a lot of sour grapes. Jesus taught, for example, that the gate to salvation is narrow, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:14; compare Luke 7:24) -- so you see, the unpopularity of early Christianity wasn't a bug, it was a feature!  More generally, Jesus made it clear that not everyone was going to get into the kingdom of God, though he was unhelpfully vague and contradictory on the qualifications and criteria.  Most Christians would, I believe, counter that those who go to Hell deserve it, because they rejected God and Jesus.  That may be so, but it hardly constitutes an "inclusive" message.  And since (according to Christian orthodoxy) everybody deserves damnation, and nobody deserves salvation, it's hardly a defense of Jesus' all-embracing, welcoming love that a few people (who don't deserve it) are saved from Hellfire anyway.

Jesus was an avowedly divisive figure.  He came, he said, not to bring peace but (according to Matthew 10:34) a sword or (according to Luke 12:51) division: to set "a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be members of his household" (Matthew 10:35-6; compare Luke 12:53).  This wasn't just talk, since according to the New Testament Jesus was controversial during his lifetime, and the early Christians, following his example, got up in unbelievers' faces, though they also fought among themselves.  Paul's letters are testimony to the acrimonious squabbles that divided the early churches, and Paul didn't hesitate to fight with Jesus' original disciples ... but Paul is the Ur-villain in many liberal Christians' understanding of Christian origins, so this will hardly surprise them.  The point is that Paul was merely following in his Master's footsteps.

That Jesus was divisive, often confrontational, and non-inclusive doesn't necessarily make him a bad person.  These traits are not why I reject Christianity myself.  I could point to any number of people who've influenced me who are divisive, confrontational, and non-inclusive; so, probably, could those who claim that Jesus' was a message of inclusion.  They're just wrong about Jesus, inventing a kissyface huggybear Jesus who fits their fantasies of what Jesus should have been, and ignoring the evidence we have of what he was like.  The gospels aren't reliable historical sources, but they are the raw material from which people quarry their images of Jesus.  There are all kinds of bad things one can say about Christian bigots, but failing to be as inclusive as Jesus isn't one of them.