Monday, July 29, 2019

Judging Others

Jesus said, or at least two gospels attribute the saying to him: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37). The saying is a Q tradition, but it may have been attributed to Jesus in error by the later Christian community. Paul (Rom 2:1) and James (4:12) employ the idea of not judging others without making any reference to Jesus, and the idea of not judging others is found in rabbinic traditions. Hence, the concept may likely have been derived from Israelite and/or Christian wisdom. The Jesus Seminar voted that it was not a saying of Jesus.1 On the other hand if Jesus did prohibit judging others, as the writers of the gospels report, then he failed to follow his own advice, for the gospels depict him judging the intentions of others rather harshly. For example:

But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against people; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matt 23:13; compare also: Matt 16:6, 12; 23:2-7; 23:13-33; Mark 8:15; Luke 11:39-44; 12:1).

The verse quoted above (Matt 23:13) was printed in grey in the Five Gospels, meaning that the saying itself should likely not be included in a databank of Jesus sayings, but one nevertheless might make use of some of the content for determining who Jesus was. Perhaps the most graphic saying as to how the gospel writers thought Jesus regarded the Pharisees is the harsh depiction of the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the toll collector (Luke 18:10-14).2

            Making moral judgments about others is something that a wise person must inevitably do to survive in life. For example, even Jesus was thought to have denied that Caesar’s government was supported by God (Mark 12:17)3 and he insulted King Herod (Luke 13:32).4 Judging others is something we will all do living in a society that has not succeeded in eradicating the presence of grifters, “confidence men,” charlatans, cheats, swindlers, dishonest businessmen, scammers, “snake oil salesmen," and others who prey on the gullible and unsuspecting for whatever reason. I define “sitting in judgment of others” as evaluating their skill, competence, reputation, character, and honesty.5 We are particularly called upon to judge those who run for political office, but also used car salespersons, grocers (did they set their scales a bit too heavy, perhaps?), physicians, attorneys, baby sitters and even ministers (you will recall the numerous cases of child abuse involving Catholic priests, among others).

            In our society one cannot take everyone at face value, but is required to dig deeper and even question the motives of others. For example, one must weigh this question upon receiving a solicitation for money on the phone: is the person on the other end of the line being duplicitous or honest? Can I trust the attorney I have consulted about a legal matter to rigorously represent my interests in court? Can I simply trust that a particular charity soliciting funds from me will actually do what is promised or should I first judge their record and validate how they spend the money? All of these in my view are moral issues, and I have a moral obligation to act with integrity in my engagement with society.

            It would be nice if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not. The world is a threatening place. Even Jesus said: “be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16 RSV; my translation: “be as sly as snakes and simple as pigeons”; compare Gos. Thom. 39b).6

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 153-54.
2This saying is printed in the Five Gospels in pink (p. 369), meaning that Jesus probably said something like this statement.
3As Paul did for example (Rom 13:1-7).
4Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 348-49. Luke 13:32 is colored grey; the Fellows found it plausible, however, that Jesus “may well have said something of the sort found in this verse.”
5I never worry with the intentions of others, for we can never know another’s intentions even should they tell us what their intentions are. Judging someone’s intentions is all guess work.
6Hedrick, Many Things in Parables; see pages vii-1x, for a discussion of the saying. The saying is colored in Pink in the Five Gospels, p. 169.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Democracy and the Bible

On July 4th I began pondering American democracy (our Republic)—I suppose it is appropriate to ponder our fragile experiment in democracy on Independence Day. An experiment in democracy, lasting just a short 343 years, is fragile by definition because its success depends on an educated electorate1 that regularly participates in the democratic process, which includes voting in elections and monitoring of elected officials.2

The Bible offers little positive guidance on a democratic government, and what little it says about governmental rule actually presents a problem for readers. Only two extensive descriptions of a political state are to be found in the New Testament, and both of them present contradictory views on that state (the Roman Empire), which was the dominant political power in the New Testament world (from about 31 BCE [ascension of Augustus] to 410 CE [the sack of Rome by the Visigoths]).

The author of Revelation (chapters 13, 17-18) portrays the Roman Empire in ghastly terms as the evil Empire of the Antichrist (Rev12:1-17). Paul on the other hand has a surprisingly na├»ve view of the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7). His view is that the governing authorities of the Empire are “appointed by God” (13:1-2), and anyone who resists them will incur judgment (13:2). Oddly he makes no distinction between types of governments—apparently even repressive, ruthless, and autocratic governments are likewise appointed by God. Rulers are God’s servants “for your good” (13:3-4), he writes. Thus, one must be subject to them or else suffer God’s wrath (13:5). He concludes this short section directing that taxes must be paid and that citizens of the state should give respect and honor to the authorities, for they are “ministers of God” (13:6-7).

Both writers are clearly mistaken in their views. The Roman domination of the Mediterranean basin while difficult for the Roman Provinces nevertheless provided them with the pax romana (Roman Peace); it provided the provinces with “security and safety made possible travel, trade, and renewed economic development and prosperity.”3 So Roman governance under the Empire was not as terrible as John had imagined it. Paul’s view on the other hand is simply uninformed. That all governing authorities are appointed by God could not possibly be true—if we assume that God has a conscience. In any case, Paul’s views about the Empire clearly conflict with our democratic system of which we find no trace in the New Testament.

It seems fairly clear (at least to me) that Mr. Trump was not “appointed by God” (but then neither was Mr. Obama). Mr Trump was appointed by the Electoral College after he lost the popular vote of the country. His administration (and that of Mr. Obama as well) is plagued by gridlock. That is because governance in a representative democracy (a republic) is often messy and inefficient; it is all too frequently partisan, rather than bipartisan. A democratic form of government should probably be avoided except for the fact that all other forms of government are worse.

The Bible offers no specific advice about government. Except that here and there the Bible’s ethical ideas might be inculcated into government. For specific ideas about how government should function we are left to our own imaginations. It is more than disconcerting to see Mr. Trump employ in his presidency ideas and values different from the positive ethical ideas of the Bible (or even conventional American values) , and nevertheless still receive strong evangelical support.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1National Center for Education: In 2016-17 85% of Americans had graduated High School; 21% had a Bachelor’s degree; 9.3% had a Master’s Degree; less than 2% held a Doctorate.
2In the 2016 Presidential election 58.1% of the voting-eligible population voted: https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/post-election-2016/voter-turnout
3E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), p. 29.