Yesterday’s homily may have been written with me in mind. Of course I may be paranoid, or vain, or beset by a guilty conscience. Maybe all of these things are true. Maybe none. But it gave me something to think about.
Regular readers may recall two posts a month or so back, in which I complained about another homily and, less directly, about the deacon who delivered it (here and here). As it happens, I work with this deacon. Not closely, but in sufficient proximity that I believed it would have been underhanded to, as it were, whisper behind his back. So I printed copies of my splenetic posts and gave them to him with a brief and what was meant to be irenic explanation. I do not know if he read these copies, or if he followed the links to the Orthosphere, since I didn’t seen him after that.
Until yesterday, that is.
In yesterday’s homily he expanded on the Gospel reading, which as most of you know was Peter’s confession of Christ’s divinity near Caesarea Philippi, and more narrowly on the pregnant question Jesus put to his disciples: “who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16: 13-20). Our deacon modified this question and placed it in the mouth of an honest unbeliever who asks, “who is this man Jesus?”
There are, our Deacon told us, two places this honest unbeliever can look for an answer to this question. The first, of course, is the Gospel story and Church doctrine, in which he finds a representation of Our Lord that is altogether lovely and attractive. The second is the lives of professing Christians, in which attractive loveliness is very seldom the dominant note.
No doubt there is a certain amount of salutary truth in this, but there is also a certain amount of uncharitable and self-serving falsehood. Presumably the men behind the pulpit bear some of the blame for those empty pews, and it’s not entirely the fault of the repellant cretins who blight those pews every Sunday morning.
Our deacon went on to detail some of the repellant qualities of too many Christian lives, laying particular stress on their disfigurement by racism and religious bigotry. As he did this, I looked about at my fellow parishioners, who are as mild, benign, and benevolent a bunch as one could ever hope to meet. (Most of them were on this particular Sunday quietly dripping, their clothes sodden with rain from Hurricane Harvey.)
It seemed to me that charging these people with the warts of racism and carbuncles of religious bigotry bordered on preposterous effrontery.
And that’s when I began to think the deacon might be talking about me.
Now I deny that correcting anti-racist myths is racism, and that doubting the equality of all religions is religious bigotry, but do admit that a man who affirms these propositions and reads my Orthosphere posts (e.g. here or here) might well form the opinion that I am a king of warts and carbuncles.
To such a man, my hideous visage might well explain those empty pews.
In considering the justice of this charge (assuming our deacon indeed intended it), my mind immediately went back to the Gospel reading from the week before, which as most of you will recall was Jesus’ conversation with a distraught Canaanite woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon. In the course of this conversation, you will also recall, Our Lord refers to the general run of Canaanites as “dogs” (Matthew 15: 21-28).
There can be no doubt that this was not a compliment, or that it had both a racial and a religious dimension. The Canaanites were Phoenicians, not Jews, and the Canaanite religion of Baal and Ashteroth was reviled throughout the Old Testament in terms that a Unitarian would certainly deplore.
Jezebel was, for instance, from the city of Sidon.
So am I to suppose that even Our Lord was disfigured by warts of racism and carbuncles of religious bigotry?
The short answer is, of course, that this is a stupid question. It is a question on the order of asking if Our Lord was a fan of the Red Sox or the Yankees. Or if he was he partial to Coke or Pepsi? Or if he voted Republican or Democrat? He wasn’t and did not do any of these things because there were in his day no Red Sox and no Yankees, no Coke and no Pepsi, no Republicans and no Democrats.
And there were, likewise, no “racists” or “religious bigots” because these concepts did not exist, and would not exist for close to two thousand years!
Racism and religious bigotry are among the concepts with which the modern mind frames the world. While there is certainly some overlap between these concepts and the Christian warts of unbelief, and the Christian carbuncles of sin, the concepts of racism and religious bigotry are essentially alien to the Christian frame.
They were not formulated until around 1700, and were rejected by the vast majority of Christians for another two hundred years.
This does not mean that these Christians were for what the modern mind defines as racism or religious bigotry, but that they rejected these modern categories, and the modern frame, and insisted on interpreting the world in their own terms. When asked by the moderns whether they were racists or anti-racists, orthodox Christians properly answered neither, because neither is a term of orthodox Christianity. They would have found the modern concept of religious bigotry incomprehensible, and seemingly in violation of the law of non-contradiction.
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Here is what I would say to our deacon’s honest unbeliever (assuming he really exists and is not just a stalking horse for our deacon).
“Please don’t be put off by what you take to be my warts and carbuncles, for those are really just the features of an unfamiliar face. As faces go, I know it is far from flawless, and that it reveals faults and flaws in even the most flattering light. And I don’t insist on the most flattering light, only what we might call the natural illumination of its native climate. Please do not make it more hideous than necessary by holding a flashlight under my chin, especially a red flashlight. This is what boys do on campouts to frighten one another, and its something you are doing to frighten yourself. I am not one of the imps in your demonology. Neither am I, nor am I trying to become, one of your saints. I’m doing my far from perfect best to live up to different standards. If you join us, you will begin doing so as well.”