August 21, 2003
Who wants to be an Israelite?

I've been largely avoiding the foolishness with the Alabama judge and the Ten Commandments, but I read a couple posts today that got me thinking. One was from freespace, tallying up the damage the whole thing was doing. The other was from Allen Brill, who remarks:

What really puzzles me most is why Christians would want to go to the barricades over the Ten Commandments anyway. They are hardly the core of the faith. At least those folks in the end zones with their "John 3:16" signs have a better understanding of what constitutes a Christian confession. I think the Establishment Clause as the Supreme Court has interpreted it reduces sectarian strife, and as we look around the world, that is surely a blessing. But if I am ever in a place where the protections of the Freedom to Exercise Clause are not in place, it is not the Ten Commandments for which I would be willing to go to the stake (or whatever). It is the Gospel of forgiveness and life, and it only, that is worth dying for.
He goes on to quote from Ephesians: "He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace."

Now, I wouldn't take this to mean we can merrily go breaking whatever commandments we wish; Jesus affirms most of them at various points. But it's true that it's weird for Christian fanatics to pick up on Mosaic laws, when it was made clear even in the Old Testament that those laws applied only to Jews. As Mark Kleiman pointed out, the rules that Yahweh laid on the whole world were the seven Noachide laws, which overlap somewhat with the Ten Commandments but are quite distinct. (Number 6, saying all nations should respect courts of justice, is something the renegade Moore should especially ponder.) In the Book of Acts, when the early church is sorting out the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians, they essentially follow the Noachide guidelines.

Why the focus on the Ten Commandments? Well, no doubt one reason is their place in popular culture -- Cecil B. DeMille didn't make a movie called The Noachide Laws. But more to the point, people who adhere to that creepy confluence of fundamentalism and nationalism that Kynn Bartlett recently dubbed Christianism seem to think that they are the Jews of the Old Testament.

Consider Jerry Falwell's infamous claim that 9/11 was the result of God's "lifting the veil of protection" from America because he was displeased with our immorality. Now, there is some Biblical precedent for this; the OT tells of cases where God punished Israel's unfaithfulness by letting its enemies conquer it. But Israel wasn't just any nation; it was not only chosen by God, it was formed by God, with its government and laws made by his specific instructions. It was supposed to be "light of the world." So when Israel messed up, God laid a beating on it.

The "Christianists" seem to be trying to form a similar narrative for the founding and history of America. I expect this informs Moore's rhetoric about how this is a Christian nation founded on Christian values, and the Christian right's contention that there's a big "cover-up" going on of how devoutly religious the founding fathers actually were. The idea that America is the New Israel seems to have floated around for much of our history, and while I haven't heard it said in so many words, a lot of people seem to believe it now.

I have complained before about how God in the OT seems to lump everybody by their national/ethic groupings, and reward and punish them en masse. But in his defense, in the New Testament he pretty clearly went out of that business. The parable of the Good Samaritan declared that your "neighbor" could include someone from an enemy camp. The first part of Allen's Ephesians quote is Paul (a Jew) addressing the Gentiles: "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."

So if God doesn't care any more if you're a Jew or not, it seems even less likely to me that he cares whether you're an American or not. The New Israel is the church, not a political entity. As for the monument, I kind of like Peter's idea:

Given Alabama's fondness for the death penalty, it seems to be that what Christians really should be doing is bringing picks and hammbers to demolish the monument so that the Word of God would not be profaned by association with the state's machinery of death. That would be an act of Christian witness worth getting excited about...

Posted by Camassia at August 21, 2003 05:57 PM | TrackBack

Why would Christians go to the barricades over the Ten Commandments? Well, the Christians in question here are also political conservatives, and polilitical conservatives must go to the OT to find divine sanction for the kinds of things they value and want to practice. The hoarding of vast stores of wealth not the least of it.
Watch them. Ignore what they say from the pulpit or the soapbox and watch what the legislators they support vote for in congress. I think you will see that Good Samaritanism and Going-the-second-mile are in pretty short supply in that camp, among the leaders and the constituents alike.
Compare Bush's refusal to commute the death sentence of born-again Christian, Karla Fay Tucker, to the story of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery for a prime example of the reliance on OT-style justice amongst the conseratives.
If somebody has to tell you (over and over) that he's "fair and balanced", he probably isn't. If he has to make a point that he's a "compassionate" conservative, you have to ask yourself why this wasn't apparent without the sloganeering?

Posted by: Rob on August 22, 2003 03:37 AM

Interesting post. I don't quite understand why he's going to the wall on this issue although it may be just pure, unadulterated frustration at getting whipped by the federal courts so often. The Judicial branch has beaten up conservatives for years, most notably with Roe v Wade. O(Obviously Bush v Gore was a huge exception).

As far as God in the OT lumping everyone by their national/ethnic groupings... The lesson that could be taken from that is our interconnectedness. The notion that all mankind was punished (the angels weren't, after all) by the sin of Adam is a scandal to many, but it also emphasizes are co-dependence on one another as well as our dependence on God, given the remedy that is Christ. This is part of why Catholics so appreciate Mary - her using her free-will to say "yes" to God was not simply her individual deal, but, in sharp contrast with Eve, allowed everyone thereafter to share in the fruit of her womb.

Posted by: TSO on August 22, 2003 06:27 AM

I feel a lot more sympathy for opposition, even civil disobedience, to Roe -- that was constitutionally weaker, and if you think millions of innocents are being killed of course you have to act. But as freespace pointed out, one group that's harmed by this circus is reasonable conservative dissenters. Moore and his ilk give ammo to those who say, "See, all this theorizing about judicial restraint is really cover for establishing theocracy."

I actually don't think I'd be upset if I saw the monument there without knowing the back story, but that's because I'd probably interpret it totally differently than Moore intended; something like, "Cool, a foundation document in the Western conception of the rule of law." It's the philosophy behind this whole thing that's scary.

As for the OT thing, I've heard that theory before and sort of understand it, but part of what bothers me isn't just the lumping but the splitting; that is, God draws his dividing lines between people along national boundaries. I should say, though, that the concept of nation was different back then. There was no distinction between Israel as a nation, as a people and as a religion, and that was probably true of most groups around them. Of course, America is one of the most ill-fitting nations in the world to that model, which drives the Christo-nationalists nuts.

Posted by: Camassia on August 22, 2003 09:39 AM

Those who complain about the value of the weblog should come and look at this post and the comments. I appreciate Camassia's comments and post and have been inspired to do something on Gutless Pacifist for tonight.

Posted by: Allen Brill on August 22, 2003 01:31 PM

The idea of America as the New Israel goes all the way back to the colonies. Many of the Christians from England who came here proclaimed that this was their Promised Land, promised to them by God in the Bible, and that the Indians were interlopers. I think you will find some information on this in the essays in "The Bible in America", edited by Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll. But it's been a while since I read it.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on August 23, 2003 01:23 PM

I have a friend that is doing some studying about the tearing of the veil by Jesus. He has been unable to find the dimensions of the veil. This is of great interest to him. Could you please help?

Posted by: Norma Mashburn on September 26, 2003 07:41 PM
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