The Christian religious system has rather thoroughly replicated the conditions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and social organization of the Pharisees. This has not surprisingly rather thoroughly replicated the error of the Pharisees and the social economy of the Christian religious system revolves around excluding other people and then vilifying them.
To support this claim I want to look at three inter-related and mutually reinforcing realities that I see in Western Christianity: the prevalence of persecution narratives, a concern for external boundary markers and the use of the Bounded Set paradigm for organizing their communities, and xenophobia.
The Prevalence of Persecution Narratives
To the first point many Christian communities have replicated the conditions that created the Pharisees by adopting persecution narratives as part of their community identity. These narratives paint their community as “real” Christians suffering persecution from “fake” Christians or non-Christians. These narratives circle around a variety of issues such as the history of the church, race, social-economic status, political ideologies, “family values,” doctrinal differences, etc. With few exceptions, these stories are often a pale shadow to the very real persecution that Jews suffered under foreign occupation, but they encourage the same mindset. This puts the community on the defensive and the community feels it must be on guard, work to defend itself, maintain clear boundaries for who is one of them and who is not, and even fight back.
This mindset encourages and is reinforced by the two other issues at play: a concern with deciding who is and who is not a member of the community and seeing outsiders as a threat.
(Sidenote: A very common example of what I talking about is the “culture war” narrative in the United States. According to the “culture war” narrative, the U.S.A. was founded as Christian nation, but is under attack by secularizing forces. Christian family values and religious beliefs are under attack by the gay agenda, the liberal media, the Democrats, any other convenient enemy, etc. All non-Christians are inherently against Christianity and Christians. Only by voting for a Republican candidate, or agreeing with and obeying your pastor, can you do your Christian duty and help win back the U.S.A. for Jesus! This is a concept that many politicians and pastors have used to stir up votes, stay in power, and rake in tons of money. While this may sound ridiculous to some when I lay it out like that, this is what many Christians in the U.S.A. believe.
Another common one is that the current church is made up of members who were disenfranchised, misunderstood and persecuted at a previous church by bad pastors and bad Christians. The current church, made of up refugees from the previous church and other churches, will now do things right where the previous church got it wrong.)
External Boundary Markers and the Bounded Set
Christian communities have become increasingly concerned with defining who is and who is not a member of their community. This has meant that the Bounded Set is often used to organize their communities and numerous man-made laws and traditions with clear external evidence are used to provide clear boundary markers for the community. While the Pharisees obsessed over circumcision and man-made laws Christians have devised other external things to obsess over and made their own laws and traditions.
While Christian traditions vary in their external boundary markers and not all of their Bounded Set’s look the same, I want to offer a brief and general sketch of what I am talking about. Before that though I should note two things.
First, it should be stated that the Christians have “one-upped” (or “one-downed?”) the Pharisees on the dysfunctional scale. In addition to explicitly stated values and rules, Christian communities, just like dysfunctional families, have numerous unspoken rules. These rules are not stated or written down, but they are very real. At least the Pharisees had the courtesy to make all their expectations known..
Second, many of the man-made rules within Christianity are used along the same rationale Pharisees employed. Many of these stringent man-made rules are more restrictive than anything God said with the idea that if the man-made rule is obeyed, then God’s rule will not be broken, and the Christians can rest assured of their piety. For example, some Christian traditions prohibit dancing because it might lead to sexually arousal which might lead to sexual sin. These man-made rules inevitably are used to prematurely and unfairly judge people and let the Christian community know who to marginalize and who to celebrate as it seeks to encourage these values. So if you dance, go to dancer, or are reported to be involved in dancing someway, your piety and possibly your sexual purity are automatically in question.
Moving onto the Bounded Set, the largest circle of the Bounded Set, the extreme edges of the community represent the basic criteria for membership and often the basic criteria for being seen as a “saved” or a Christian. These tend to be the most clearly stated rules within the Christian community and are the external boundary markers of the community. Some common examples would be signing off on a statement of faith, being baptized in water (often in a specific method), being baptized in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” taking a membership/catechism/confirmation class(es), “inviting Jesus into your heart,” etc. Meeting these criteria might be tied with assurances of salvation and your membership into the community but meeting these criteria by no means guarantees that you will be accepted or treated well within the community.
The middle circles of the Bounded Set, the inner boundaries are where it usually gets messy and varied. These rules and values tend to be a mix of explicit and implicit rules that are cultural, political and religious in nature. The more of these values you meet, the closer you are to the center and the better you are treated in order to encourage these values in you and in the community as a whole. The less of these values you meet, the farther you are from the center and the worse you are treated in order to discourage these values in you and in the community as a whole. To add to the confusion this middle area is often where the stated highest ideals and values of the Church actually reside.
In my experience the center of Christian communities, the actual highest ideals of the community, are not the stated values that are on paper but cultural and religious values that often have little to do with God, the Kingdom or the Gospel. Speaking personally for the churches I have been involved in, the highest ideals everything to do with “whiteness” and the American Dream. Through a myriad of ways the message is communicated that to be a “real” Christian is to be a generally speaking moral and ethical, white, married and middle-class adult. While I am sure the exact highest ideals are different in other Christian communities and traditions, I am convinced there is a lot of self-deception in this area and most have very little to do with Jesus, the Gospel or the Kingdom. Exactly like the Pharisees the ultimately focus and goal of Christian communities is on man-made rules, beliefs, traditions and values.
Persecution narratives encourage Christians to see outsiders as enemies and threats and use of the Bounded Set paradigm gives Christian communities a way of knowing exactly who is an outsider. This leads to a situation where outsiders are prejudged and treated with a mixture of fear, disdain or outright hostility. I have personal experienced this (as Christians from other traditions have treated me poorly before getting to know me) and more importantly have treated people outside of my Christian community incredibly harshly because of this mindset.
A recent realization for me is that this mindset is both actively and passively taught. While a cliché phrase in Christianity is to “hate the sin, not the sinner” many times people are actively taught to “hate the sinner.” Often labels that describe people or groups of people directly connected with words or phrases like “enemy,” “enemy of the Gospel,” “anti-Christ,” etc. in teachings, sermons and casual conversation. Other times this mindset was taught in a passive way. The subtext behind many teachings is loaded with condemnation for people who do believe or act similar to what is being taught. For example, I have experienced numerous teachings on sexual ethics where people who are homosexual, who are not virgins before marriage, or who are sexually active are portrayed as sexually depraved beyond belief, completely out of control in their sexuality, headed for inevitable pain and disaster due to their sexual activity, or actively having sex to disrespect God and/or Christians. All of this of course is in the background of the actual teaching.
This vilification is often a very cheap way for Christians to attain a false sense of moral superiority. Many Christians I know struggle with sin and are hypocritical. It is always easier to be self-righteous and to focus on someone who is worse than you than to deal with your own issues. Again, I am a prime example of this and did this for most of my life.
The end result…
This entire situation leads to a modern-day replication of the two-fold error of the Pharisees.
First, the Christian religious system is often incapable of being a blessing to outsiders. Pre-occupied with proving themselves to be the “real” Christians (the ones with the right doctrine, behavior, dress, approach to worship, etc.) over and above non-Christians and other Christians they have lost any sort of ability to connect with and bless outsiders. While it can bless those who are what they want, or are moving towards it, they struggle being a blessing to people not like them, let alone their true enemies. Whatever “Good News” we have to share is reserved for people who fit our mold or are working towards fitting our mold.
Second, the when man-made traditions, rules, values and beliefs are placed above the heart of God at the true center of the community, this naturally leads to hypocrisy and situations that run against the very teachings of Jesus. When people are preoccupied with human traditions and the observance of human traditions above other humans, the natural consequence is a number of people being incredibly hurt by the church. When the certain values are celebrated above the values of God, this is idolatry.
This is what I mean by the social economy of the Christian religious system being constituted by exclusion and vilification.
[Readers: Am I unfairly transporting my experiences of Christianity to all Christian communities? What has been your experience in Christian communities? What are the stated ideals of the Church and what are the “real” ideals of the Church (often as evidenced in where the money flows to, who is on staff, what values are preached about, etc.)? Are there unspoken rules in the churches you have been a part of?
In my next post I want to suggest the way that I believe communities of followers of Jesus can and should function.]