When the Pharisees enter the story, I see the religious establishment. They are the truth police, arresting those who compromise their view of the world. You are doing what we tell you not to do.
Seeing them, I see the church today. In every skeptical comment the Pharisees make and every philosophical trap they try to set for Jesus, I hear the voices of televangelists, Internet trolls, and certainly many of the people who join with me in worship on Sunday.
I am tempted to turn to the people around me and shout “Listen, this is our part of the story!” We, the religious establishment are much more like the Pharisees than we are imitators of Jesus. By virtue of being in church we are made part of the establishment.
A recent survey by the Barna group attempts to openly name this problem. They surveyed self-described Christians and asked them a set of questions they crafted to see if they are more like Pharisees or Jesus in action and attitude. The results did not surprise me in the least.
The study is far from perfect, but its methodology is strong and its findings are really quite clear. We are more like Pharisees than we are like Jesus; in behavior or belief. By a lot.
Pharisees, as we know, saw themselves as the rules-lawyers or the purity police. They didn’t necessarily have authority to actually police their own people, they just took on that responsibility.
A persistent problem
Going back only the last thousand years, we can see a problem in the church with our own purity police.
In the Romanized church of the post-Schism world (11th through 15th Centuries), we saw a church of central authority. It’s increasingly prominent critics of the time could see how that authority was wielded to punish the poor, exclude those they declared sinful, and enrich itself from selling sacrament. The great universal church saw rule-following as its most important attribute to maintain order.
In the Great Reformation, we see the Protestant reformers latching on to a different kind of purity policing. Burning the books, vestments, and symbols of Catholicism, breaking stained glass windows and pipe organs, reformers sought to rid the world of what they declared was evil through destruction and violence. Of course, the Roman church retaliated in kind.
The Protestant ethos, however, did not question the central problem of Roman authority, just how it was manifested in a central figure. Protestants continued to create a new breed of purity police, in some ways even more like the Pharisees. They were decentralized and were, for the first time in human history, large populations of newly literate people gaining access to the Scriptures. Protestant theology, based on sola scriptura (scripture alone [as the authority]) allowed the newly literate to declare themselves enlightened and police one another.
In the U.S., our religious forebears were the Puritans, whose cuddly story of fleeing religious persecution makes us feel better than the truth of their actions. More restrictive, more condemning than your average Protestant, the Puritans maintained strict rules, placing the rule of law (as they wrote it) as superseding the command to love their neighbors as themselves. Reading about the Puritans makes me wonder if they ever read the gospels–for their actions and attitudes were so unlike Jesus’s.
Then, in the late 19th Century, prominent evangelicals gathered to create a list of beliefs that would be known as fundamental to the Christian faith. Without publicly assenting to these beliefs, they contested, one could not be a Christian. They produced a magazine The Fundamentals, and those who read the magazine became known as fundamentalists. They embody this classic Christian trope of declaring the boundaries of Christianity and judging those that don’t fit inside their laws or rules. Which is a lot of people.
All so very like the Pharisees.
Precedent for this was set early on. Christians in the first part of the 4th Century were neither unified nor systematic. What you believed was determined best by where you lived and by who was teaching. Christianity was regional.
Then the emperor ordered a council.
The historians reading up to this point would now love to wade into the weeds, exploring the power players of the time and hypothesize why Constantine ordered a council. That distraction is for another time. What I am interested in is not what they were trying to “correct”, but what they chose to do.
In gathering for this first council, the churches of the world developed a precedent, repeated several more times, of gathering to better define Christianity. And each time, they did so at the expense of minorities. The councils became increasingly contentious and violent in the succeeding centuries, leading to mob rule and labyrinthine twists in theology. Less the purely “Spirit-led” endeavor that many modern Christians describe, these councils were divisive, disorderly, and increasingly, discriminatory.
In the end, whole regions of churches, accounting millions of Christians were expelled from the church and rejected like wilted flowers. This dark time in Christian history is papered over because we are so comfortable with the remaining flowers allowed to bloom in the end; the lives sacrificed and crushed be damned.
These flowers were, in the end, a collection of rules. Rules that could be used to enforce who is in and who is out. Rules about, not just what we believe, but the precise words we use to describe these beliefs. Words that often lead us into political traps if we stray from their formulation and attempt to actually reason them out.
The trouble with our tradition
This troubled history is why so many Christians are compelled to look as far back as they can. Specifically to the first few generations of Christians who knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus, to see what they shared and wrote about and believed about this newly birthing faith. Long before the Constantinian corruption or the universalizing of beliefs. What did those first followers believe and do? we want to know.
I’m concerned that the rules-obsession is too baked into the tradition of our faith. Luke Timothy Johnson has argued that Greek philosophy and culture is too tied up in our faith to ever remove it, but I am more concerned with Roman philosophy of order. For it is Rome’s belief in peace through might, authoritarian control of the people, and the supremacy of the rule of law that have had a far greater influence on the behavior of Christians, and therefore, the development of Christian tradition.
Our very tradition is corrupt. It was entered into with great intent, but evil action. And I fear that in adoring the flowers we’ve picked, we avoid dwelling on the flowers we’ve trampled underfoot; that they may also be GOD’s creation.
It is here that the theologians will want to wade into the weeds, exploring those particular theological ideas and frameworks that are troubling. Or perhaps some would have us dismiss the whole course of history, that we might instead raise up what we have received as a priceless jewel that is to be protected at all costs. This would certainly distract us from engaging with not only the circumstances of our tradition, but their very corruption.
For, if we take the tradition as we’ve received it, and place that on our desk and then begin to add to that other parts of the scene: the blood and the bodies of Christians who were murdered by other Christians; the artwork, songbooks, poetry, and mystic writings of great beauty that were burned or permanently “lost” to us; the many signs and symbols used by Christians throughout history whose only crime was to seek a better understanding of GOD: we might find the scene spilling over the edges of the desk to cover the floors of our offices and classrooms with whole treasures of love and devotion destroyed by the tyranny of the Pharisees’ Christian descendants.
There are whole avenues of faithful belief revealed to faithful people, whose sole purpose was a new exploring of GOD; better understanding of GOD; better loving of GOD. Lives destroyed, civilizations ruined, enemies created, and evils perpetrated; all for what?
Order. Tradition. Power.
Fixing our faith
I am a deconstructionist. But we make the mistake in believing that our questioning of and taking apart of things is destructive, or that when one takes a thing apart, deconstructing it, we are merely and haphazardly disassembling a thing and tossing it away when the disassembly is complete.
The deconstructionist is looking at the thing as an attempt to deal with its problems.
And a true deconstructionist will tell you that it is in naming the problems, exposing the problems to the light of day, and wrestling with their meaning, that truth emerges. That in finding something lost, we might have what John Caputo loves to call “the event”.
Jesus’s coming was such an event. And all throughout our history, we see small, human events. Each, like the Jesus event, gives rise to the Pharisees, who crucify the human and codify her belief as evil. If you want to explore many of these events, read Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity. Many of these moments, only later, may be seen as violent overreactions to protect doctrinal purity: protecting it from a thing that might make more sense of it.
Tradition born this way cannot be the entirety of the answer. There is more to it. There are whole parts of what is “traditional” that we are not allowed to explore, but have existed throughout history. There are whole parts of our tradition that do not violate Scripture, and certainly do not contradict the Jesus portrayed in Greek scripture, but violate only our inherited tradition. We even have physical evidence of popular scripture, more widely read than some canonical works of the time, that reveal a wider sense of GOD.
Our adoration of our tradition is the adoration of a false idol. It is much like the idol we made of Scripture in the Great Reformation. What Callid Keefe-Perry recently described as the dark joke on a Theology Nerd Throwdown Podcast that, in the 21st Century, we’ve added a fourth part to the Trinity (a Quaternary?): Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Scripture. He argues that we use at as a fourth part of the Godhead. For many of us, we might call Tradition a fifth.
Tradition is not the way, Jesus is The Way. Tradition only helps us see in GOD what tradition allows us to see. And right now, the tradition we’ve inherited, the tradition which crucifies Christ throughout history, drowns the creatives, burns the heretics, lynches the prophets, mutilates the visionaries, and leaves the weak in the desert to die, forcefully blinds us from actually seeing the GOD we pray to.
If knowing the GOD we love is what we want, then we have no use for a tradition that cannot open its doors to the breadth of revelation. We can instead embrace a tradition that cares much less for being right, certain, and in control, but one that actually looks like the Christ we follow and the persistent lover He reveals GOD to be.