It is fashionable today in right-wing circles to cloak oneself in the mantle of Christianity, and to proclaim a lot of decidedly un-Christian things in his name. Selectively quoting the Bible will get you far.
Silly me, I thought (think) the cornerstone of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount, not telling others what they can and can’t do in their homes and doctor’s office.
I was raised as a Christian and liked some things I heard but was appalled at the hypocrisy I saw. I didn’t want to identify with people who proclaimed one thing on Sunday morning for an hour and did something else the rest of the week.
I found a couple of books by my bedside while cleaning. They are the work of Kent Haruf, who writes of life in a fictional small town in Eastern Colorado. The books were “Eventide” and “Plainsong”. Haruf writes in a simple, spare prose. The books sound like the windswept plain and hardscrabble lives of which he writes. After reading them I wanted more. I learned that he had written a third book and that they formed a sort of trilogy – each stands alone, but some of the characters (it being a small town) appear in more than one book and the books follow a chronology.
“Benediction”, the third in the series, concerns an old man dying of cancer. He owns the town hardware store. Other stories are interwoven, as are the lives in a small town. One such story is that of the pastor, Lyle, who has come to their town after leaving his prior post under unspecified (but apparently less than stellar) circumstances. I want to quote a long passage, as I can’t say this better than he did. Of note, the author does not use quotation marks to differentiate speakers. You’ll figure it out.
From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013
[At the Sunday service, the minister has just read the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Luke.]
“This passage, he said, is usually referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Augustine first called it that. It appears in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke but the texts differ somewhat… but the most important of these Bible texts say essentially the same thing. These are the ones I’ve read just now. The crux of the matter for us. The soul of our lesson and the very essence of the teaching of Jesus.
Love your enemies. Pray for those who harm you. Turn the other cheek. Give away money and don’t expect it back.
But what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. He must have been speaking of some utopian idea, a fantasy. He must be using a metaphor. Suggesting a sweet dream. Because all of us here today know better. We are awake to reality and know the world wouldn’t permit such a thing. It never has and never will. We can be clear about that right now.
Because here we are at war again. And we know the inescapable images of war and violence so well. We’ve seen them all too often.
The naked young girl running in terror toward us, crying and screaming, away from fires behind her.
The boy in the hospital room with his little brother and their frightened mother. He’s been blinded, his face is scarred. Am I ugly now, Mother? he says.
We see the pictures of the headless body dumped out beside the road in a ditch.
We’ve seen the soldier, the black stiff grotesque thing that once was a man, burned now and hanged, dragged through the streets behind a truck.
We’ve watched in horror the human figures leaping out of the windows of the burning towers.
And so we know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels good to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can’t love people who do evil. It’s neither sensible nor practical. It’s not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. There is no way on earth we can love our enemies. They’ll only do wickedness and hatefulness again. And worse, they’ll think they can get away with this wickedness and evil, because they’ll think we’re weak and afraid. What would the world come to?
But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said 2000 years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate, knew it all so well from firsthand personal experience? And what if in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies? Turn your cheek. Pray for those who misuse you. What if he meant every word of what he said? What then would the world come to?
And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. We have the power to take away your water and to scorch your earth, to rob you of the very fundamentals of life. We can change the actual day into actual night. We can do all of these things to you. And more.
But what if we say, listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the Great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: we are going to love you. We have set our hearts to it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters. We are going to turn our collective national cheek and present it to be stricken a second time, if need be, and offer it to you. Listen, we –
But then he was abruptly halted. Someone out in the congregation was talking. Are you crazy? You must be insane! A man’s voice. Deep throated. Angry. Loud. Coming from over on the west side of the sanctuary near the windows. What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?
He stood up, a tall man in a light summer suit, staring at Lyle. You must be about as crazy as hell! He turned fiercely and grabbed his wife’s hand, pulling her to her feet and gesturing angrily at their little boy. They came out of the pew and went hurrying back up the aisle through the doors and out of the church.
The congregation all watched them leave. Then they began to look around at one another. They looked again at Lyle.
What do the rest of you think? Lyle said. What do you say? He was standing next to the pulpit now.
I’m not afraid to say, a man said. You’re a damn terrorist sympathizer. He rose up in the middle of the sanctuary, holding on to the pew-back ahead of him. A big heavyset man. We never should of (sic) let you come out here. You’re an enemy to our country.“
[Most of the congregation walks out. During the course of the next week, he walks the streets of the town at night. One evening, two men get out of a pickup truck and one slaps him hard across the face. He then reaches back and slaps him again across the other side of the face. The men make it clear that they don’t want him in their town anymore. The next week he goes back to the church, stands at the pulpit very briefly, and says goodbye to the congregation. He leaves the church and goes out driving aimlessly in the countryside, finally ending up at the home of two older women who had defended him in church. He asks what happened after he left church and they tell him his wife told the congregation she was leaving him.]
“I think I’m done.
You don’t mean that, Willa said.
Yes. I’m finished as a minister. I haven’t done much good.
But people will get over this.
Probably they will. But I won’t. People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied.” From “Benediction” by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013
And that is why, as a teenager, I left the church.