Christianity in theory and in practice

I am not a Christian. That’s a statement not only about my ethnicity but also about my belief system. Even putting aside the mathematically challenging concept that Trinity equals Unity and the accompanying (no doubt metaphorical, but still puzzling) attribution of familial relationships to the Godhead, the ethical claims in the Gospels seem hard to reconcile with common sense.

Loving your enemies, for example. That has to be one of the world’s dumbest ideas. (See I Corinthians 1:18: For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.)

However, I readily concede that at least the basic ethic of the Gospels (not the Essene sexual-purity stuff, but the love-your-enemies, take-no-thought-for-the-morrow, pile-not-up-your-treasure-on-earth part) follows logically from the factual premises: That each of us is an immortal spirit, of which the body is merely a temporary lodging; that our fleshly existence is merely Basic Training for eternity; and that the consequences of flunking Basic Training are highly unpleasant.

I find that last thought hard to reconcile with the doctrine that we are all the children (in some metaphorical sense) of a Being of infitinte power and knowledge who desires our good. (Who was it who said that the infinite compassion of God implied that Hell must be empty?) Still, the notion that the purpose of this life is to shape the spirit so as to be a fit inhabitant of the Kingdom of Heaven can’t be called incoherent, and from that premise it isn’t hard to derive the proposition that the outcomes of our actions in terms of worldly success are the least important thing about them.

If that’s true, and if living in the Kingdom of Heaven requires the capacity to love one’s enemies, then it follows that loving one’s enemies is something that everyone should learn, no matter how uncomfortable learning it might be. Think of it as the spiritual equivalent of sitting in Lotus position, which is also — so I’m told, anyway — quite uncomfortable at first.

Moreover, even a non-believer ought to confess that the Gospel docrtrines — parallel in some cases to thoughts Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates (for example, that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil) and to the Tao Te Ching (the wisdom of foolishness and the power of humitility) — are strangely attractive. [Note that utilitarians also believe that the pain of any individual is bad, no matter how bad the individual might be. But of course utilitarians are prepared to weigh that bad against the possible good results of inflicting pain.]

None of that means that I want to be ruled by people whose belief system is actually Christian, in the sense of tracking the doctrines attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. Why should we entrust our world to the unworldly? That seems to me to discredit political preaching, even when the conclusions are ones I like.

Christians are the professed adherents of a foreign dominion, serving a King whose authority is not recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It’s not even obvious that people with such divided loyalties ought even to be allowed to vote, let alone have their voices heard in public discourse.

However, actual Christians are such a tiny minority that it hardly matters one way or the other. We’re reminded of that whenever someone dares to introduce a truly Christian thought into the public sphere.

Cardinal Martino, for example, seems to have expressed the idea that one should feel compassion for Saddam Hussein. This bit of Gospel foolishness led to expressions of horror from all quarters. Professor Bainbridge is typical, first quoting the Cardinal:

“I felt pity to see this man destroyed, (the military) looking at his teeth as if he were a cow. They could have spared us these pictures. Seeing him like this, a man in his tragedy, despite all the heavy blame he bears, I had a sense of compassion for him,”

and then adding:

Even with Cardinal’s qualifier that Saddam bears “heavy blame,” this is still pretty appalling. Despite Christ’s teaching that we should love our enemies, it’s hard for me to feel “pity” and “compassion” for a mass murderer just because he got his teeth checked on TV.

I assume from the fact that he gives Jesus the Messianic title Christians claim for him that Bainbridge thinks of himself as a Christian. (From other remarks he makes, I infer that Bainbridge is a Roman Catholic.) But in that context his remarks are really quite … remarkable.

He says that he finds it hard to accept the application of what he acknowledges to be black-letter Christianity to the case before him. No doubt that is true; it is hard, just as intense meditation is hard, just as controlling anger or envy or lust or pride is hard. But why should the Professor’s perception that the Path laid out by his Teacher is a difficult one lead him to criticize someone else who finds it easier, or at least manageable?

It’s not hard to see where the Professor is coming from. Not being enough of a Christian himself to want to love his enemies, Bainbridge doubts that the Cardinal is actually a Christian, and assumes that when Martino says he has compassion for Saddam Hussein despite his crimes, Martino actually means that he doesn’t really think Saddam Hussein a criminal. Disbelieving that Martino is capable of loving his enemies, Bainbridge interprets Martino’s remark as implying that Martino counts Saddam Hussein among his friends. Since (in non-Christian, worldly reckoning) the friend of my enemy is my enemy, that makes the Cardinal the Professor’s enemy, as the Professor sees it.

Now for all I know Bainbridge is right about Martino, and Martino wouldn’t feel, or express, compassion for someone whose behavior Martino really disapproved of. But Bainbridge does seem to be saying that, although Jesus of Nazareth was and is God, doing what Jesus said everyone should do makes Martino a bad person.

“Christianity,” said the noted wit and anti-Semite G.K. Chesterton, “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Updates here and here.

Professor Bainbridge replies here.


Stuart Buck cites C.S. Lewis for Prof. Bainbridge’s side of the argument. Lewis was a brilliant prose stylist, an awfully clever fellow, and a skilled proselytizer. But in my view Lewis’s gloss on “love your neighbor as yourself” amounts to deciding that since living by the text would be too much trouble, we’d better figure out that the text doesn’t mean what it says.

Note that Lewis is commenting on a different text than I was: he analyzes “love your neighbor as yourself,” while I was considering “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you.”

I agree with Lewis and Buck that “loving” your neighbor or your enemy doesn’t mean “feeling fond of him or saying he is nice when he is not.” But surely it does mean, as Lewis says it does, “wishing his good.” In no possible universe could being humliated on worldwide TV count as “good” for Saddam Hussein. (Though it might well have been good for us, in which case I, as a non-Christian, might very well think it was a good idea, even though it at least crowds the Geneva Conventions.)

So I conclude that the critics of Cardinal Martino don’t actually “love” Saddam Hussein in the sense intended in the text. Whether Cardinal Martino does or not I have no way of knowing, but his expressed attitude — this was a bad person, but I’m sorry to see him mistreated — was at least consistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The attitudes of his critics aren’t. They’re certainly “Christian” in the sense that they’re the actual attitude of most people who call themseves Christians, but they’re not consistent with what the man who Christians believe was and is God is recorded in the Gospels as having told his followers to do.

Now of course if he wasn’t God, or if the Gospels, rather than being inspired by the Holy Spirit, are merely not-very-reliable accounts of his words and deeds, then we don’t have a problem. But then we don’t have Christianity, either.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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