Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.



1,900 words

On February 21, 2017 the Washington Post printed this caption under a photograph of overturned headstones in a St Louis cemetery:

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, on Feb. 21, 2017.

The accompanying article by Post editor Kayla Epstein went on to observe:

For Jews, the act of desecrating cemeteries recalls a dark history of prejudice and intimidation against Jewish communities.

In the 19th century there was an outburst of pogroms against Jews under the Russian empire. “One of the aspects of these pogroms, these violent outbursts against the Jewish community, is targeting Jewish property. A very common target is a synagogue or a Jewish store, but also Jewish cemeteries,” explained Michael Meng, associate professor of history at Clemson University.

During World War II, under the Nazi regime, many Jewish cemeteries were damaged across Europe, including in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Poland, Germany and Greece. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, along with businesses and synagogues, by anti-Semitic mobs throughout the Reich.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times said on Feb 23rd, “social media was filled with anti-Semitism last year: Journalists who said they had never been subject to bigotry before came to expect it, usually from Trump supporters.”  The event came on the heels of the Trump statement of January 27 commemorating the Holocaust which came under criticism because it omitted any mention of Jews or anti Semitism.

The sudden spate of anti-Semitic hostility is widely understood to be part of the resurgence of white supremacist attitudes prevalent among certain sectors of the American population who supported Donald Trump.  Trump has been accused of having sympathy for such views, in part because of the prominent place he assigned in both his campaign staff and then as national security advisor to Steve Bannon, whose editorial policy at Breibart News was believed by many to support white supremacy.  But also Trump’s derogatory statements about Muslims, his distrust of refugees, his claims about the immoral behavior of Mexican immigrants, his disparaging characterizations of African American neighborhoods, confirm for many that the attitudes attributed to Bannon and the views of Mr. Trump are one and the same.  The unmistakable similarity of skin color among the groups that Mr. Trump denigrates has led some to label these attitudes a thinly veiled racism.

The traditional association of anti-Semitism with white supremacy is well known from recent history, and so its emergence in the current context is not surprising.  But there are certain anomalies that beg for an explanation.  One is that Trump himself is not anti-Semitic; he never criticized Jews in his speeches; his son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter converted to Judaism.  Also Trump is  pro-Zionist to an extreme.  He has even reversed the traditional American preference for a “two state solution” concurring with the Israeli right wing.  Even though his delay in condemning these attacks on Jews suggests he is aware that they are being carried out by people who support him, their occurrence can hardly be laid at his feet.  But if he did not call them forth, what did?  The Jews, stereo-typically speaking, have nothing in common with the other groups that Trump has identified as a threat to America’s “greatness.”  American Jews are citizens; they are considered educated, successful, wealthy and white.  So how do they end up in the doghouse with poor and marginated third world people?

To ask it in a different way: what does hatred of the Jews have in common with hatred of Muslims, blacks, and brown skinned Latinos?  Why does racism elicit anti-Semitism?  This shifts the issue away from Donald Trump and to his followers, where I believe it belongs.  It  suggests that there is a pool of negative attitudes that are shared by the people he appeals to.  When he stimulates the loyalties of this sector of the population, what emerges is not just what he explicitly and intentionally calls forth but other elements which no one suspected were whole cloth with it.

Fear and hatred of the unbaptized

I believe what we are dealing with here are ancient Christian attitudes that continue to reside embedded in the emotional subconscious of large sectors of the American population whose ethnic heritage has passed them on.  I claim there is a structural logic stemming from the ancient traditional Christian view of the world which gives rise to a visceral abhorrence for the non-baptized.  What Jews have in common with those other groups is that they were all at some point in time identified by Christians as heathen.  The non-baptized are pariahs in the traditional view; they are slated for eternal punishment because “God’s” wrath, directed at all the children of Adam, is assuaged only by individual incorporation into the Christian Church by baptism.  You have to realize: this has nothing to do with current crimes or immoral acts.  It’s due to the insult of “Original Sin” at the time of creation. “God” hates the non-baptized because of what Adam did, not because of what they did.  If he is so angry as to punish these people after death who have done nothing wrong, what wouldn’t he do to them during life, and their “Christian” neighbors with them, as collateral damage.

Jews in particular were destined to suffer as a public display of their inherited guilt.  That theory was given a compelling articulation by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century; it was accepted without challenge as the dominant worldview for all of Western Europe for the next 1500 years.  Its theological justification — “Original Sin” and the damnation of the non-baptized — is still taught by the Vatican Catechism of 1992.  The fear and hatred that Christians bore the non-baptized took concrete form in the specific identification of Jews, Muslims, “heretics” and primitive, pre-civilized natives of Africa and the Americas as “enemies of ‘God.’”  The key point is that the presence of the non-baptized — the Jews, for example — in any locality was believed to be a magnet for divine punishment in the form of earthquakes, plagues, famines, droughts, foreign conquest and other calamities.  I claim that, once identified, the non-rational feelings of fear and loathing remained attached to these ethnic and religious groups long after the theological justifications were forgotten.

The violence perpetrated against Jews during the black plague in Europe in the 1350’s is a case in point.  The Jews were blamed for the plague.  Whole communities, men women and children were locked in their synagogues and burnt alive, among other forms of slaughter.  The anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the silent complicity of all of Europe in the genocidal Holocaust that was responsible for the mass murder of six million Jews is another example.  Hatred and punishment of Jews was indisputably a traditional Christian phenomenon; when the Nazis, who claimed to be stone atheists, picked up the baton of anti Semitism they did not have to produce one shred of justification.  The ground had already been prepared.  The imputation of “evil” to the Jews was an unquestioned assumption of all Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike.  The hatred was so deeply embedded that the Nazis didn’t need to be Christian themselves to be energized by the millennia of animosity they had inherited from their Christian forebears.

I claim this is what is functioning in the perplexing emergence of anti-Semitism at this point in time and in response to Donald Trump’s evocation of enmity against the Muslims, Mexicans, refugees and American blacks.  The phenomenon is worth dwelling on.  For it serves as an object-lesson of how these motivations continue on in irrational sub-conscious feelings long after the original logical reasons are gone and forgotten.  I doubt that Trump’s current followers are  worried that the presence of Jews in their communities will call down the “wrath of ‘God.’”  The grave-vandals probably couldn’t even articulate, if questioned, what created such anger in their hearts.  They are blind to the archaic roots of their emotions.

The Reform of sociopathic Christianity — everybody’s responsibility

They may be blind, but we shouldn’t be.  The point of this exercise is to enjoin everyone, not only Christians, to bring these sick mis-perceptions to light and challenge the validity of their origins.  There is no other way to rob them of their power to do harm.  Because of the mythic nature of the sources of these culturally inherited feelings, just becoming aware is usually enough to quell them.  Who still believes that “God” hates the Jews and will punish their neighbors along with them for the “murder” of Christ?

Who, indeed!  But, in this case, we are dealing with a strange twist.  The Catholic / Christian doctrine of “Original Sin,” the source of these feelings, has never been repudiated or denied by the Christian Churches despite a universal consensus that the Genesis story of the sin of Adam was a fable written to encourage moral compliance, not an account of literal events.  The Vatican Catechism, however, published under direct Papal auspices in 1992, continues to promote as “infallible truth” the doctrine that those who die without baptism are the object of “God’s” wrath and deserving of eternal damnation unless baptized into Christ’s saving death.  Why else would the Catechism say that in the case of infants who die unbaptized, if “God” does not punish them it is “a mystery of his mercy.” (Vatican Catechism 1261 & 1283)

Many claim “Original Sin” is archaic doctrine and that no one takes it seriously anymore.  Excuse me.  It’s still “on the books” and there is nothing to stop some future Christian zealot from resurrecting the dogma and following through on its logical implications.

It’s time that the people take responsibility for this ideological insanity that continues in our midst to be perpetrated on a daily basis in the name of “freedom of religion.”  Christians have a moral obligation to the rest of society to reform their archaic dysfunctional religion.  A religion that espouses the superiority of one belief system over another and on that basis tacitly justifies the kinds of anti-Semitic attacks that we see emerging in our society, undermines the very basis of the American Constitution: the equality of all human beings regardless of religion or ethnic origin.

In the 1950’s the contradiction of giving freedom of speech to groups that espoused the violent overthrow of the US government, was duly noted.  In the case of Communists the courts acknowledged that the Constitution respected even those who would speak about revolution, but it would not tolerate actions directed to that end.

I believe we are at a similar place with Catholicism and other forms of Christian fundamentalism.  The same law that will punish the cemetery vandals for toppling the gravestones in St Louis will permit the mediaeval Catholic magisterium to make the absurd claim that Jews, Muslims, and unbaptized infants are the special object of divine wrath.  But by the same token the law permits the rest of us to raise our voices against the stupidity and potential violence caused by obsolete religious claptrap.

Extreme sociopathic attitudes should be denounced as anti-human no matter who displays them.  Freedom of speech cuts both ways.

March 2017

Tony Equale


Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind.  As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time.  It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours.  For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.

It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine.  The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods.  The Roman occupation was the obvious reference.  Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance.  The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a  consequence of that belief.

Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center.  However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program.  His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.”  Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”  The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.

During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly.  In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.”  One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.

When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared.  Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death.  This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death.  This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.


The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction.  I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s.  It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis.  The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe.  Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled.  There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary.  In the end all would return to the Source from which they came.  In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.

Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries.  Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live.  It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire.  Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose.  Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.

Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom.  Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition.  The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective.  It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law.  It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”

When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace.  Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin.  Luther, following Augustine, rejected that.  But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will.  He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition.  Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit.  Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.

Love, metaphysically

If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”

John’s theology could have prevailed.  But it did not.  What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.

But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love.  To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being.  That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get.  From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong.  “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus.  For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything.  Love “seeks not its own.”  That is the ultimate human achievement.  Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human.  It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.

The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure.  To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is.  “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do.  Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.

All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture.  For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them.  It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood.  We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle.  Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos.  Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge.  Each culture runs by its own set of rules.

There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people.  In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created.  A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate.  Penury entails isolation and death.  It’s the game of life as we have structured it.  It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments.  The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE.  There is no forgiveness for failure.

We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry.  We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it.  Religion is a structure we impose on life.  It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.

The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing.  The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply.  Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.

What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion.  Do we have immortal souls?  That’s a factual question.  We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa.  Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality.  Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other.  The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not.  The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.

To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it.  Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want.  To love is an end in itself.  If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.

And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota.  Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.

American Exceptionalism: the theocratic imperative

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that is becoming part of our common parlance.  It was given heavy traffic in the later Bush years to justify American foreign policy goals and prerogatives as projected by neo-conservative ideology.  It was a signature theme of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The notion that America is exceptional has been with us for a very long time.  It originated with Alexis de Tocqueville whose observations in 1835 are often cited as a source for early attitudes toward the nascent American experiment in republican government.  But what he meant came from a straightforward comparison between American democracy and the restored monarchies of Europe.  It had none of the apocalyptic overtones projected by the modern neo-cons and tea-party fanatics.  For them, America represents the chosen instrument of “God” himself for the carrying out of the “divine plan” for the world.  It is precisely this theological dimension that I find religiously grotesque and politically dangerous.  The term may have originated with de Tocqueville as the historians say, but the theocratic notion as we have it today has an origin of its own.  I would like to trace that provenance.


 In the late fall of 2003, six months after President Bush officially declared “victory” and the US settled into the unofficial protracted bloodletting known as the Iraq War, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne sent out Christmas cards containing these lines:

 “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,

is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Cheney’s greetings never used the phrase “American exceptionalism” but the sentiments express the core concept:  Empire may have traditionally been considered diametrically opposed to American democratic values, but America is special.  Its wealth and power are a proof of divine “blessings.”  If we are an empire — and Cheney’s card says, why deny it? — “God” himself must be behind it.  This is a religious, not a political sentiment.  And it derives from an American self-perception that developed far earlier than the 1830’s.  It came from the initial colonial experience itself.

The Puritans who landed near Boston in 1620 were not particularly interested in democracy.  In fact, politics was not their main concern.  They came to these shores because they were escaping a religion they could no longer abide — the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church — and if they were going to have the reformed “pure” Christianity they wanted, they would have to get away from the King to do it.  Kings were not the issue … kings were fine.  The problem was with this particular English king for whom the all-too-Catholic Anglican Church had been made an agent of the monarch’s theocratic rule.  Subjects of the king had to embrace his religion or face punishment.  Hence, to escape what they saw as an unreformed religion, the Puritans had to escape the English King.

The King, for his part, could not have been more pleased.  The massacre by Indians of the colony founded at Jamestown in Virginia made it very likely that these Puritan troublemakers would be similarly dispatched.  Yes, go to America!  The Puritans were well aware of the dangers and the attitude of the King who would not protect them.  But they went because they were willing to invest their lives in what they believed was “true Christianity.”  “God” was with them and through them “God” would build a “new world.”

The colonization of New England was a foundational religious undertaking; it had nothing directly to do with the rejection of monarchy or a desire for democratic government.  Evidence for this abounds.  Colonists who refused to hew to the Puritans’ creed and standard of behavior were expelled or even executed as the infamous witchcraft trials attest.  The Puritans believed they had founded “God’s” “City on the Hill,” a “pure” Christianity, and the “blessings” that they would accrue in prosperity and dominion would prove it.  Their goal for this City was religious truth and “Christian” behavior.  That its government was democratic and respected the freedom of religious conscience of its dissident citizens was the last thing on their mind.  They were as religiously intolerant as the King.

It is my contention that the Puritans’ attitude toward their new life in America was shared, broadly speaking, by most of the people emigrating from Europe who followed them.  Immigrants were leaving places where things were being done wrong and coming to America where they were going to do them right.  They were convinced that “God” was squarely on their side in this adventure in founding a new and better world.

This sense that America was “God’s” promised land remained as an unofficial but often expressed truism — the assumed underpinning of the complex constitution drawn up to guarantee the religious rights of competing visions of the “City on the Hill.”  It came to reside, often dor­mant, in the American subconscious and would suddenly awake and emerge when least expected.

Take, for example, the Church of Latter Day Saints, known as “Mormons.”  This millenarist ersatz-Christian religion was founded in 1830, the same year as de Tocqueville’s visit.  Few are familiar with the Mormons’ bizarre beliefs and the traumatic history that resulted from them.  According to the Mormon faith, shortly after the Palestinian ministry that culminated in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Jesus himself preached in America, giving his law to an ancient tribe of Native Americans.  Another of their beliefs that energized the early Mormon years was a revelation announced by their founder, Joseph Smith, that the imminent Second Coming of Christ was going to occur at the “center place” of Zion (the United States), located near Independence, Missouri, which they believed had also been the site of the Garden of Eden.  The attempt to establish their community there in 1844 ran into violent resistance from the local residents.  The Mormons were driven out, and eventually settled in Utah.  The Mormon faith teaches that God, himself, inspired the Constitution of the United States, much as he inspired the Bible.[1]   The United States was not just another country.  It was “God’s” chosen place.

It would be wrong to single out Mormonism as the source of “American exceptionalism.”  I offer it as only the most extreme example of an attitude which is shared by many religious Americans.  Fundamentalist Protestants seem especially prone to express similar beliefs, but they are not alone.  It’s interesting to note how the Mormon perspective emerged spontaneously without any influence from the outside.  That meant it had been there all along, subconsciously, as it were, among the rural people of Western New York State since the days of the Puritans.  This speaks to its widespread existence among the colonial and early American population.  It is a national characteristic and can be reasonably assumed to continue on today.


 Simply put, these attitudes provide the basis and justification for theocracy — the ideological projection of a set of religious “truths,” required behavior and ritual practices as the norms of civil society and governance.   When the term “American exceptionalism” is used, it is usually associated with a conservative form of Christianity and a belief that the “God” who is identified as the Hebrew “God” and the Father of Jesus Christ micro-manages events through­out the world through the use of “chosen servants” who are the agents of his “plan.”  “American exceptionalism” assumes that the United States is one of those agents, and the principal one.  As a social dynamic, except for the details of doctrinal content, it functions remarkably like the Islamist theocracies that Americans fear and condemn.

Theocracies have existed since time immemorial and everywhere on the planet.  Politics has rarely been separated from religion.  In fact, given the organic integrity of the human phenomenon, ideological homogeneity between ruler and religion would naturally occur unless prevented.  At root and initially there are no hard distinctions between the political, economic, moral and religious side of humankind’s presence in the world.  It is only later, when aspects of social existence are rationalized for the purposes of organizational control that the political came to be distinguished from the religious, the social from the individual, the moral from the doctrinal.  Let’s look at some examples of how this played out in Western history.

The Greek experiment in republican government, on which the American constitution was modeled, coincided with the birth of philosophical rationalism around the 6th century bce but always functioned within a set of religious assumptions and ritual practices.  It turned out to be a relatively short lived phenomenon.  Around 400 bce Socrates himself was executed by democratically elected officials on religious grounds because he “corrupted the youth” of Athens undermining their faith in the gods.  And representative government itself disappeared from Greece barely 75 years later when Alexander the Great conquered the then known world and assumed the mantle of empire.

The gods were important to Alexander and his three successor monarchies.  The Seleucids’ attempt to install idols of the Greek gods in the Temple at Jerusalem in the 2nd century bce sparked a fierce resistance from the Jews that led to the Maccabean War recorded in the Old Testament.  The Roman Republic, too insignificant at the time for inclusion in Alexander’s Empire, had begun its history around 500 bce and lasted until dictatorship was finally established with the Caesars at the end of the 1st century bce.  The gods were central to Republican Rome’s belief about itself throughout the time of its phenomenal growth through conquest.  Rome’s last major expansion took place under Julius Caesar who at the time was a military commander still answerable to the Senate.  The loyalty of the legions to his person came from their conviction that the gods were with him personally.  “Fortuna” was a goddess the soldiers worshipped.  It was this belief in his divine destiny that allowed him to defy the Senate, cross the Rubicon and turn the republic into a dictatorship.

Military success and unparalleled wealth “proved” Rome’s divine status.  That was a generalized undisputed conviction of the ancient world (and still is for many today).  Known as diva Roma, “divine Rome” ruled its conquered subjects on this reputation.  When Caesar Augustus encountered difficulty in maintaining control over Rome’s vast empire he attributed it to the moral laxity of the Roman ruling classes and the consequent displeasure of the gods.  The two issues, of course, religion and morals, were always intimately linked, and empire was the will of the gods.  Augustus was so convinced of these connections that he called adultery “treason.”  He introduced draconian measures designed to tighten morality, going so far as to exile even his own daughter Julia for “immorality.”  He used dictatorial power in an attempt to restore the moral fiber of the republic and secure the good will of the gods.  Long before Christianity, the Roman Empire was a theocracy.[2]


 With the election of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, Rome was finally able to ground the moral reform that the emperors had been seeking for so long.  They had failed because trying to motivate moral behavior by appealing to gods whose own behavior was flagrantly immoral was an exercise in futility.  Christianity provided the whip they needed.  The central focus on reward and punishment in the afterlife, presided over by a sinless “God” who was both all-powerful and all knowing, was perfect for their purposes.  This providential “God” micro-man­aged every event that occurred anywhere in the universe including political success.  Hence the Romans, well before Cheney, could justifiably ask “… could our empire have arisen without his aid”?  It was precisely this rhetorical question that St Augustine, the 5th century Roman Catholic theologian, answered emphatically in his book De Civitate Dei, “The City (Rome) of God.”  The Roman Empire, he confidently declared, had been predestined by “God” to universal dominion — no matter what theft and slaughter was perpetrated in the offing — precisely to be the instrument of the universal diffusion of Christianity.  Hence was established a new principle: The true purpose of the state was to advance true religion.  With Augustine’s theology the religious and political orders were united in Christianity and never completely separated until the French revolution in 1789.  Even the American “separation of Church and State” was guaranteed by a constitution that continued to use the western theist “God” for its justification and legitimacy.  Quiet as it’s kept, for most people, despite official toleration of other traditions, the American republic was always a Christian nation.

Due to the dominance of Roman culture, Western Europe, from Portugal to Poland, from Norway to the Danube was solidly Roman Catholic for the next thousand years.  Augustine’s interpretation of the ancillary role of the state in promoting Christianity as the true religion was accepted without question.  The Puritans were no different.  And it was precisely because they had not changed their theology that they changed their religion.  When the Puritans decided the King, not unlike the Pope before him, could not be trusted with the protection and advancement of true Christianity, they rejected the King, just as they had rejected the Pope.  The mantle of “divinely approved authority” thereupon devolved upon them, the Puritans and other Christians who shouldered the task of spreading the “truth of God’s salvation” throughout the world by establishing it first in America.  If people of this persuasion embraced democracy it was not for its own sake.  It was a way of bypassing a retrograde King; it was a tool for advancing their reformed theocracy.   For them it was a tactic driven by the theocratic imperative — the need to have a government that allowed true religion to flourish.  So long as “democracy” served that purpose, they would live with it.  But once it threatened Christian pre-eminence all bets were off.  Thus was born an “Exceptionalism” that subordinated the American constitution and the foreign policy adventures of its government to the “plan of God.”


 There are things that emerge from this quick survey that are extremely important, and they bear emphasizing:  Once you posit a micro-managing personal “God” who providentially guides all events that occur in the universe including the affairs of men, theocracy becomes the default position and it is logically very difficult, if not impossible to escape from it.  If you want out, your one recourse is arbitrary and subjective: you have to claim — without evidence — that “God” really does not want things the way they are but permits them because “he” respects human freedom and the laws of nature.  Then, you are stuck with finding reasons that fly in the face of the “proofs” of wealth and power for your claim that “God” really wants things to change.  Without that escape clause, your theology tells you that everything that happens is part of “God’s plan,” and that what “God” wants is indicated by where he bestows his “blessings.”

This means the way things are is the way “God” wants them to be.  This tends to canonize the status quo and insulates it from criticism.  It justifies the elite beneficiaries who want to keep things just the way they are no matter how damaging it might be to other people.  If furthermore you are convinced that your own prosperity and economic security are “blessings” that are sent you personally by “God,” then, you probably also believe that you (or your race or your ethnic origins) are superior — that those who are not so “blessed” are somehow genetically and morally inferior, and are destined to immorality, laziness, lack of initiative, stupidity, etc. and therefore deserve what they get. 

Moreover, it means that the wealthiest and most powerful nation — the current empire? — and its way of life (its language, culture, government, laws, religion and esthetic taste) must be the very best because it is “blessed” by “God,” and others should at least emulate it if they can’t actually become part of it.  For many immigrants, in this scenario, coming to America corresponds as much to a kind of idolatry — entering “God’s” promised land — as to a rational choice for economic opportunity and political freedom.  If, again, this nation’s people promote what they claim is one true religion — in this case Christianity — founded and given its governing structure by “God” himself, then it follows that the national government should be dedicated to its protection, and every human being across the face of the earth should be encouraged to incorporate into it for their own good.  It would seem predictable that over time a fundamentalist Christianity will come to dominate and eventually displace or distort other traditions.  It happens with all empires … the Celtic and Teutonic religions have all disappeared … the religions of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas have all disappeared … religious, linguistic, cultural homogeneity is the inevitable by-product of empire.

Notice that in all of the above, human rational choice and decision are pre-empted by a sacred order preordained and managed by “God.”  What theocracy requires of human beings is, fundamentally, to leave things alone.  Do not presume to determine your own destiny, it has already been determined for you by “God” as articulated by the true religion and as the status quo providesThis is the “accepted wisdom” inherited from our multi-millennial culture.  Some of these notions go back to the ancient totalitarian empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt and were inherited by the Roman Imperial theocracy.  They became embedded in the dogmas of Rome’s Church and formed the attitudes of its people; they are the common heritage of theocracy and empire.  Indeed it might be reasonably argued that empire, which needs to control a multiplicity of diverse cultures and populations, could not function without the extraordinary compliance and self-submission to the established order that universal religion alone can inspire.  Empire must somehow convince its people that by submitting to it, they are submitting to “God.”  This may help explain why people who do not share the religion of the overlord often have to be controlled by military force.  They are not inclined to self-submit to a “God” they do not believe in.

Now, on the other hand entirely, if you do not share this perspective … if you are convinced that governments and their constitutions do not come from  “God” but are created and installed by men for the purposes that they decide in common … if you realize that wealth and power are the products of a particular way that we have organized the distribution of goods necessary for human survival and well-being and are not the “blessings” of “God” as a reward for moral or intellectual superiority … if you recognize that all religions are the conditioned efforts of culturally diverse peoples across the planet to express their sense of the sacred and to discern the “God” who is the source of LIFE, and therefore are all equally valid … then you have to rethink your idea of “God” and religion.  The traditional concept of “God” as a rational, micro-managing “person” and the traditional western conviction that “God” established Christianity as the “one true religion” for whose protection the state exists, lead inevitably to the kind of theocracy that fueled the siege engines of ancient Rome.  These doctrines may be justly called, “the theology of theo­cracy” … and empire is impossible without it.


  Cheney’s card was right to this extent: there is a logical connection between theology and politics.  You will have to adjust your theology to your politics, or you can be certain that your politics will ultimately adjust to your theology.  Dump religion altogether?  It may work for you personally, but as a solution it will not carry over into the next generation or beyond your little clique.  There is no real “solution” to the human problem that does not deal with the radical transformation of mass religion.  Humankind has a sense of the sacred and religion will not go away.  Religion, like everything else we do, has to be made subordinate to human needs.  When it seemed the Roman Empire was good for all of humanity, our Roman Catholic religion was made subordinate to the needs of the Roman Empire, and Rome’s successor states through the next millennium and a half were all made in its image and likeness through the conscientious formation of Christian doctrine.  It is time now to acknowledge this imperial etiology and subordinate religion to another political vision, one that we in our time determine is good for all of us.  We no longer believe in Empire or in empire’s “God.”

Cheney, finally, was quite wrong.  His card omitted the second half of what Jesus said:  “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  He was referring to our intrinsic value.  We can trust this LIFE we bear as our own: it makes us sacred and calls us to determine our own destiny.

[1] Richard T. Hughes, “The Mormon Faith and the Romney Doctrine of American Exceptionalism,” Huffington Post  9/12/2012

  [2] Catherine Edwards The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, Cambridge U. Press, (1993) 2002, p.44-45, 61