A Matter of Interpretation

by Joel Marks
December 31, 2015
In the infamous Red State /Blue State divide in the United States, the Red States are stereotyped as the patriotic and Christian types. But I wonder. In this increasingly polarized and surprising Twenty-first Century, I have become more and more profoundly disillusioned, and just plain puzzled, by self-proclaimed Christian Americans. Of course one cannot generalize to all Christian Americans, nor are the ones I have in mind found only in the geographic middle of the country. But those of whom I am speaking tend to hog the airways … much as “Islamic fundamentalists” make for better “news” than the presumably very different Islamic mainstream. And increasingly they are steering the country, as in our dysfunctional Congress and now in the Presidential race (at the moment, the Republican contest for the nomination). So the nonsense matters.
            9/11 was the pivotal event that brought all of this muck to the surface. What has disturbed me the most deeply (speaking now of the domestic scene and not even touching on the disastrous invasion of Iraq, although therein lie the true roots of the current events at home) are the overt acts of anti-Muslim sentiment. I am even unaware of vandalism of mosques for the most part, and insults and harassment suffered by individuals. But what catches the attention of a John Q. Public such as myself are naturally events that play out in the national media. Most prominently the attempt to block the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan, and, more recently, the attempt to block immigration by Syrian refugees. I feel humiliated to my American bones by the expressions of intolerance, not to mention abject fear (in this "home of the brave”), now on display by, for example, the majority of the governors of the country!
            But, as I noted at the outset, as much as and more than humiliated, I am just dumbfounded. How can people who are broadcasting their very Americanism be so blind to the blatant unAmericanism of what they are doing? What could be more essential to our national identity than our turning a blind eye to a person’s “race, creed, color, or national origin [etc.]”? Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the country – indeed, even freedom from religion for atheists like myself. The very same principle that ennobles, for example, the firefighting profession – of rushing into a burning building to rescue any person (and, increasingly, any living being, including pets) – is what fills my chest with pride when I think of the United States. What country did these anti-Muslim bigots grow up in, that they were taught something different, and most bizarrely, to call it “American”?
            But my astonishment does not end there. For the original diagnosis of the problem might seem to be that these supposed Americans are Christians who understand America as a nation founded by Christians and typified by Christian values. This is why they are wary of the Muslims. But, American ideals aside, what kind of Christianity is this? To me (a Jew, a Buddhist, and an atheist) the essence of the teachings of that great rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, are most succinctly conveyed by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, thus:

 31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version), BibleGateway.com: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2025&version=31

If this be Christianity, then I am happy to proclaim the United States a Christian nation. Now if only the self-proclaimed Christian Americans would see it the same way!

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