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Was Jesus an ‘Apocalyticist?’ — Is a Cop a ‘Malfeasance Disruptor?’

The professor is up to his old tricks again and he calls to mind “that blaggart who uses the science of speech more to blackmail and swindle than teach”—teaching Christianity up there at the university. It is okay if you take it for what it is—a humanist approach to teaching Bible verse. But I can’t help but think that at least some of his students sign up imagining they will acquire what builds their relationship with God.

I think this because I took such courses myself back in my college days, as electives, with just that thought—that I would learn what would help me better know God. The courses were taught by a retired Southern Baptist clergyman of some stature. He joked at how, back in his seminary days, John was known as “the apostle to the idiots” for the simple language that characterize the writings attributed to him. I distinctly remember that when I later came in touch with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I very casually dropped the fact that there were four gospels—that way they would know that they weren’t just talking to any dunce but to someone who knew a thing or two about the Scriptures. In certain circles, you can know almost nothing yet walk around thinking yourself well informed.

Maddeningly, Professor Ehrman explains at considerable length how Jesus was an “apocalypticist” and how that identification must be understood to make any sense out of his life. There is nothing wrong with explaining that Jesus was an apocalypticist, but it is a little like explaining that a cop is a “malfeasance disruptor” and that the tenets of malfeasance disruption must be understood in other to grasp what might possibly motivate the cop to do what he does. As with all his lectures on biblical scripture, the professor sets aside the meat to chew on the rind and presumably gets his students to think that the rind is the meat.

 

I was assigned a student talk of dramatizing how one make a return visit using 2 Timothy 3:1-5, apocalyptic writings through and through, from the apostle Paul—though, if I recall correctly, not all “scholars” think that it was Paul who wrote the letter, maybe because  they don’t see him being too apocalyptic in other letters. I wasn’t crazy about the assignment. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 is a little tricky to use. It is such a long list of negative traits that you begin you feel you’re pummeling the householder going through them all.

I have developed my own way, which was not the one suggested on the program. Maybe it would be like the time when the school conductor said, “Actually, you didn’t really address the theme,” and I had replied, “Oh—I changed that,” which made him laugh uproariously because he had never heard of such a thing. Fortunately, in this case, the demands of the talk were not high and I fixed what I had on the fly to make it dovetail with the adjacent talks—three of them are supposed to go together as a progressive unit.

But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.  For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having an appearance of godliness but proving false to its power; and from these turn away.”

I count 19 adjectives. That’s a lot. Sometimes I skip around to highlight just 3 or 4. Sometimes I point out that, since the verses have always been there and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been coming around for a long time, it used to be that if you read the passage and your household didn’t agree that they were true today more than in times past, there wasn’t much you could do about it—plainly, the verses are subjective. But each passing day, especially thanks to politics, makes it harder and harder to dismiss such verses as irrelevant. You can still do it, of course, but your nose sort of grows like Pinocchio.

“Why is it that you always have to think that things are getting worse?” one skeptic asked me, adding “what does that view do for you?” I replied that it helps me to explain why the Doomsday Clock was set at a few moments prior to midnight and not 10:30 AM. But I could have just said: “Because I am an apocalypticist.” That would have made the professor happy—for picking up on his lingo.

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Beware the ‘Criteria of Dissimilarity’

Jesus was a carpenter. So says the New Testament. The professor concurs that he probably was. He does not concur because the Bible writer says it was so. He mistrusts the writers to convey historical truth accurately—they are too busy changing the story to fit their own “theologies,” he maintains. Everything they say is suspect and must be verified by critical analysis.

As it turns out, Jesus being a carpenter passes the “criteria of dissimilarity” and for that reason the professor accepts it as probably valid. Nobody is going to lie about Jesus being a carpenter because that does not paint him in a flattering light. A liar would have made Jesus a lawyer, a noble, an esteemed teacher such as the professor himself—something more respectable. But he identifies Jesus as a carpenter and thus fesses up to something “dissimilar” to his own interests of making Jesus look good. It is a fine example of passing the “criteria of dissimilarity.”

I’m not sure how much of this wisdom I can stand. Professor Ehrman here reveals why he will misconstrue most everything of importance about Jesus. So much higher criticism reflects classism—one class looking down on the other. ‘Jesus followers would never own up to his being a carpenter unless he really was one because it is an embarrassment to be a carpenter’ is the operating assumption. Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe the pecking order of society that the professor has internalized is not the grand ranking scheme of the cosmos. Maybe God thinks a carpenter is not such a loser for failure to climb to loftier heights in life. Maybe it is those lofty heights themselves that he disdains.

It is a little like when Mike Bloomberg says: "I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It's a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Does he really seek to mitigate the “offense” he might cause by suggesting farming to his educated audience? Does the remark reveal something about farmers, or does it reveal something about Bloomberg? The little people were not happy to hear that the former mayor could teach any orangutan their job. It’s a four-year-old quote and arguably taken out of context—or does the actual insult extent to lathe operators, and indeed all who work with their hands?

I’ll bet also that Jesus being born in a stable would knock the “criteria of dissimilarity” ball right out of the park—you just know it would. It is so humiliating, supposes the higher critic—plainly any Bible writer worth his salt would love to say Jesus was born in the Jerusalem Hyatt—in the Presidential suite!—so if he embarrassingly lets slip that the stable was the place of birth, it is undoubtedly so.

In fact, if there is one guiding star of the Bible writers, it is that the pretentions of humans do not cut much ice with God. He shoves away the finest things of humankind just to show what he thinks of them. The stable is a fine place for the Savior to be born, for in the stable will be more of the people he favors: “Though Jehovah is high, he takes note of the humble, But the haughty he knows only from a distance,” says Psalm 138:6. That being the case, it is well to hang out where the humble are in preference to where haughty are, because the quality rubs off. The stable will do just fine.

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Was Abraham Autistic?—Who Would Have Thought It?

4000 years after Abraham bargained with God—the verses read as though he got the better of Him!—along comes a writer who suggests the man was autistic. Only if you had autism would you be so completely unaware of the impropriety of staring down God, so goes the rationale. Here is exchange, located at Genesis 18:

Then Abraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are 50 righteous men within the city. Will you, then, sweep them away and not pardon the place for the sake of the 50 righteous who are inside it? It is unthinkable that you would act in this manner by putting the righteous man to death with the wicked one so that the outcome for the righteous man and the wicked is the same! It is unthinkable of you. Will the Judge of all the earth not do what is right?”

Then Jehovah said: “If I find in Sodom 50 righteous men in the city, I will pardon the whole place for their sake.”

But Abraham again responded: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah, whereas I am dust and ashes. Suppose the 50 righteous should lack five. Because of the five will you destroy the whole city?” To this he said: “I will not destroy it if I find there 45.” But yet again he spoke to him and said: “Suppose 40 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it for the sake of the 40.” But he continued: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me go on speaking: Suppose only 30 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it if I find 30 there.”

But he continued: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah: Suppose only 20 are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the 20.” Finally he said: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me speak just once more: Suppose only ten are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” When Jehovah finished speaking to Abraham, he went his way and Abraham returned to his place.

Did Abraham just get the better of God? Only an autistic man would be so rash to try! It reminds me of when I entered the living room of a home where I had been invited and an autistic son descending the stairs said to me (four times his age) “What are you doing here?” “Asperger’s” is the specific brand of autism we are speaking of here, I think, though the writer does not say it.

This post was introduced to me with the ‘Hoo boy!’ remark that “Now they're speculating as to whether Abraham had autism. These retro-diagnoses really are getting a bit out of hand.” So I was prejudiced against it and that prejudice held up well while reading it. And then I noticed something that changed everything: the writer is a seventh grader, Meyer Lewis. I take back everything I was thinking. It’s brilliant.

That’s not to say I buy it. In fact, the very idea of an “autism spectrum” upon which one might “identify” seems dubious to me. Even more dubious is to contrast it with “neurotypical” people not on the “spectrum.” Is it science or is it marketing to line up conditions that may or may not be related as though they were different gradients of the same thing? I am happier just to recognize that there are differences in people. But this is hardly a reflection on Meyer—he is taught this stuff in school—of course he is going to pick up on it.

Meyer is autistic himself, he says, and ‘it takes one to know one.’ That’s why he reads into Abraham something no one else would. He also tells me something about Greta Thunberg, the global warming kid, that I didn’t know—she too is autistic, and is unaware of the social graces that hem in others!

Meyer plays the connection even further. Later in the Torah, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, and Abraham doesn’t give him any feedback at all? How to explain this, from the fellow who wrung the concessions he did from God, whittling down the 50 persons required for God to save the place to just 10? Well, he experiences “selective mutism” in this latter case, which Meyer has also experienced—that’s why he thinks he can put himself in the patriarch’s shoes. The request is so “confusing and subtle” for Abraham to grasp that he freezes up, just as Meyer freezes up if you throw everything but the kitchen sink at him all at once.

I don’t like the categorizing of people that Meyer is taught, but given that he is taught it, I like what he does with it. It undermines the very foundation of critical thinking in that it reveals we are a collection of our experiences and it is those experiences that skew, if not determine, how we think. He will always see situations the way he does, but others will see things according to their own perceptions molded by their own experiences. Will critical thinking enable us to “come together” and find common consensus? I wouldn’t hold my breath. “Stay apart” is what has defined us throughout history.

The seventh grader even quotes Elie Wiesel, and endorses his take that “God invited Abraham to play this role. It is as if God turns to us, the readers of the future, and says, ‘I’m going to tell Abraham what I intend to do to Sodom so that he will argue with Me. I want to lose this argument.’” God thereby prods Abraham to reveal the good that is in his heart. I like it. Even if it is not God’s purpose, it certainly is the effect.

A noble handling of verse from the youngster, so that I, several times his age, ought be ashamed of the silly use I put the verses to—using them to trace the possible origen of a pejorative roundly considered offensive today—so that Meyer’s parents will either forbid him to read it or encourage him to on the basis of learning to spot an ignoramus when he sees one.. Either way, it’s dubious for me, but good for him.

 

 

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Is God Omniscient? Omnipresent? Playing the Abraham Card

Whenever the religionists come around trying to tell me of God’s “omniscience”—let alone his “omnipresence”—I play the Abraham card: “Then Jehovah said [to Abraham]:

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is very heavy. I will go down to see whether they are acting according to the outcry that has reached me. And if not, I can get to know it.”

He didn’t know if it was true or not! And in order to find out, he would have to go down there and check it out! To be sure, this is a personification of God. It is conversation with a ‘man’—an angel—representing him. Still, there is no reason that the angel representing HIm could not have said:

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and of course, I know all about it. I’m God! What! Do you think I have to go down there myself and check it out?”

He did have to ‘go down there and check it out!’ He’s not omniscient. He’s not omnipresent. Love the personification. When the Bible speaks of the “eye of Jehovah,” the “ear of Jehovah,” the “hand of Jehovah,” the “arm of Jehovah”—he doesn’t have anything of these things. It’s all for our sake. It plants the perception that Paul relates 2000 years later, that “in fact, [God] is not far off from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)

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Whittling a Deal Out of God

“Can you imagine having a conversation with God?” someone asks reverently—but maybe too reverently to strike a chord with the general population. “The very thought inspires awe—the Sovereign of the universe speaking to you! You hesitate at first, but then you manage to reply. He listens, he responds, and he even makes you feel free to ask any question you want.”

Let’s earthy the remark up a little bit—so as to reach people who don’t eat Bible sandwiches. I mean, nothing is wrong with the remark, nothing whatsoever. But maybe we can broaden its base of appeal.

He probably has in mind the latter third of Genesis chapter 18, because all Jehovahs Witnesses consider a sequential portion of scripture each week and this week it is Genesis 18 and 19.

Yeah—a conversation with God is something, all right—let alone wheeling & dealing with him, and seemingly emerging with the upper hand—that’s what happens when God and Abraham haggle over the future of Sodom. There is even a pejorative phrase about Jews in business, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this verse wasn’t pointed to as the underlying authority:

Then Abraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 50 righteous men within the city. Will you, then, sweep them away and not pardon the place for the sake of the 50 righteous who are inside it? It is unthinkable that you would act in this manner by putting the righteous man to death with the wicked one so that the outcome for the righteous man and the wicked is the same! It is unthinkable of you. Will the Judge of all the earth not do what is right?” Then Jehovah said: “If I find in Sodʹom 50 righteous men in the city, I will pardon the whole place for their sake.”

But Abraham again responded: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah, whereas I am dust and ashes. Suppose the 50 righteous should lack five. Because of the five will you destroy the whole city?” To this he said: “I will not destroy it if I find there 45.” But yet again he spoke to him and said: “Suppose 40 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it for the sake of the 40.” But he continued: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me go on speaking: Suppose only 30 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it if I find 30 there.”

But he continued: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah: Suppose only 20 are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the 20.” Finally he said: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me speak just once more: Suppose only ten are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” When Jehovah finished speaking to Abraham, he went his way and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:23-33)

He outmaneuvered God! Look, I don’t do pejoratives here—I really don’t. I don’t want anyone coming after me saying that I do. On the other hand, every phrase has a etymology. Is this where the expression “jewing someone down” comes from?

These days, the ones who seem to me most behind the negotiating curve is Westerners—everyone else has learned to copy Abraham handily. As immigrants and refugees step from sinking islands onto ones that seem more stable, they bring extraordinary wheeling and dealing skills with them. If there is a marketplace back home—watch out! Westerners see the price tag, gulp, and reach down into their purse. ‘Foreigners’ see that price tag and regard it as a most interesting opening bid for negotiation.

Nguyen was my all-time hero in this. He left me speechless as he related picking up his new Toyota from the dealer. He circled it carefully. He spied something out of place and pounced upon it. “What’s this?!” he cried. “This is not my car! This is not the one I ordered! I don’t want it!”

The salesman was nervous. He had already given away half the store negotiating with this fellow. Of course it was his car. Nguyen pointed to a spot. “That was not on my car! I don’t want this one!”

“Oh,” the salesman sighed with relief. ”That is just the dealer sticker. We put that on all cars we sell” Nguyen gasped in disbelief. “You want me to advertise for you—for free?!” By the time he was done, he’s whittled a few more hundred out of the poor fellow.

“I hadn’t actually planned to do that,” he told me later with a smile. “It just occurred to me that moment.”

And as far as I know, before studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, he’d never heard of Abraham.

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Ehrman on Matthew—and How I Was Always the Cleaner

During Mike’s fanatical and zealous ministry days, he worked part-time in a parking lot. During my steady-as-she-goes balanced days, I worked as a cleaner. Sometimes in the ministry I would accompany him. When householders would slam the door in his face I would say to myself, “Well, they really had no choice.” (not to worrry—he’s been gone for a long time now)

Mike had worked hard to land his Public Parking job. The owner told him day after day that he had no openings. Moreover, he kept pointing out that Mike was overqualified—probably he would last one or two boring days and quit. However, Mike’s favorite scripture was the one about the widow who nagged the unrighteous judge to get what she wanted.

Any counselor on job-seeking will tell you that you do not go day after day to badger the would-be employer after he has turned you down. Mike swore by the system and used it repeatedly. Eventually that employer would throw all his notions of what is proper out the window and hire you just to get you out of his hair, after which you work to prove that he made a good decision. Of course, you have to have incredibly thick skin to pursue this strategy. Mike had that.

Every day he showed up bright and early to wheedle the parking lot owner, Every day he was turned away. One day the fellow said, “I don’t know why you want this job so much, but as it turns out, one of the guys didn’t show this morning. If you want to take his place, I’ll hire you.” Thus began several years for Mike in the parking lot shack, where he could study to his heart’s content all day long and if thieves had towed away every car in the lot, he would not have noticed.

In time, he also picked up a distributorship for a line of cheap jewelry. Anyone who knew jewelry stayed far away from the stuff, but many didn’t know it any better than he—if it shined, it sold.

Mike was very taken at the time with his role of teaching the Bible for free. He loved Jesus words, “You received free—give free. No making a buck off teaching the Word of God for him! Pretty much everything was a scam in his eyes—he had been raised in a company of carnival performers—and there was no scam he considered more pernicious than religion.

“I don’t make any money doing this,” he would tell the householder, with earnestness so thick you could cut it with a knife. “I work in a parking lot. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” However, if he was working in affluent areas, he would say “I don’t make any money doing this. I sell jewelry. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” I might as well have held up a mop at that point to confirm his words. His work description changed—mine didn’t!

 

I don’t know why the Great Courses professor can’t get his head around this. When you are addressing an audience, you select arrows from your quiver most likely to help you make your case. Just because you leave the ‘parking lot’ arrow in your quiver to launch the ‘jewelry’ one instead does not mean that it does not exist.

You think you can get this through Professor Ehrman’s head? He leaves Mark to consider Matthew and he develops the theme of how Matthew presents Jesus as “the Jewish messiah.” This is not particularly controversial. Every JW knows it. Well—they may not know it, many of them, because it is an incidental topic, not the centerpiece the Professor makes it of his lecture, but if they hit their own books they will find that it is so. Jerome and Origen even say that the Gospel, alone of all New Testament books, was first written in Hebrew. This second lecture from the Professor annoys less than the first because so much of it purports to prove this point that Witnesses already know.

Alas, he presently veers off into explaining “redaction criticism.” See, the writer of Matthew probably had a copy of Mark, “scholars agree,” so if Mark contains something that Matthew does not it is because the latter “redacted” that something—he took it out because it didn’t suit his purpose. Well, in fact that’s what Mike did in the affluent areas—redacting the parking lot for the jewelry salesman (though I was always a cleaner). Other than annoying me, there is nothing wrong with this—in fact, it is just using common sense to reach your audience. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to gain Jews...to those without law I became as without law...to the weak I became weak, in order to gain the weak,” the apostle would write later. You do what you must to reach your audience.

But the professor looks for signs of division. He doesn’t look for signs of agreement. To him the early Bible writers are competing with one another. They are “changing the narrative” so as to promote their own “theologies.” They are all like traveling snake oil salesmen, each hawking his own product, each hoping to run the other off the road. Oh—and with the added nettlement that, since Jesus’ 12 disciples were “peasants” obviously incapable of writing narratives—even given all the time in China—“educated” persons must have written those books and identified themselves as Mark, Matthew, and John, to lend their own view more authority. He all but says it of Jesus’ twelve: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Then the professor comes to the Pharisees. His lecture is not just about what Matthew “redacted” because he didn’t like it—it is also about what he appends because he does like it and wants to change the story. To be the “Jewish messiah” you must pick a fight with those who think you are not, so Jesus does so with the Pharisees.

The professor has already, in a prior lecture, shown himself bewildered that the Pharisees should be known as hypocrites. ‘How can that be?’ he considers, as he presents them as though just nice guys trying to do their best—as any of us would. It is Jesus who calls them hypocrites, not he—they who just have a different “interpretation”—can that possibly justify ad hominem attacks? It is a humanist point of view that the professor exudes. It only needs someone to think it for a viewpoint to be valid. One way to gut scripture is to interpret away whatever you don’t like.

The professor would be a nightmare in the congregation—it’s well that he is not there. The Pharisees were not “professional hypocrites”—he makes a little joke of how he tells his students they didn’t have to take the “hypocritic oath”—they were just a highly committed group of Jews determined to follow the Law as completely as possible. However, the problem with Law was that it was not “explicit” in how it ought to be followed—it was downright “ambiguous” in many areas. You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, for example. That means no harvesting. But what, the professor asks, if you just want something to eat on the Sabbath and pick just enough grain for that purpose? Was that harvesting or not? Well, “a decision has to be made,” he says. What if you walk through the field and accidentally knock some grain off the stalks? Is that harvesting? Once again, “a decision has to be made,” and Pharisees were the ones to make such decisions—decisions on scenarios as picayune as possible—and impose them on others.

What is this with “a decision has to be made?” Nobody has to make such a decision—or rather, they do, but it can be the person deciding for himself. Few human urges are greater than the one to meddle in someone else’s business. “Make it your aim...to mind your own business,” Paul would write later. The Law wasn’t explicit? It was as explicit as it needed to be and was written that way on purpose.

Jesus has it in for the Pharisees in the Book of Matthew, points out the professor, because the purpose of the gospel is to paint him as the “Jewish messiah”—as though proving his credentials by picking fights with those running the show. Probably the most nasty portrayal of the Pharisees is not in Matthew at all, but in John (following the resurrection of Lazarus), but this does not conform to the professors thesis, so he leaves it unmentioned. And Mark, far from exonerating Pharisees, translates certain Hebrew words like ‘corban‘ so that their want of heart can be seen the more clearly. Still, Matthew has a collection of zingers. From the 23rd chapter of the book:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but they do not practice what they say. They bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.

All the works they do, they do to be seen by men, for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards and lengthen the fringes of their garments.

They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues  and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.

But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.“

...“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have shared with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore, you are testifying against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers.”

 

The professor doesn’t take sides. He remains above the fray of “interpretations.” He is a “critical thinker.” Jay wasn’t. When I studied with Jay, if the answer to a question was “the scribes and Pharisees” he would NOT simply give the answer and move on, as I so often wished he would. He would spring up from his chair, strut around his apartment, nose in the air, pompous as could be, and act out the role! He knew hypocrites. He knew ones who loved lording it over others. This stuff goes right to the heart—it either instantly lodges there or it doesn’t. it is silly to try to pretend it is a matter of the head. The heart chooses what it wants—and then charges the head with deriving a convincing rationale for it.

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Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia—and Identification of Those Who Instigate It.

The New York Times today reports the torture of a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian campaign to eliminate the faith. It is the second such instance of torture coming to light. [edit—several more came within a few days] Arrests are commonplace. More commonplace are raids with the confiscation of personal property. 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses were recently place of the federal list of extremists, which means that bank accounts are frozen and they can no longer transact routine financial business.

With an active and prolific critical, at times hate, campaign being waged against Jehovah’s Witnesses online, it is reasonable to think that it indirectly instigates persecution of them in Russia. It is reasonable to think that it indirectly instigates the torching of two Kingdom Halls in the United States during 2019, both of which burned to the ground.

Many groups are harassed in Russia, but it is Jehovah’s Witnesses who are head-and-shoulders the primary target. Why? It boils down to Jesus’ words: “If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world...for this reason the world hates you.” (John 15:19) It is no more complicated than that. Hatred against Witnesses may be cloaked as reports from a “whistleblower” or complaints of those who would advocate freedom from “mind control,” but at root the motivation is simply disturbance that ones should choose to be “no part of the world.” No villain on TV ever says, “I am the villain.” Instead, he paints himself the wronged one with a merited score to settle—and the program director strives so that we all see his point of view. We must not be obtuse.

From TrueTom vs the Apostates!—“The book Secular Faith - How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics attempts to reassure its secular audience through examining the changing moral stands of churches on five key issues. The book points out that today’s church members have more in common with atheists than they do with members of their own denominations from decades past. Essentially, the reassurance to those who would mold societal views is: ‘Don’t worry about it. They will come around. They always do. It may take a bit longer, but it is inevitable.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses have thwarted this model by not coming around.”

What Secular Faith is saying is that churches have in many respects ceased being “no part of the world”—and having done such, are not hated, since “the world is fond of what is its own.” Jehovah’s Witnesses, and almost they alone, are yet remaining “no part of the world”—and that is why they are hated. That is why they have “apostates” who are off the charts in expressing vitriol. “Apostates” (within the Christian context) can be expected to proliferate in direct proportion to how the main body stays separate from the world. As such, Jehovah’s Witnesses should almost be proud of theirs, for in them they are validated. A religion that has made its peace on the “five key issues” of Secular Faith—what’s to apostatize from?

Anti-Witnesses scream “Cult!” like patrons scream ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult? To the extent they are, it is because the Bible is a cult manual. The behavioral, informational, thought, and emotional “control” that anti-Witness activists complain about can be found in the urgings of the New Testament writers themselves. The words indicate no more than people living by the Bible, living peaceably in this world while they look to the righteous new one to come with the arrival of the kingdom Jesus taught his followers to pray for, the one the Bible describes as “the real life.” (1 Timothy 6:19) The agenda of the virulent Witness detractors is simply that no one should think in such an “impractical” way. 

A faith that remains “no part of the world” is thought socially backward, even socially harmful by some. But that hardly means it ought not be allowed to exist, particularly since it dovetails with Jesus’ words. “There has only been one Christian,” Mark Twain too cynically remarked. “They caught and killed him—early.”

I am not even sure that Witnesses should run from the word. It may be well instead to highlight its origin. It is the same origin as ‘cultivate’—which denotes ‘caring for something’—and in a religious sense it refers to ‘caring for the matters of the gods.’ Okay. I’ll take it. Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘care for the matters’ of God. They trigger opposition from ones who don’t want them to do that. They trigger opposition from those who have crossed over to embrace various aspects of the world—the world that Jesus says not to be part of.

This is clear in the testimony of one witness testifying for the prosecution in the Russian trial that would ban the JW organization. She complained of “complete and total control of life by the Administrative Center.” Asked to give an example of this, she reported her expulsion from the congregations after she “began her close, but not officially registered, relations with a man.” In other words, she wants to violate, within the congregation, the Bible sanction of ‘sex only within marriage.’ The Witness organization does not allow it, and she spins it as “complete and total control of life,” hoping to get the Russian Justices riled up.

Look, it is fine to adopt the standards of the world so long as one goes there to do it—don’t bring it into the congregation. She signed on for such Bible-based standards, now she wants to change them—and when thwarted in that attempt, she seeks to get the organization that got in her way banned at the Russian Supreme Court! It is no more than revenge. It is no more than insisting the standards of the greater world be accommodated in the Christian congregation.

Disfellowshipping itself is a last-ditch attempt at discipline, when all else has failed, to ensure that a member not bring standards of the world, no matter how commonly accepted elsewhere, into the congregation. Is it harsh? It certainly can be spun that way, but as ought to be clear by considering Secular Faith, no denomination has succeeded in obeying Jesus’ direction to remain “no part of the world” without it.

History testifies that among the reasons Christians were viciously persecuted in the first century was that their rituals were said to include cannibalism. Obviously Jesus’ followers did not do this, but from where might the charge originate? Might one look to the following passage in the sixth chapter of John, which begins by quoting Jesus?

I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the wilderness and yet they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and for a fact, the bread that I will give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I will resurrect him on the last day.”

When they heard this, many of his disciples said: “This speech is shocking; who can listen to it?”...Because of this, many of his disciples went off to the things behind and would no longer walk with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve: “You do not want to go also, do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, whom shall we go away to? You have sayings of everlasting life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  (6:48-69)

What of the ones who did not “come to know” that Jesus was the Holy One of God? What of the ones who “went to the things behind and would no longer walk with him”? Did they thereafter leave their former co-disciples to worship in peace? Or did some of them draw from these words proof that Jesus would recommend cannibalism to his followers? And if some advanced the notion, might there not have arisen ones in the congregation who pinned the blame on Jesus himself for saying the words that got the persecution ball rolling; ‘What a blunder!’—I can imagine some saying (though not in his presence).

It makes me think of the uproar raised over child sexual abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses today. They are comparatively successful at preventing it—nobody, but nobody, has gathered every single member on earth (at the 2017 Regional Conventions) to consider detailed scenarios in which child sexual abuse might take place so that parents, obviously the first line of defense, can remain vigilant. But the world has little success at preventing CSA, so it focuses on punishing it after the fact, securing the barn door after the cows have fled. Routinely, we read of individuals arrested over CSA allegations. Unless the arrest is of a member of the clergy, the one detail that never accompanies such reports is that of the individual’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. Yet with Jehovah’s Witnesses, that detail is never lacking. Why? 

Plainly, it is that the Witness organization attempted to do something about child sexual abuse—they did not just close their eyes to it—and now detractors are trying to spin it as though they love the stuff. Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known as a religion that “polices its own.” It is an attribute once viewed favorably, but now in the eyes of critics, it is spun as intolerable “control.” Those taking the lead in the Witness organization thereby came to know of individuals accused of CSA, and their “crime,” if it be one, is in leaving it up to affected ones themselves to report rather than “going beyond the law” to do it themselves. Time will tell how vile that sin is found to be, but it plainly falls far short of actually committing the CSA themselves, which is the pattern elsewhere. 

As with Jesus and his remarks that can, in the scheming of dishonest ones, be spun into encouragement of cannibalism, so the JW policy on CSA is spun by similarly dishonest ones to indicate that the organization is determined to nurture and protect it, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Three times before the Australian Royal Commission, Geoffrey Jackson of the Witnesses’s Governing Body pleaded for universal, mandatory reporting laws, with no exceptions—if that could only be done, it would make the job of the Witness organization in policing its own without raising the ire of those outside the congregation “so much easier.”

Continuing his cross-examination, Justice Angus Stewart said: “Leaving aside the question of overriding mandatory law from the civil authorities...” I almost wish that Brother Jackson would have interjected at this point, “I wish you would not leave it aside, for it would solve the problem.” The greater world cannot make a dent in preventing childhood sexual abuse, and so it puts the onus on those who are trying to do something about it. Alas, our best lines invariably occur to us too late—had Brother Jackson picked up my line, it probably just would have got their backs up—and then (gulp) he would have looked at me with displeasure.

More on the Russian connection here.
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The Meeting That Was Not Cancelled and the Canaanites That Were

All day long I had expected the meeting to be canceled due to snow and plunging temps. When the snow did not come, I texted the elder of my service meeting group: “I can’t believe you guys aren’t cancelling the meeting! It’s getting cold tonight, you know.” He replied that he was just a lowly peon and not the one who would make the call. Not good enough. “If I shiver tonight, it’s on you!” I shot back.

But I’m glad it was not cancelled. (It used to be that even an avalanche would not do the trick) The video about communication in marrage was featured, and my wife gave me looks that suggested that she hoped I would benefit from it. After the meeting—maybe the other brothers DO have it all together in that regard—I approached two of them only to overhear. “Well, he WAS watching the ballgame.”

I even got two comments in of my own. About that verse that Jesus, coming into Jerusalem: “and he would not let anyone carry a utensil through the temple” (Mark 11:16)—it was a massive structure and people would take shortcuts through its courtyards, as you might take a shortcut through the mall, with worship of God the farthest thing from your mind—drop by Herschel’s to pick up coffee and bagels, cut through the courtyard heading home. Jesus wouldn’t let them do it, and I likened it to how in the Kingdom Hall you ought to get your act together spiritually and not spend an overabundance of time chatting about mundane stuff.

The other was about the Amorites, the original occupants of the ”promised land“—promised to Abraham’s descendants after 400 years had passed  (Genesis 15:13-16) The Amorites were bad news—unsavory practices as in Leviticus 18 being bedrock to their society—and God allowed 400 years for them to get their act together, even telling offspring of Abraham: “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for it is by all these things that the nations that I am driving out from before you have made themselves unclean...and I will bring punishment on it for its error, and the land will vomit its inhabitants out...you yourselves must keep my statutes and my judicial decisions, and you must not do any of these detestable things.” (18:24-26)

Clearing the land of them, like felling trees, was hardly non-violent, but somehow those verses softens the blow. Jehovah is the Giver of Life, after all, and he does provide an owner’s manual. Clearing out the Canaanites is an exception to ordinary m.o. Once God allows human governments to exist, he pretty gives them free reign, but it is not for nothing that the Bible likens them to wild beasts. 

He allows them to exist because virtually any human government is better than anarchy. But they are not his idea. To referee them would suggest that they are. Sometimes I read Matthew 24:14 and explain that the end that will come is not that of the earth, for it did nothing wrong. It is the end of a system of 200 eternally squabbling nations pushing at each other—surely that was not his idea. But he lets it remain. It beats the alternative. It is a stopgap until “thy kingdom comes.”

Can it do things that are murderous? (someone had asked about that—why is it considered murder when you kill someone but not when governments do?) Well, sure—but the entire arrangement is murderous, a rebellion against God. Even though it is a best-case scenario of that rebellion, it is still murderous. God doesn’t get in there and mediate every little thing—it’s not his arrangement and he interferes hardly at all—but he did with the Canaanites and the 400 years heads-up.

Granted, it’s not everything. It doesn’t quite cover the little children. But I used to explain that when children die today due to parental neglect, people don’t blame God—they blame the parents. Same here—it was for parents to train their children and they neglected to do it. Of course, today people blame God for everything, so the above line doesn’t wash as it once did. 

I wrote a post long ago about why God permits suffering, and an atheist I would swap comments with couldn’t stand it. It hadn’t been written with him in mind. It had been full of appeals to the scriptures, none of which he accepted. So I began to wonder if it couldn’t be repackaged in a way that would appeal to an atheist. I rearranged everything, squashed some ideas, elevated others, and came up with the following. It is more or less relevant here. How does it sound?

The NY driving instructor—of those refresher courses you take so as to get 10% off auto insurance—asked how many in his class thought driving was a right and how many thought it was a privilege. Some thought one, some the other. The answer is that it is a privilege—screw it up and they’ll take it away. Same with Jehovah, the Giver of life

Human governments take life away. They are not the giver of it, though. They abuse their authority. They’ll pay. But their entire existence is an abuse of authority, so when it comes to their killing people—throw it on the stack.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Military, and the Flag

For whatever it’s worth, If I see evidence of military service at someone’s home, I will ask about it. When there is a plaque that a son or daughter is a proud Marine or Navy or Army member, I’ll make the point that you cannot have anything but respect for someone willing to lay his life on the line for what he believes in. If there is some old fellow who identifies with any branch of military service, I’ll hear him out. Everyone has a story to tell, but nobody wants to hear it. I’ll hear them out—providing I’m not keeping an entire car group waiting as I do so. 

If someone’s flag is all wrapped up around the flagpole—the way the wind will do that—I’ll unwrap it while waiting for them to answer the door. And if I see a flag flying in tatters, I get mad—if you’re going to do it, do it right.

I think of that experience—it was published in one of the old yearbooks, I think, of the teacher, for some sort of a civics lesson, telling a Non-Witness and a Witness child to salute the Canadian flag. The first did. The second did not. Next came the direction to spit on the flag. The first did. The second did not. “Why don’t you spit on the flag?” the question was asked, “you didn’t salute it.” The answer was that the flag was a national symbol and as such should be treated with respect, even if not given an act of worship that Witnesses consider a salute to be—the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that way as well. But maybe more telling is the “patriotism” of the first child, who salutes on command and spits on command.

There is often a vague mutual respect between members of the military and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, each of whom recognizes that the other is not rabble and is amenable to discipline. They also recognize about each other that neither harbors racism—people rise and fall independent of race (speaking of the American military here—I’m not in position to testify as to other nations). And it was at the 1958 Divine Will International Convention in New York City (Yankee Stadium & adjacent Polo Grounds) that the U.S. military sent observers to report on how it was possible for Witness volunteers to provide a full-course meal to their quarter-million conventioneers within a short noontime interval—this as related in a Special Report on that event that can be googled and downloaded. (this info supplied by B.F. Shultz, the researcher who is never wrong, who is lauded for “almost a fanatical attention to detail.”)

Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and will not wage war, one might surmise that any encounter with a militarily aligned householder will prove disagreeable, and this can happen. But it doesn’t have to happen, and usually does not by approaching the person with respect and reference to the above points. Often it can be worked into conversation about how odd it is that an individual is serving his country with great feeling and sacrifice, yet if he were in any other country, he would feel exactly the same way with regard to that country—and isn’t it strange that the earth should be divided up that way? Many military and especially veterans are mellowed with their service. I wouldn’t want to go up against a General Patton, who wanted to shoot anyone sitting out the fray, but most are more reflective. My own father, who was a WWII vet and who left religion as a young man and never returned, commented (to my surprise) on the small town square war memorial of the hamlet we were passing through, “They shouldn’t do this—it just glorifies it.”

....

Doesn’t happen too much around here,” someone says. “We even keep RVs down to a minimum,until they become studies. “

Around here there are quite a few that do just the opposite—focus on return visits—and you know the challenge of finding return visits home. It drives me nuts, and I am adamant not to be part of a large car-group, sometimes even a van, doing it. Occasionally I am outmaneuvered and when that happens I lose all interest in the ministry, take the back seat in the van, and nap or compose a blog post.

“That experiment was In 1990, and repeated a couple of times since then. A great experiment, but one that would get the principal and teacher fired.“

I would think so. The only way I could get my head around it was to read it was in a different country.

”Great about the military observing—similar comments from outsiders were announced at the end of many of the assemblies.”

The concluding speaker told how a cop had said, with regard to some pretty obnoxious protestors, “Why don’t you just pop them one?” As to the one of the military monitoring mealtime, I had just about concluded that it was an urban legend—I had a Mormon tell me something similar about his people—but then Shultz told me where it was published.

”Have to admit I have never been alert to flags and war memorabilia, but I'm sure it puts the householder at ease to let them talk about it.”

We all get better at handling challenging situations as we ourselves age. Running into the clergyman is another—or a group plainly immersed in conversation and directly in your path. One fellow eyed me cautiously as I approached. He was lugging heavy boxes from a moving van. “You look like someone that wants to talk about the Bible!” I said jokingly. He laughed so hard he nearly dropped the box.

 
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‘Born Into the Faith’

The one area where detractors have some validity is in saying that the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not make the same choice as did their parents. The parents searched, sometimes for decades. They weighed both paths carefully before choosing the pathway of serving God over the pathway of pursuing the common goals of the world. Their children have never made this search—they were ‘born into the truth’—something we portray as a great asset, and yet something that contains the same drawbacks as being born into wealth. We probably are naive to think that ‘born into the truth’ does not make one vulnerable in some respects. 

The first generation makes the wealth and is thereafter grounded in life. The second generation inherits it, and deprived of that values-forming experience, becomes insufferable, unappreciative, profligate, isolated from the common people—some combination of the foregoing. It doesn’t have to work that way, but it does often enough for the pattern to become a stereotype. 

What’s a wealthy person to do? Cast his son out to live in the refrigerator box until he earns his own wealth? Obviously not. Better to be born into wealth than into poverty. Better to be born into a spiritual paradise than into a spiritual dessert. But the wealthy parent that has any sense makes his son experience what he did himself to the degree possible—makes the kid start on the factory floor as a regular worker, for example—makes the kid earn privileges, doesn’t just hand him things—makes him work his way into his inheritance. 

The Witness parent who simply expects the offspring to ‘make the truth your own’ without allowing him a glimpse into the other side—well, couldn’t that be likened to the wealthy parent who expects his offspring to ‘make the family wealth your own’ without allowing the character-building and adversity-overcoming experiences that were instrumental in his own formation?

It is a matter of degree as to how that is done—I would not suggest that nobody is doing it—and each family must find its own way. Since the beginning of time, parents have endeavored to bring their children up in principles they have convinced themselves are true. Since the Industrial Age at least, general society has tried to pull those children away into its own chosen paths. There certainly is no educational reason that children should be schooled away from their parents at ages as young as 4. It is for societal reasons that compulsory public schooling began. Children ought be separated from the pernicious influence and prejudices of their parents, the thinking went, to make them more compliant to the greater aims of the greater world.

So Witnesses are going to train their children in godly principles—that is only to be expected. It is not the case that if you leave children untrained, they will grow up free, unencumbered, and when of age, with choose their own values from the rich cornucopia of life’s offerings. No. All it means is that someone else will train them. The anti-JW activists are only bellyaching because they want to themselves be those trainers—they do not raise the same protest with regard to the children of anyone else.

 

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