Jesus was silent or ambiguous on questions of sexual morality and hostile towards the family. He would be baffled by the campaigns of the 21st-century evangelical rightby Julian Baggini / October 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
If the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court is confirmed, it will be seen as a victory for Christian family values. One of Trump’s campaign promises in 2016 was to fill the courts with conservative judges and it’s one of the few on which he has delivered. Coney Barrett would be his third conservative appointment to the Supreme Court, which totals only nine. Delighted right wingers are sure that she will help roll back liberal rulings on abortion, divorce and gay marriage.
Coney Barrett insists that the judge is “not there to decide cases as you may prefer” but “to do your duty and to follow the law wherever it may take you.” But few critics or supporters believe she will be non-partisan. After all, she has said that the Catholic church’s views on prohibiting abortion and euthanasia are “absolute” because these things “take away innocent life.”
Yet as the Gospels testify, the family values the Christian right wants to see the courts defend have nothing at all to do with the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus was radically anti-family, in ways that should shake the beliefs of both believers and non-believers alike.
Take issues of sexual morality first. Jesus actually said very little about this. In one specific respect he was very conservative, saying that “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” This was stronger than the orthodox religious laws of the time.
But this teaching is about divorce, not sexual conduct in general. Nor did Jesus ever say precisely why divorce was so deplorable. However, it is not difficult to see why an upright person in first-century Palestine should take such a strong stand. If a woman were divorced by her husband—and it just wasn’t possible for a man to be divorced by his wife—she would be left an outcast, unable to earn a living for herself or her children. These reasons simply don’t apply today.
Whatever his views on sexual sin itself, Jesus was clearly opposed to the condemnation of sexual sinners. This is evident in the story of the woman taken in adultery and brought before him. Trying to trick Jesus into heresy, her accusers asked if she should be stoned, according to the law of Moses. Jesus was initially silent, before saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” One by one they fell away. When he left the woman he told her “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and do wrong no more.”
What this story makes abundantly clear is that Jesus did not believe that anyone had the right to condemn the sinners. Yet his evangelical 21st-century followers not only want to condemn, they want to bring the full weight of the law down on anyone who dares to depart from their unwarranted interpretation of sexual virtue.
More worrying still for the Christian right is that when Jesus talks about family, it is almost always to condemn it. His biological family was of little importance to him. When his mother and brothers turned up one day to see him he ignored them, pointing to his disciples and saying “Behold my mother and my brethren!” His followers were his family now. He said he would split families, that “The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother.” Even more strongly, he said “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
In one passage which is routinely and conveniently ignored, Jesus’ disciples ask him if they are right to conclude that “it is not good to marry.” Jesus essentially agrees but acknowledges this is a difficult issue: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.” But those who can renounce marriage, should: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” One reason why nuns and monks have been considered so holy is that they refuse the carnality of married life.
Such is the paucity of evidence that Jesus approved of marriage that the Anglican marriage service has to resort to the rather desperate claim that “Marriage is a way of life made holy by God, and blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with those celebrating a wedding at Cana in Galilee.” Since Jesus was also present at the homes of tax collectors and prostitutes, the idea that his mere attendance at a wedding constitutes a blessing seems absurd.
As for abortion, the Bible is essentially silent on this. There is not a single verse in the New Testament that comes close to being clearly relevant. Nor does the Old Testament help, unless you make some dubious interpretations.
So Jesus was anti-family, opposed the condemnation of sexual sinners, and was completely silent on abortion. It is a mystery how evangelicals today square this with their righteous condemnation of the behaviour of others and their desire to control it by law. The Jesus who said “Judge not, that ye be not judged: condemn not, that ye be not condemned” would be appalled to see his so-called followers today look to the Supreme Court to enforce their values.
But Jesus’ teachings on sex and family should matter to more than just Christians. His disinterest in such matters is a direct result of his primary focus being on how each of us can become the best people we can be. “Be ye therefore perfect,” he said, knowing that nobody can achieve this. But if striving for unattainable perfection is laudable in sport, art and industry, why should it not be even more so when it comes to our moral development?
When we make family the be-all and end-all, we narrow our concerns to the welfare of those closest to us. The worship of family is a kind of idolatry that diverts us from the important task of moral growth. It is not just the evangelical right that succumbs to this false religion. The family is the nearest thing we have to the sacred in secular society. Jesus’ questioning of that shows he still has an important role to play in overturning conventional morality, not bolstering it.
Julian Baggini’s latest book is “The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher?” (Granta)