Anti-Gay, Judgmental, and Hypocritical? On Weightier Matters of the Law…

“Woe to you, religious leaders.  You shut the door on people.  You make new converts twice the children of hell as you are.  You blind guides.  You snakes and brood of vipers!  How will you escape being condemned to hell?”  (verses from Matthew 23)

What a great, uplifting set of verses we heard this morning!

As someone who might be considered a religious leader, these words are especially uplifting. But, once again, I am reminded that the only people Jesus specifically “sends” to hell are rich people and religious leaders, and I probably fit both of those categories.  Comforting, isn’t it?

Why does Jesus have such harsh words here for religious leaders?  What’s going on?

Let’s go on a summer road trip first – Let’s start in Canada, then the USA, then Italy, and then Brazil, and then back to the USA and Canada.

First Canada:  I’ve said these words before here, but they’re worth repeating – The top 3 reasons why young people across Canada are staying away from church are because they see the church as:

Number 1 – Judgemental

Number 2 – Hypocritical

Number 3 – Exclusive

It’s quite similar in the USA.

A recent poll asked young non-Christian Americans to describe Christians.   Their answers?

Number 1 – Anti-Gay

Number 2 – Judgemental

Number 3 – Hypocritical

That’s not very flattering, is it?

To quote Shane Claiborne, we have a bit of an image problem, don’t we?

People who don’t go to church don’t have that many nice things to say about us.  It might appear that the world doesn’t like our religion.  It can sometimes even be perceived as hostility towards Christianity.

And then let’s cross the pond to Italy, and take a look at Pope Francis.  Now, you may not be following this guy, but hokey smokes, the guy makes a good pope.  He was elected pope last year, and almost immediately he has taken the world by storm.

For example, let’s go from Italy to Brazil.  Last summer, some 3 million people were gathering in Rio je Janeiro for World Youth Day with the Pope.   As 300 Mennonite youth from across Canada gathered for the Fat Calf Festival, we watched news clips of the party on Copa Cabana beach that we were missing.

Everywhere he goes, he gets treated like a rock star.

He gets praise from both religious and secular commentators.  He always seems to be hugging a disabled child, washing the feet of prisoners, embracing a disfigured person, or making compassionate comments about a marginalized people group (Merritt).  He lives in the guest house of the Vatican, he’s begged for forgiveness from clergy sexual abuse survivors, and he secretly sneaks out at night to spend time with people who have found themselves homeless.  And then he says that he finds the hype around him offensive, and that’s just a normal guy.  Whoa.  No wonder everywhere the guy goes, people swarm him.

I love the guy.

And you know what?  If we go back to the USA, we find something remarkable:  So do Americans!

A full 75% of Americans, regardless of their faith background, look favourably on the Pope.  Protestants love the guy.  Catholics really love the guy.  Mennonites think he’s a Mennonite.  Atheists love the guy.  Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet last year. The Advocate, a leading GLBT magazine, even named Pope Francis “person of the year” after he said “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”  75% of Americans look favourably on Pope Francis.  And I think you can include me in those 75%.

So, on one hand, we have this attitude of “Christians are anti-gay, judgemental, and hypocritical.”  And on the other hand, we have this attitude of “We love the Pope!”  How can this be?  What’s going on?

Well, I think Matthew 23:23 is what’s going on.

In the midst of the woes and warnings and condemnations that Jesus gives religious leaders, one verse helps explain what’s going on.

Matthew 23:23 – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.

As Jonathon Merritt from CNN puts it,

People are not intrinsically allergic to Christians, but rather certain expressions of Christianity. The pope’s popularity helps us understand exactly which types of Christianity people resist.

People accept Christians who want to serve society.

People resist Christians who want to be served by society.

People accept Christians who are as clear-eyed about the failures of their community as well as others’.

People resist Christians who are partisan and tribal.

People accept Christians who are compassionate and speak with humility.

People resist Christians who are cantankerous and speak with hubris.

People accept Christians who advocate for the marginalized.

People resist Christians who seek power to marginalize others.

Or, he puts it another way.  Most people dislike Christian jerks not because they are Christian, but because they are jerks.

Let’s go back to the top descriptors of Christians in North America by non-Christians: Anti-gay, judgemental, hypocritical, and exclusive.

I’m actually quite grateful for the criticism.  I might even call it constructive criticism, because it’s a criticism of some of our worst parts.  It’s a wake-up call, a reminder of what not to be, of who not be, or how not to act.  Jesus had harsh words for the religious leaders for a reason.

And I’m grateful for the public’s love of Pope Francis.  It’s a celebration of our best parts.  It’s a wake-up call, a reminder of who to be and how to act – Care deeply about mercy, justice and walking humbly with our God. It’s a call for us to be known by what we are for, not what we are against.  Jesus said that these are the more important matters of the law for a reason.

Because as we live in this world as followers of Jesus, “It makes little difference to most people whether we proclaim that God agrees with our personal decisions.  But it makes a difference to everyone in our communities whether we stand for justice, love mercy, and keep faith with God and neighbour.”  – Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove


On Israel & Gaza (Hamas) & Jesus

I’ve been slow to wade into the conflict between Israel & Gaza (Hamas).  Partly because it’s remarkably polarizing, partly because it’s remarkably complex, and partly because much has already been written about it by much more knowledgeable people than me.

There’s a lot that we could look at.  We could simply focus on the death toll (as of August 5, nearly 1900 Palestinians vs. 67 Israeli’s).  We could look at the ratio of militants vs. civilians who have died (as of August 5, 3 Israeli civilians vs. approximately  1400 Palestinian civilians (UN numbers)).  We could look at the long, complicated history of the Middle East.  We could look at the number of Palestinian children who have died from airstrikes and tank fire (Pause.  Re-read  that last sentence.  Once you’re done throwing up in sheer revulsion, light a candle and pray, “Lord, have mercy.”).  We could look at which governments are funding a certain side.  We could look at the violence and injustices being perpetrated by both sides before and during the conflict.  We could look at the all the wonderful people in both Israel and Gaza who are working towards peace and reconciliation and are condemning the violence around them.

All of those are worthy topics.  And much has been written about them, although we could use more of the last one.

I think, though, that I will write about my embarrassment of being a Canadian Christian in this conflict (Please forgive me for making this terrible conflict remarkably small and selfish).

I’m embarrassed because at first glance, many Christians, including politicians, church leaders, and social media users, have unequivocally taken the “side” of Israel.

It’s like they have completely forgotten Jesus in all of this.

Jesus was born in the midst of massive oppression by the Romans.   His birth was the cause of a massive genocide (think of all the dead children we don’t mention on Christmas eve that Herod killed).  He grew up in a conflict zone.

As an adult, Jesus had a chance to join a side.  He could have joined the ruling side, the ones with power and privilege, the ones who made the rules, but he didn’t.  He had supper with sinners, outsiders, prostitutes, tax collectors, the down-and-out, the nobodies.  He made the ruling elite quite mad, criticized their power, told them they were going to hell, and subverted their religious and economic systems.  And they eventually killed him for it.

But he also had the chance to stick it to the powers.  He could have joined the violent rebels, fought for the oppressed, claim political power and be named king, but he didn’t.  He healed the servant of a Roman soldier, rode a donkey instead of a war horse, told his followers to put away their swords, and healed the physical damage done by his followers.  In the face of his own death, he chose to not fight back, but rather to die.

And have we completely forgotten the teachings of Jesus?  Love your enemies?  Do good to those who hate you?  Bless those who curse you?  Blessed are the merciful?   Turn the other cheek?   Pray for those who persecute you?   Blessed are the meek?

Even Paul instructs the church in Rome (the middle of the empire where Nero was using Christians as torches for his garden parties) to bless those who persecute you, do not repay anyone evil for evil, do not take revenge, and to feed your hungry enemy.

Even before Jesus, have we completely missed the fact that the Old Testament teaching of “An eye for an eye” was actually a groundbreaking, revolutionary teaching that was intended as a limitation on violence?   It’s no longer “a life for an eye,” or “a family for my brother”, but simply a tooth for a tooth? (Note:  Feel free to insert the numbers 1900 and 67 here.  It’s applicable).

But when we unequivocally take one side of a conflict, I think we’ve missed Jesus.

Because I think Jesus would be on the side of peace and justice and shalom and right relationships, and against all violence, oppression, and dehumanization wherevewho would jesus bombr they are.

I don’t think Jesus would be flinging rockets, capturing soldiers, dropping bombs, driving a tank, giving warnings about where what he was going to destroy next, or trying to kill people in general.

I think Jesus would be in the hospital, healing the victims of war.

I think Jesus would be in the refugee camps, feeding the thousands.

I think Jesus would be eating ice cream with children, regardless of where they were born.

I think Jesus would be in the bomb shelter or the designated “safe” zone, condemning the violence in our hearts and in our world, and reminding us all to not be afraid.

I’m embarrassed when Christians in Canada unequivocally support one side of a convoluted, violent conflict.  Because then we’ve let our politics come first before Jesus.

Or, as Gandhi essentially said, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.”

Lord have mercy.


PS – If you want to read a great book, read “I Shall Not Hate” by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor whose daughters were killed by Israeli forces in 2009.

PPS – Dr. Abuelaish is trying to bring 100 of the most seriously wounded kids from Gaza to Canada for healing.  Learn more and donate here:

(Feel free to leave a comment.  I’ll leave them open until if/when it gets out of hand).