The Age of Reason; Justice

I think often of Thomas Paine. Don’t we all? Consider this quote from The Age of Reason, his great humanist treatise on religion which often gets overlooked in favor of Common Sense.

If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

The point is that, if Jesus “died for our sins,” then the idea of justice is meaningless. We must be held accountable for our crimes; if we simply substitute some other avatar in for us, we’ve escaped justice. If Jesus is simply inserted between us and a just resolution to our sins, then we’ve avoided the repercussions of those actions. If Jesus has protected us from all consequences then there isn’t any way justice can operate meaningfully.

This was, of course, part of his radical message. The kingdom of heaven supersedes this one, and justice is doled out on a cosmic scale. Even still, if the sacrifice of Jesus truly absolves us of sins in this life and the next, we’re faced with a situation where justice has no meaning, since evil deeds have no consequence.

Our modern justice system recognizes this. Sure, someone might pay “damages” for an injury committed, but this is meant as restitution for real costs incurred as a result of the crime, not necessarily as a replacement for justice. Of course, there is also a long history of the guilty being able to pay their way out of their just rewards by way of expensive lawyers or the bail system, which is an entirely different problem. Ultimately, though, we punish crimes with jail time or some other loss of rights, which no other person can serve on my behalf. We wouldn’t imprison a person on someone else’s behalf because we “cannot take the innocent for the guilty.”

So why does it work for Jesus?

Do Biblical contradictions make homosexuality ethical?

I was pulling up the old Biblical gem about rabbits chewing cud the other day and my search resulted in several pages defending Biblical literalism and “disproving” the error. The argument broadly goes that, although the Bible says unequivocally that rabbits chew cud, and although rabbits are not ruminants, that rabbits do re-digest their food through a process called cecotrophy. The word which we translate as “chew the cud” today would, when the document was written, have been meant to encompass a larger group of activities, and so although the rabbit doesn’t chew cud by our classification today, rabbits can be said to fall under the qualifications of the original term used.


This is obviously quite a stretch, but it is this statement, shared by many pages making a similar argument, which really jumps out at me:

Simply stated, it is not reasonable to accuse a 3500-year-old document of error because it does not adhere to a modern man-made classification system.

Tommy Mitchell

We can extrapolate further; the condemnations against same-sex relationships and gender fluidity rely on a classification system 3,500 years old. Our current understanding of these things is significantly removed from the way the words are used in the Bible. Thus, just as the Bible is not in error regarding rabbits, the Bible also cannot be understood to make any statement about our modern conception of LGBTQIA rights.

You’d all agree, right fundamentalists and literalists?

Alms for the Poor (Church)

If we take as a given that the church is an important institution worth saving, it naturally follows that both parishioners and governments should work towards its preservation financially. That’s why I don’t mind necessarily that many denominations of churches have received large amounts of support funding from the government by way of the CARES act and associated emergency funding.

The part the irks me is the knowledge that, at least for the Catholic Church, much of this funding is used in support of the ongoing lawsuits related to sexual assault. It just seems so horrible and wasteful that people would donate to preserve their beloved religious institution, but that those funds would go to protect and defend sexual predators. It is a similar problem to taxpayer dollars being used to pay for lawsuits related to police misconduct; why should taxpayers fund a defense for a cop who wasn’t acting in the best interest of those same taxpayers in the first place?

Of course, it isn’t that simple. These lawsuits do support and preserve the institutions. They protect the financial interest of the institution and, possibly, protect wrongly-accused employees and clergy. Mostly, though, these legal defenses shield the clergy from the law and protect the hierarchy from paying further restitution to victims. Of course, we can’t just let the legal responsibility for this defense fall directly to the employees in question, and we can’t restrict funds given to exclude their use in legal defense. But if we simply don’t fund the institution then it will certainly fail, and while this might lead to a new and better criminal justice system in the case of the police, the church is an ancient relic which must be preserved.

If there was a good answer to this, we would have discovered it. Ultimately, it is good that churches are getting funded even through programs like the PPP and the SBA. But the idea that taxpayer dollars are being used to defend sexual predators is horrific and inexcusable in a way that I can’t yet reconcile.

NPR gets to the point

It seems almost startling to see an article from an impartial news source so directly tie Christianity to America’s racist roots, but here we are, and with a swarthy picture of Rep. John Lewis at the header to boot!

I don’t suppose there are any surprises in the history the article outlines, but it is continually shocking to see people look at the story of Jesus and interpret it so wildly wrong. Jesus was undeniably a revolutionary, his entire mission was a rebuke of the status quo. He was so dangerous to the establishment that they literally killed him for it! Flash forward to the 20th century and Christianity is (some what inexplicably) the dominant religion in America. How do those American Christians assume that Jesus’ revolutionary attitudes no longer apply to them? Its like watching the Hegalian dialectic in action but somehow missing that synthesis never happened.

Why Church is Deadly (right now)

It’s easy to exaggerate when we have little information, and nobody benefits from fear-mongering. We are becoming increasingly aware, though, that church itself could be the most dangerous place to be during the current pandemic.

Why are churches so dangerous in regards to the spread of this disease? Because we do all the things the church that are most likely to spread the virus: we sing, we happily greet each other, we recite readings together, we commune, we gather. In particular, singing seems to be especially hazardous, based on information we have from a specific choir gathering in early March. The amazing thing about this specific story is the amount of information we have: one infected individual, who thought they only had a slight cold, unknowingly infected at least 45 of the rehearsal’s 60 participants. Two eventually died from complications with the virus. Several more were hospitalized. They didn’t hug or shake hands, they used hand sanitizer, they even spaced seats slightly farther apart.

The first instinct as this relates to churches is simply to cut the choir. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, or even the major concern as far as churches go. Churches are one of the few places where we communally sing, even regardless of our interest or ability in music. Singing together, even informally, seems to intensify both the distance and the concentration of the spread. Even spaced 6 feet apart or more in a large space may not be enough to counteract the additional aerosolization of particles.

I had never hoped for this to be a COVID blog and I prefer to read and write about things unrelated to the virus. But this is such a sticking point for churches right now, and it will continue to dog religion for the near future. We’ve already looked at how the foster religious community when you can’t meet, but virtual interaction only seems like a stopgap until we can gather again. How can we sing in a strange land? Must we hang up our lyres on the willows there? How can we experience joy at church when we’re constantly in fear of an invisible spectre? What is church without songs, or speaking, or even greeting one another? And of course, why hasn’t “God’s saving hand” spared us from this?

It represents a cataclysmic obstacle for churches. Of course it doesn’t spell the end of religion, which has survived plagues plenty of times, and it doesn’t even mean things will be different in the future. But how this challenges believers today, and how believers and non-believers alike react and recover, will alter the face of organized religion in our lifetimes.