This happened some time ago, but it’s taken me a while to “process” it and come up with a cogent observation. Sometimes, certain things are just too unbelievable to take. But this is by no means the first, nor shall it be the last, time someone from the frothing-at-the-mouth christian right has said something which leaves most reasonable (and reasoning) people flatfooted.
Partly, this is about not knowing history, which is something all of us could do with a little more intimate acquaintance.
The right Reverand Pat Robertson, who spews forth on the 700 Club–a televised ministry previously notable for bad hair, excessive eye makeup, and monetary and sexual hypocrisy that ran off the scales–let the public know what he thought was behind Ariel Sharon’s massive cerebral hemhorrage this past week. Seems God did it.
If there is a more ideologically corrupt pundit currently mouthing off, I am unaware of him or her. Mona Chabon might qualify, except her observations are so fecklessly ill-formed that she poses no serious challenge to reason, and Ann Coulter seems to have turned purely to a Limbaugh-esque “don’t confuse me with the facts, my numbers are more important than truth” kind of screeding moronity.
According to Robertson, God struck Sharon down because he was about to give God’s land to the Palestinians. He said:
“God considers this land to be his…You read the Bible and he says, ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.”
He quoted the prophet Joel.
He declared that Sharon could not do what he was going to do to appease the EU, NATO, the United Nations, or the United States–which made it a political statement. So much for separation of church and state on Mr. Robertson’s show.
There’s a little something called common decency which seems to be lacking in all this, not to mention common sense. But without doubt, many people will agree with Mr. Robertson, and, given our current religio-political climate, will send a message to congress to try to affect policy in accordance with this latest reading of what Yahweh wants.
Joel was one of the so-called minor prophets. It’s not even certain when the Book of Joel was written, but most evidence points to some time in the Fifth or Fourth Century B.C. He wrote mainly about Judah, which at that time was a small slice of what had once been what we know as Israel. To give some perspective, the Empire of David and Solomon–which was the greatest extent of ancient Israel— included a number of what might be considered States: Edom in the south, Moab, Ammon, Bashan, Gilead in the east, Judah and Israel in the center and west, Zobah and Hamath in the north, in what is present-day Syria. Jerusalem sat on the border between Judah and Israel at the time.
Borders shift. Between Solomon and “Joel”, so-called Israel underwent a number of calamities, namely the Babylonian and Assyrian conquests. Judah was pretty much all that was left when Joel was written, and it had both shrunk and moved. Jerusalem was about dead center in Judah, whose eastern border was the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Jericho was well inside its northern boundary.
So when Joel speaks of dividing God’s land, you have to bear in mind that (a) the land had already been divided about as badly as it could have been with there still being a Jewish state left worthy of the title, and (b) the reference was to a tiny circle that contained Jerusalem and Bethlehem and not much else.
In other words, Joel’s ravings don’t really count for much in the great scheme of anything.
The minor prophets, by and large, seem to have been a group of disgruntled misanthropes who spent all their time kvetching about the state of the world and spinning out warnings of what terrible things would eventually happen to everyone who had caused the Hebrews any grief. They stood on their metaphorical mountains shaking their fists at everyone–past, present, and future–who contributed to the lack of greatness God had promised Abraham.
Why would any reasonable person pay the least attention?
There are two points I’d like to make in this essay. The first doesn’t take very long to state: Pat Robertson exemplifies the complete lack of reason inherent in the fundamentalist mindset. Prophecy trumps compassion, revelation beats out practicality, and divine authority crushes genuine morality. Robertson’s pronouncement in the aftermath of Sharon’s tragedy demonstrates clearly where the dividing line is between the ideal and ideological.
Which brings me to the second point.
Where does that mindless commitment come from?
I mean, while it is true that we have a history of misreading the so-called “will of god” and thereby unleashing untolled misery in the name of the Prince of Peace, we nevertheless have this idea, whether we accept it or not, of absolute obedience to perceived divine authority. How does that bumper sticker go?
God said it, I believe it, that’s the end of it.
Never mind how you might know what god actually said. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that we can take the Bible as true.
The key passage, I think, is Genesis 22. That’s the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. This is Sunday School stuff. We all know the story. Isaac was Abraham’s only son. One day God tells Abraham to take Isaac to such-n-such location and offer him up as burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles up, takes Isaac to the place, and proceeds to do just that. At the last minute, God stays his hand, tells him he’s proved himself, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and promises Abraham all kinds of stuff for his descendents because of his willingness to kill his son for Yahweh.
We are taught to read this story as symbolic that God values absolute obedience over all else, that because Abraham would give up the one thing he loved more than all else for God he was somehow worthy of God’s special love. Lesson being that divine authority is NOT to be questioned.
Well. What if we’ve been reading it wrong?
See, if indeed this was a test–if God was testing Abraham to see if he was worthy of something–why do we assume he passed?
My take is, Abraham failed. The test was to see if a moral code had actually taken root in Abraham. The correct response would have been–“Are you kidding? That’s murder. You want a sacrifice, I’ll offer myself, but it is IMMORAL to expect me to coopt Isaac’s life in Your name.” Instead, Abraham was going to obey, regardless of the right or wrong of the request.
A moral compass is supposed to work independently of divine authority–otherwise, why even discuss morality? Why even bother with the notion of free will?
Free will, of course, was more a problem to the Medeival and Renaissance philosophers and theologians than it was to Abraham–or Joel–but it’s implicit in much of the Old Testament.
You may say, but God went on to promise Abraham blessings for his obedience. He did, didn’t he? Did it come true? Did it happen? Did, in fact, Yahweh deliver?
Think what we may, Israel was never a great power. A strong kingdom for a time under David and Solomon, but not of much international influence. In the reckonings of history, it was a land of the conquered and reconquered more often than it was ever a Player. I’m suggesting that, if we want to take all this at face value, it’s just possible that God was being disingenuous–out of intense disappointment.
But people like Pat Robertson cling to that story as the anchor that holds their ship in the bay, keeps their world in place, lets them know that whatever may appear moral, may well not be what God wants–and between the two, morality and God’s whim, the latter is always more important.
Like I say, why would any reasonable person pay any attention to this?
If, since we’re taking all this as if it were true, God is really like that, then we have no choice. This is a question of brute force and overpowering potential to deliver on threats versus…scruples. Which would you bet on? Which would you willingly sacrifice yourself or your family to defy?
And if that’s the case, then my only point here would be to say–stop talking about morality. This is an autocracy, nothing less, and it doesn’t matter what is right or wrong, only what the Boss wants. So it’s a sham to talk about those demands as if they have anything to do with morality.
But obviously, when you go to connect the dots, when you look at what was promised for what and what was actually delivered, it’s not true. Not literally, certainly. God made a promise to Abraham which was not kept. (Don’t even bother with the “well, the children of Israel fell into immorality, so God punished them” stuff, because it doesn’t matter–the promise was made on condition of Abraham’s obedience, not his heirs’. The promise was broken. Nothing was ever said about “well, if your great-great grandchildren tow the line etc then they’ll get all this stuff.” No, Yahweh made the promise based on Abraham’s character.) When you go through the Bible you see most prophecy failing, most promises broken, most expectations disappointed. Yahweh did not follow through.
So evidently He gave us free will and told us to figure it out for ourselves.
Comes Pat Robertson, who feels qualified to tell us that God is killing people today because of this or that condition of Biblical circumstance.
The word that comes to mind is–bullshit.
But I think Mr. Robertson is not himself deceived. He’s not an uneducated or stupid man. I think he well knows how all this actually lays on the ground, but he’s banking on his followers being thoroughly ignorant. I mean, who really reads the Bible? There are people in this country who have trouble getting through a Harlequin romance novel because they’re so long. People rely on single source media for their understanding of almost everything, with the exception of a literate few, but even among those, how many read the Bible? I’ve been through it a couple of times and still miss a great deal. But even more frightening is the fact that among those who do regularly read the Bible, they do not actually read it. My grandmother, before she died, had read the Bible beginning to end twelve times. She
could not tell you what was actually in it. The reading was a ritual. She did not read it to find out what it said but as an act of worship. When I would occasionally point things out to her of an eschatological nature, she would deny it vehemently. I’d show it the passage to her and she would be astonished.
And then forget all about it. Next time through, same thing.
Yet there is supposed to be something called a Christian Spirit. Generosity, compassion, empathy. Cashing in on the misfortune of others to make political points or to gain bragging rights (my god is bigger than your god) is supposed to be anathema to this “spirit”.
Personally, I concede nothing to such men as Pat Robertson. If someone says something I know is B.S. I call them on it, especially in mixed crowds, because people do not know, and the words of powerful men, even when false, carry great weight…simply because they’re powerful. Which is autocratic. Nothing to do with Truth.