Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting our Testaments Mixed Up

I have to confess that I have never felt entirely comfortable with the Old Testament, or with the concept of a God who orders the slaughter of entire nations and sends angels to strike down children as punishment for their parents' sins. I've heard theologians explain that the Old Testament is meant to stand as evidence of God's care for his Chosen People above all else, and read in that light, and as a historial document, it makes sense. But a God who judges by the group rather than by the individual strikes me as every bit as heartless as Zeus or Apollo.

The New Testament, both in the Gospels and the Epistles, presents an entirely different picture of the Christian God. Jesus, God's son, knew and loved and healed and worked with people one-on-one. In story after story, the point is driven home: God knows each of us by name, and each of us has value in His sight. God doesn't damn indiscriminately; rather, He actively seeks us, wanting our faith, our praise, our understanding. I can only think of one instance from the Gospels in which Jesus dealt in Groupthink: when a Canaanite woman asked him to heal her child. He tells her that he has come, first and foremost, to care for the children of Israel (shades of Old Testament sentiment); "it is not right to take the children's food and give it to the dogs" -- pretty harsh words. But when the woman, being willing to humble herself for the sake of the child she loves, points out that even the dogs can claim the crumbs that fall from the Master's table, he "changes his mind." This suggests to me that he was never truly dealing in Groupthink at all, but was trying to gage the woman's faith and love; when she passed the test, he did as she asked. He rewarded her as an individual.

Initially the disciples are told to confine their ministry to "those lost sheep, the children of Israel," but Jesus himself doesn't observe such confines. Who was the first missionary, commanded by Jesus to "go and tell"? The Samaritan woman at the well, hardly a woman of exemplary moral character. Interestingly, his knowledge of her darkest secrets gives her witness special power. Here too, Jesus makes clear that he knows people, and speaks to people, as individuals. It makes perfect sense that when he reappears after his Resurrection, he revokes the confines and commissions his disciples to "teach all nations." It's the logical conclusion of the life he led.

So Christ's sacrifice and the word of the New Testament opens the love of God to all, individually, one at a time, rather than as members of groups. The age of supposed divine Groupthink is over. God does not strike down whole nations or punish children for their parents' sins. (Sadly, children often do suffer as a direct result of their parents' sins, but it's the parents, not God, who should be blamed.) The mercy of the New Testament trumps the terror of the Old.

Wait! Not so fast. Evidently some Christian leaders have greater faith in the Old Testament God than in the New, and who, while claiming to look to the example of Christ, seem to place more stock in the example of Old Testament kings who sent their armies to slaughter the women and children of enemy peoples. "Blessed be he who dashes the heads of thy little ones against the stones."

Pat Robertson claims that the people of Haiti are now suffering the devastation of an earthquake because of a presumed "pact with the Devil" made two hundred years ago. According to his wisdom, infants and children were killed by collapsing buildings because God chose now to punish a sin these young ones never even knew about. The Haitian people aren't simply paying for their parents' or neighbors' crimes. They're paying for their ancestors' crimes. So runs Robertson's thinking, and it smacks loudly and clearly of Old Testament, without the faintest spark of the mercy of Jesus.

One would think that times of natural disaster would call for, above all things, the spirit of compassion and grace so marvelously embodied in the person of Jesus. Yet Robertson is more interested in extolling the destructive power of the Old Testament God, and though his heartless words have shocked many, he hasn't gone into his Apology Dance. His example isn't isolated. Other supposedly Christian leaders have espoused Old Testament sentiments in the face of tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, suggesting that New York and New Orleans suffered the same punishment as Sodom and Gomorrah. They haven't bothered to apologize, either.

Why do so many Christian leaders apparently place Joshua's and the Judges' examples ahead of Jesus'? Why do they seem to prefer the divine Slaughter of Cities and Nations to the God of grace and mercy who looks on each individual heart, eschewing collectivism? I will never know the answer. What troubles me most is that these "Old Testament Christians" have the biggest public forums for getting their messages across. When Robertson and his ilk offer up pearls like "Haiti had it coming," the media is all over it. As a result, plenty of people get the idea that they speak for all Christians.

The time has come for Christians to let them know otherwise, in big ways and small. I declare firmly and proudly: Pat Robertson does not speak for me. Nor does he speak for the thousands of us who are keeping the people of Haiti in our prayers.

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