The same yesterday, today and forever

At the front of the church where I grew up, in big letters were written the words “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever” (a quote from Hebrews 13:8). I spent hours and hours staring at those words. They speak to both a power of religion and to a major flaw. It is, I think, one of the main reasons why conservatives in this country are so religious. Religion provides at least the illusion of constancy, permanence and certainty in the turmoil of an evolving world. However therein lies a fundamental problem.

The reality is that Christianity as practiced today, apart from being so variable as to really be thousands of separate religions that happen to share a name, is almost entirely unrelated to that practiced at its birth. The beliefs and practices of Christians have changed enormously. Only the patina of permanence remains and for many that means hanging on to rules and dogmas as they were taught (one might say indoctrinated) as children.

The result of this is that through the ages Christianity has been on the wrong side of moral and ethical progress. I know that some will claim the Old Testament’s proclamations on slavery and tithing were progressive. But if you actually read the instructions and injunctions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy they’re nothing short of barbaric by today’s standards — and therein lies my point. Our standards today are entirely different from those of iron-age people, which speaks to their human, rather than divine, origin.

Even by Jesus’ time the Old Testament standards were showing their age.

Matthew 5:38-41
“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you”

An unchanging God saying “don’t do what I told you before, do this instead.”. Yet even so slavery, misogyny and homophobia continued to be accepted, even condoned through the New Testament. The fight to end slavery and for women’s suffrage required fighting against organized religion.

Here’s part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of racial reconciliation in 1995:

“WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
“WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and
“WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; “

Today in America we’re seeing the same thing being played out in the fight for gay rights and gay marriage. Christians today are as behind the times, clinging to their unchangeable morality as they were when they founded the Southern Baptists because the Northern Baptists were anti-slavery.

Ultimately Christianity will evolve. Christians will change their position on gay rights just as they have through the centuries. But until then many will fight against those rights on the grounds that they go against god’s absolute, unchangeable truth.

When I look back through history and see the evolution of human rights and how that has moved beyond the biblical teachings I cannot help but be convinced that the bible is the work of men not god.

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