Which one are you: liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Jewish, believer or sinner?
Wait a minute. Do I have to split you into one side or the other? What if you’re none of the above? What if you’re some of several? I know many people who fight against big government, but give generously to the poor and they vote both Democrat and Republican depending on the candidate. I happen to be fiscally conservative but very liberal in the social arena.
However, our world seems to be “either/or.” Benito Mussolini declared in speeches across fascist Italy: “O con noi o contro di noi” -- you’re either with us or against us. But I personally know many Italians who were neither. They felt fascism had its good points but it gave too much power to the government so they were going to wait and see. Hillary Clinton said on Sept. 13, 2001, “Every nation has to be either with us or against us.” Many nations listened to this narcissistic platitude and just waited to see what America was going to do. Some are still waiting.
Either/or statements can be useful for emphasis or exaggeration, but they can be dangerous if taken literally. For example, Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 12:30) has Jesus saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” This statement obviously cannot be taken literally; modern-day Jews are not “with” Jesus but they’re certainly not against him, either. Likewise, many of the Jewish peasants who listened to Jesus as he paraded up and down Galilee didn’t buy his “Kingdom of God” speech, but they weren’t the ones who wanted to kill him.
But we see this either/or speech every day, don’t we? I was told by one of our readers that if I didn’t accept the Lord Jesus (the way he does), I was doomed to hell. “Believe it or go to hell.” Either/or. All of my good Protestant friends have seen the fallacy of these statements and accept me and others like me the way Jesus accepted Samaritans. But for the either/or crowd there is no escape from this insidious mousetrap; step in and you’re doomed; step away and you’re saved. They don’t seem to realize that they’re stepping from one trap to another.
It’s the trap of the absolutes. I know some Catholic priests still teach birth control is absolutely a mortal sin. (I shudder to remember that 60 years ago I was one of them.) There are no exceptions; no discussions; no way around it. These priests teach their married couples that God demands absolute compliance to this law under pain of hell. The majority of Catholics today pay no attention to this either/or absolute. They have learned -- like their Protestant friends -- that they can stay in church and simply avoid stupidity even though it’s clothed in ecclesiastical garments.
My classmate John Dominic Crossan just wrote his latest book, “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian.” The subtitle is “Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation.” How many Christians have ever read the book of Revelation? It’s the very last book in the Christian Bible and most of us wish it had never been written. It’s more violent than all the bloody massacres in the book of Joshua.
Christians used to think of the New Testament as the Bible of nonviolence and the Old Testament as the Bible of violence, but they can’t do that anymore if they include Jesus on his white horse making war with his sword and soaked in the blood of his enemies. And this is exactly the picture we see in the book of Revelation (19:11). If we must take this literally, how do we handle turning the other cheek? Which is it? Violence or nonviolence?
Crossan solves this either/or dilemma by jumping over the New Testament scripture texts (written between the years 70 and 100) and taking us back to the historical Jesus. According to Crossan, Jesus was all “nonviolence.” The violence we see in the New Testament, “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword,” (Matt. 10:34) “Whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his coat and buy one,” (Luke 22:36) etc., as well as the whole book of Revelation, is the literary product of a violent early Christian community. Not Jesus.
I like that.
Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.