Religion, Temptation, and Evil. Just the title is disconcerting!
My forthcoming book, The Hunt for Happiness, provides fictional characters to give context for the battles that we all face in deciding what is “good” and what is “bad”. My conclusions include a strong notion that our ever expanding set of rules, laws, taboos, words that must not be said, and so forth actually create an oppressive and stifling regimen (and regime) for humanity that is toxic and, well, evil or a cause of evil manifestations. While religions create and enforce rules, the question of necessity and origin must be on the minds of the faithful lest they fall into the trap of “magic” as discussed in my prior post.
How does religion fit into this picture? It is the picture frame, the context, that which defines the outer boundaries. One need not be religious, or even a deist, or theist, you see. One need only be fitting into cultures that are formed by those who have been and are religious, and that’s every culture on the planet. By the way, full disclosure: I am a confirmed Episcopalian (Christian) although I don’t go to church at present.
What, then about Religion, Temptation, and Evil? St. Paul famously writes, in his first letter to the Corinthians: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56, NRS emphasis mine) Here is is fair to assume that St. Paul refers to the Torah (first five books of the Bible) as “the Law”. But what does he mean? How does the law give sin – temptation and evil – power? Tomes have been written on this, and N. T. Wright provides us with a two volume monograph on St. Paul (see my Bibliography Post). One specific problem is that laws can prevent us from doing the right thing, from doing good, and that, in and of itself, is verging towards evil.
Jesus speaks to this in the Gospels – “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” (Mark 3:1-5 NRS emphasis mine, cf. Matthew 12:11-13, Luke 6:6-11)
I take this a step further, a step that I believe to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Bible itself – when the Bible is taken as a whole. That step is this: that which prohibits helping another person in need, or gives a valid excuse for withholding that help in normal circumstances is not only unhelpful but is potentially an alliance with Evil in pursuit of power to control and manipulate people towards nefarious ends. On this see also the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
I did put in that weasel word “normal” meaning that there are always extraordinary circumstances. Patching up someone who is hell bent on killing someone or helping someone who is drunk start their car is not something that we should be about. So helping someone that intends to inflict damage on other people is not called for, and that’s another problem you see. Should you help a mixed race couple get married? Or a same sex couple? How about a drug addict? How about someone whose “lifestyle” may “corrupt” or “tempt” others?
And there’s the rub. Our societies and religions create rules, and enforce them, to prevent us from, and punish us for, being out of the norm. And temptation takes on a new meaning in this context. Temptation is temptation to break the law and rules, not always to “do bad things”. The laws and rules are overwrought and incredibly so.
When doing the right thing, when helping someone realize their full potential in life, becomes a violation of the rules, then the rules serve as an agent of evil because the temptation turns from one of temptation to do bad into temptation to do good. Good becomes the enemy. Literature, education, rational thought, all of these things become the enemy. The world is upside down, and all sorts of evil is permitted in order to maintain rules that are intellectually bankrupt. Satan wins.
The tour de force on this topic is a book known as Malleus Maleficarum, “The hammer of witches”. Kramer and Sprenger take perfectly good, church approved, writings out of context and use them to prove the existence of witches among the people, their means of operation, and how to detect and exterminate them. Perhaps the most misogynistic book ever written, this is a perfect example of using the rules to foment evil. One example is the statement that if a man cannot copulate with his wife (due to erectile inability) but can copulate with another woman then the wife is a witch and this is caused by her having bewitched him. I mean, really, if the man himself is not an adulterer, how would he know this to be the case? But, you see, in those times, 1487, getting a divorce was next to impossible unless one had plenty of cash. Kramer and Sprenger come along and presto, the wife is a witch! And of course the Bible speaks to that, doesn’t it “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18 KJV) Problem solved.
The real problem here is that Kramer and Sprenger are examples of extraordinary misanthropic achievements in perverting religious texts and theology, but that practice continues today throughout the world in many forms. This is the ever present threat of clericalism, the notion that church officials are elite among the people (see some of Pope Francis’ remarks here ). Jesus’s arguments with the Pharisees and Scribes are nothing less than an indictment of clericalism, yet we still insist that pastors and priests hold authority over us and tell us how to live our lives. That’s a thorny path. Guide yes, dictate, control, threaten, and condemn, no.
My next book, The hunt for justice, will address some of these uncomfortable topics in real world yet fictional settings.
In closing, I recommend a careful read of Ezekiel Chapter 15 with particular attention to verse 34. In this text, Jerusalem (that would be Judah or Judea – yes, I know, technically it’s Benjamin) is personified as a harlot as the Bible often does, but this harlot is different, says verse 34. The harlot does not charge her lovers, or simply give herself to them, no. She is outrageous and pays her lovers to do her harm. This has become an important verse to me because it makes a great deal of sense and is, say I, very wise.
If you do business with a company that does not serve your needs, cease to do business with them if possible. If you find a company that is paying for something that you don’t like, don’t buy their products – even if that payment is an endorsement contract with someone that you find unseemly. If you are supporting a church that does not do good in your community, cease to do so and contribute to organizations that provide help. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21 NKJ) Don’t pay people to berate and abuse you. This is unwise and outrageous.