Fundamentalist Christians, when they are not crying persecution, love to attack atheists. They like to claim atheists do not understand the Bible they quote. This criticism, coming from a group that has never actually read the Bible themselves, continues to amuse me.
Particularly, the tendency among fundamentalists to cherry pick passages (the very thing they accuse atheists of doing) and selectively interpreting these and ignoring everything else. We are supposed to take some passages literally – and very seriously since our souls depend upon it – and kind of shrug others off because they don’t fit into the very modern culture wars paradigm.
My own pastor – and we were only mainline Protestants – used to say, when stumped by me for an answer (my parents did the same thing), that it’s a mystery and we’re not meant to know. That was a cop-out when I was 10 and it is certainly a cop-out today. But that’s how the Church has functioned for twenty centuries.
Writing on World Net Daily, Ray Comfort continues the tradition, taking issue with the commandment – out of Jesus’ own mouth – to hate your family. Atheists love this one, he says, so we have to show them what idiots they are.
The verse being referred to is Luke 14:26, where Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
Comfort, by the way, is the author of “You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but You Can’t Make Him Think” (irony abounds here) and he says do not take this literally:
This is what’s known as “hyperbole.” It is a justified statement of exaggeration -contrasting love with hate for the sake of emphasis. It means that you and I should so love God that the love we have for our loved ones should seem like hatred, compared to the love we have for the One who gave those loved ones in the first place. This shows how far we fall short of how loving we should be towards our Creator and how ungrateful we are for the gift of life.
For the record, there are other passages as well: Mark 3:33-35; Matt. 12:48-50; Luke 8:21; cf. Luke 11:27-28; Gospel of Thos. 99:2; Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; cf. Mark 10:29-30; Matt. 19:28-29; Luke 18:29. These provide a larger context; that of the question of the family in the Jesus movement and also of the importance of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ belief that it was imminent.
For example, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” In Luke, Jesus answers this question by saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” He says the same thing in the Gospel of Thomas: “Those here who do the will of my Father are my brothers and my mother (G. Thom. 99).”
And yes, in Luke, he says you must hate your family and if you don’t, you can’t be his disciple. This might be verbal exaggeration but there is a very sharp point behind it: The Kingdom of God comes before family, and devoting yourself to Jesus and your spiritual family – not traditional family – is how you devote yourself to the Kingdom of God.
Comfort has gotten this passage all wrong. It is not a matter of love for God making love for family seem like hatred in comparison. Nowhere does Jesus make this analogy, or even hint at it. He is very blunt and, as Bart Ehrman writes (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, 1999), “unambiguous.”
People have to understand the context, that is, Jesus’ relations with his own family, whom, we are told, thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21, 30-31; John 7:5). You have to allow for the possibility that Jesus’ experiences with family colored his perceptions somewhat.
We’ve all been there, when you’re young and want to pursue a dream and your family thinks you’re nuts and need to get your act together and “grow up.” Jesus’ apocalyptic dream was just a bit more extreme than most.
Think family crisis on an order of magnitude greater than yours.
As Geza Vermes writes (The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 2004), “In case of a conflict between commitment to Jesus, the herald of the Kingdom, and attachment to one’s family, Jesus and the Kingdom of God must come first.”
And Ehrman writes,
These ‘antifamily’ traditions are too widely attested in our sources to be ignored (they are found in Mark, Q, and Thomas, for example), and show that Jesus did not support what we today might think of as family values.
Comfort is trying very hard to be all “family values” about this troubling passage, therefore Luke cannot possibly mean what he says. Of course, it is not only Luke saying it (note the other passages cited) but Comfort doesn’t want his readers to think about that if they don’t know it already.
For the sake of the very modern concept of “family values” it is essential that people not listen to Jesus and put their family second, after the Kingdom of God.
(You know, as an aside it might be relevant to mention that the Catholic Church had a very good reason for not wanting anyone else to read the Bible. It is a lesson fundamentalists might want to take to heart. Then they could misinterpret to their heart’s content.)
Ehrman explains why Jesus was not a family values guy:
[H]e wasn’t teaching about the good society and about how to maintain it. The end was coming soon, and the present social order was being called radically into question. What mattered was not, ultimately, the strong family ties and social institutions of the world. What mattered was the new thing that was coming, the future Kingdom.
So for fundies everywhere, the lesson, from Jesus’ own mouth, is that if your family doesn’t get with the program and serve the coming, Kingdom of God, you have to put them aside (hate them) because it is imperative that you give yourself 100 percent to the Kingdom. There is nothing left for traditional family. They only maintain their position and role as family if they do likewise.
Comfort and his fellow fundies can’t have this. Since it just can’t be (it doesn’t support their modern ideas about the family) it can’t be true. If it can’t be true, there must be another interpretation. Jesus can’t really have meant it. He must have meant something else. It was hyperbole.
But it wasn’t just hyperbole. Jesus was a very serious guy talking about some very serious issues. It doesn’t get more serious than the Kingdom of God. After all, Mark 13:12 tells us that “a brother will betray his brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and kill them.”
Everyone who didn’t get behind Jesus when the Kingdom came, had bought themselves a one-way ticket to hell (take note, all you Bible-misquoting atheists).
That is what all the changes coming would mean. The only family that mattered was the family of the like-minded, those who put everything aside (Mark 6:8-11; Matt. 10:9-15; Luke 9:3-5; cf. Luke 10:4-11) except for two tunics and sandals, “no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts,” and followed Jesus to spread the word.
Unlike Texas’ New Light Church Bishop Ira V. Hilliard, they didn’t have helicopters or even a wagon to match this pastor’s desire car, or ask the faithful to provide and fix them.
That is not the message that modern money-grubbing, which-loving, poor-hating capitalist fundamentalist Christians want to hear, or spread.
The Good News that the poor are blessed and that the last will be first, has been flipped on its head, and become very, very bad news indeed at the hands of people like Ray Comfort.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.