My sons’ mother is an Eastern European émigré. As she described her society prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the hypocrisy of communist ideology was a hidden injustice. It was not obvious as a child: the promises of the ideology are fairly concrete for children in state-paid schools and summer camp. The trouble began in college, when the theory of the ideology was transmitted. Successful students learned to regurgitate the rhetoric without being troubled with internal logic or consistency with state policy.
How, then, did the ideology serve to organize the state? Simply as a “semiotic system” used to evoke behavior. Dealing with oppositional or inconvenient people was a simple matter of threatening them with the right labels. Whether the labels were applied logically or even consistently was not a matter of great concern. In fact, everybody violated the ideology. What was critical was to avoid the ostracism or incarceration that came with the labelling.
Did Marx and Engels understand the rhetoric they invented? Almost certainly, but not as the communist leaders ultimately did. Remember that Marx laughed when asked whether Russia itself could lead the transition to communist society. He understood that the political sophistication of the Russian workers was insufficient to support communist practices. If brought back to analyze the political scene today, he would almost certainly identify Germany – the most profitable economy in the world – as the nearest to his ideals.
The inconsistency between Eastern European politics and ideology reflected, to a great degree, the impoverished practical context and political skills of the societies forced to try to implement the ideology. They had no way of visualizing the reality that Marx was trying to evoke, and so corrupted the rhetoric to serve purposes that made sense to them.
This is also evident in the rhetoric of the Christian fanatics. As a means of fueling my output here, I subscribe to a conservative Christian magazine. The editor recently sent out an e-blast linking Planned Parenthood to sex trafficking. The assertion was that traffickers brought girls in for abortions when they became pregnant, thus preserving their sexual availability. The stupidity of such a situation appeared to escape him: there are so many means of preventing conception, some of which are desirable in the sex trade to prevent the spread of STDs. Even if these are not used and pregnancy does result, bringing kidnapped girls into a center focused on reproductive health runs a terrible risk of exposure: the procedure requires a physical exam, which would be likely to reveal signs of abuse that, in the case of under-age girls, must be reported by law. And if the trafficker really cares so little about the health of their victims, legal abortions aren’t the only means of ending an unwanted pregnancy.
But the writer wasn’t concerned with logic or plausibility. The bald assertion at the beginning of his diatribe justified his rant: life begins at conception. I have previously refuted this statement, making it clear that only a mother knows the moment when a spirit enters her womb. But once made, the assertion justifies the labelling of Planned Parenthood for the purposes of its destruction. Because Planned Parenthood brings an essential social good – providing for the reproductive health of women – those that oppose it have been able to demand enormous resources from those that subscribe to their attempts to destroy it.
All this because, as in Eastern Europe, the process of bringing life into the world is not understood.
In the New Testament itself, we see the Apostles struggling with this gap between ideology and rhetoric. Sometimes this appears in the disjointed nature of the exposition. Consider this apparent non sequitor:
The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the household has been called Beelzebul, now much more the members of his household!
Taken on the face, this appears to be a rather dour assessment of the human condition, suggesting the prospect of an irreversible decline into depravity begun with the expulsion from Eden. Collecting such statements out of context, the atheist builds a powerful case for rejecting Christian practice. That people such as the editor above align their theology with the axiom is a great assistance to the atheist.
Why does the statement appear so disjointed in the original telling? Because the Apostles did not know where they were heading. Matthew records the statement in the chronology of events, but it is only in the demonstrations reported in Acts that the statement makes sense:
- First, Jesus was sending the Apostles out into the world to assume his role as a healer and teacher. They were frightened, and his statement is an admonishment that unless they liberate themselves from the mindset of the student and slave, they will never accomplish the work that love required of them.
- Secondly, the statement is an indictment of the authority of human religious leaders. The require dependency in their followers. The Apostles were conditioned by their culture to believe that they needed teachers and masters to survive. Those relationships must be set aside if the followers were to grow into the strength Jesus was offering them.
- Finally, Jesus was identifying a contrast with other gods from the relationship his parables declared that the Father sought: not a relationship of dependency, but a relationship that flowered, as in Jesus, to full equality when children became adults.
In this light, the statement becomes a source of deep wisdom. That wisdom is revealed only in the context of the purpose that Jesus pursued in the world.
So let’s reassert the quest documented by the Bible: it describes the process of guiding humanity into the embrace of unconditional love. The goal is to demonstrate the felicity and power of a surrender to love.
In that context, the fear used by the editor is revealed as an incredible perversion. And the logic of the atheist is refuted.
Why elaborate this truth? Because if we don’t know where we’re going as Christians, any road will do. Evangelism can succeed only when it supports the purposes that Christ established: to join our souls to the Father’s. When it does not, it becomes incomprehensible, subject to corruption from within, and risible from without.