My wife, son and I are traveling back from his Scouts meeting. Meg – in another subtle attempt to persuade Nathan that his omega 3 consumption is deficient – comments that she feels like eating pilchards on toast when we get home. Nathan gasps in horror.
“Did you swear?” There is a faint hint of disapproval in his words.
“What?!” I am confused. “Pilchards isn’t a swearword, however strongly you feel about eating them!”.
“Oh, pilchards!”, Nathan almost sounds relieved.
“What did you think I said?”, Meg asks him.
Nathan mouths it rather than saying it aloud: “…bullshits…”
“Bullshits on toast!”, Meg exclaims, and we all collapse in laughter.
I have to admit that I find Nathan’s lack of concern over his mother’s apparent predilection for consuming turds on toast, frankly, disturbing. His zeal for righteousness has blinded him to what was really important. Not that I blame him, though. It is an unavoidable by-product of holiness codes: we tend to become so fixated on being good that we lose sight of what matters.
I am sure that our society’s unwritten prohibition against swearing had its origins – as indeed do all of our cultures, with all of their taboos and codes of conduct – in a need to maintain social cohesion. Human beings are social animals, but we are also shaped by mimetic desire, which leads to rivalry. Our cultures, with their rules, have evolved to limit the negative effects of that mimetic rivalry on the unity of the group. Humans rely on the group for not only for survival, but even for the formation of individual identity, and so the preservation of unity is a central motivator driving our evolutionary development. I am certain that in its origins, our taboos regarding swearing arose out of a need to control the escalation of conflicts that are an inescapable part of group life.
Over time, though, as is all too often the case with rules, we lost sight of the principle that the rule was designed to protect – group unity – and focused instead on the keeping of the rule as the desired end in and of itself. Whenever this happens – whenever we value the letter of the law over the spirit of it – the law tends to sow dissension rather than protect unity.
Take for example the fact that the speed limit in the complex where I live is 30 km/h. In most suburban streets in South Africa the limit is 60 km/h, but there are a lot of children playing in the streets where I live, so the estate managers have reduced that. The number 30 is reasonably arbitrarily chosen. There is no reason why 30 is preferable to 29 or to 35. The number is not the point of the law. The law exists to give drivers sufficient time to respond to unforeseen circumstances. It protects the children in the complex, as well as the drivers themselves, from the undesirable consequences of an accident.
If I value the spirit of this law, not only will I drive under 30 km/h, but I will understand that the law extends beyond simply the speed at which I drive. I should also refrain from texting while I drive, or from driving drunk, or from being in any way reckless. I know that everyone in the community is protected by this law, and I comply. But if I fail to comprehend the spirit of the law and instead perceive the law as a restriction demanding my compliance, then it is likely that my response to that law will take one of four forms: I might comply out of fear of punishment (I stay below 30 km/h because I do not want to be fined, but I might still engage in other reckless activities that are not covered by the letter of the law); I might be indifferent to the 30 km/h – it is, after all, a randomly chosen number – and my compliance with the law will depend on whim and convenience, which are inconsistent, rather than on principle, which does not change; I might understand the principle behind the law – protecting the community – and become so pre-occupied with remaining on the right side of the law that I become uncompromising in ensuring that others also remain on the right side of it. Whenever we do not appreciate that the primary purpose of any regulation is to preserve unity, the law sows dissension instead.
It is the law that creates the distinction between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous”, and which thus threatens unity. I think this is the insight the author of Genesis suggests when he has God express concern that humanity may come to have the knowledge of good and evil. It is this insight, I think, that Paul tries to convey in Romans 7, why for Paul the law and the problems of sin and death are inextricably interwoven. It is why, for Paul, it is absolutely essential that we “die” to the Law and live under grace instead.
I also think it is why Jesus can claim that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it – the fulfilment of any law is always the preservation of unity. Jesus offers an alternative way to preserve what the Law was designed to protect; he replaces holiness codes – indeed, all of culture (See Galatians 3), which is the mother of holiness codes – with enemy love and forgiveness, a new kind of unity. Put differently, he replaces a mode of being that compels us to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous, and which thereby creates division, with a mode of being that compels us to accept complicity in the systems that have created and sustain disunity (to ‘see the plank in our own eyes’), which frees us to do away with such distinctions and instead forge unity through loving relatedness and forgiveness:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 43-48)
Sometimes I think we become so familiar with a passage that we miss its power. If you will indulge me, I would like to rephrase this passage (trying to bear in mind the Jewish audience he would have been addressing and what their expectations were) so we can see anew just what an astounding and revolutionary statement Jesus is making:
“You have grown up believing that God was Israel’s God only. You have taken comfort in the understanding that one day God would vindicate his chosen people, bringing judgment and justice on those who have oppressed Israel, and you have been faithful to the Law so that you might number yourselves among the righteous on that day. You have used your keeping of the Law to identify you as separate from the Gentiles, and indeed have lived entirely separately from them, rejecting all their ways and customs as unholy. You read in Deuteronomy 28 about the blessings that would accrue to you – what rain would fall on your crops – if you obeyed the commands of the Lord. You also read what curses would befall you if you did not. But that is not the way of God. That is not the way God will go about creating unity. God blesses the righteous and the unrighteous alike – God makes no such distinction. You were told in Leviticus 19 to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy”, and that this could be achieved through keeping various laws. But we have a Father-relationship, not a god-relationship, and God’s perfection is expressed in love, not moral purity. What will set you apart as belonging to God will be your capacity to relate in love, not only with your fellow Jews, those who see the world as you do, but even with the Roman oppressors, those whom you regard as unrighteous. If you want to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth, give up on the idea of a warrior Messiah who smites God’s enemies. God’s perfect and just world is established not through hostile and fearful apartheid, but through reconciling love. It will be your love, then, not your compliance with any holiness code, that will identify you as faithful children of God. Because God is love.”
But a violent world cannot conceive of justice without victims, of love without conditions, of an understanding of community that does not exclude the unrighteous. And over the centuries we have rewritten Jesus so that he fits into our worldly framework a little more comfortably. Yes, he might have preached peace while he was incarnate, but just wait until he comes back…; he couldn’t possibly have meant that God loves everybody! What about Hitler? If there is no Hell, then what is the point?; Maybe God can save us, but we have to choose to be saved, and I chose it, but what about you?
Instead of letting Jesus’s uncomfortable message shine light into our darkness, we extinguish the candle and invent ways to convince ourselves that we have not done so: we close our eyes when we sing pretty songs about God; we consume sermons like happy meals; we subscribe to “verse of the day”; we study apologetics so we can convince ourselves that the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s violent wrath are compatible with the revelation of God’s grace in Jesus; we avoid “secular” art – especially if it swears; we send our children to “Christian” schools or we homeschool them lest they be corrupted by the world; we protest against gay clergy and picket outside abortion clinics; we ignore the poor; we forget those in prison (let them rot); we exile the unrighteous. Bullshits on toast.